Nez Perce Treaties & Reservations: 1855 to Present

Why Treaties?

Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday says of the Indian point of view, that treaties “were the spoken word,” promises made in the interest of peace and the celebration of peace. The idea that land “ownership” could be conveyed by a written document was not part of their understanding.

Kevin Gover, Pawnee and then Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said that “treaties matter—not only to American Indians but also to everyone who lives in the United States. For starters, the United States acquired much of its land through treaties with Indian Tribes. These negotiated, bilateral agreements are, therefore, fundamental to understanding how the United States was created, and how its citizens obtained the land and natural resources they enjoy today.

“Treaties rest at the heart of Native American history as well… The approximately 368 treaties that were negotiated and signed by U.S. commissioners and tribal leaders from 1777 to 1868 enshrine promises our government made to Indian Nations. But they also recognize tribes as nations—a fact that distinguishes tribal citizens from other Americans, and supports contemporary Native assertions of tribal sovereignty and self-determination…

“Treaties are legally binding and still in effect… treaties carry the weight of the past and test the strength of our nation’s commitment to honesty, good faith, and the rule of law.”

Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States & American Indian Nations

The Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty

This treaty was drafted and signed on 22 March 1621, between governor John Carver of the Plymouth Colony and the sachem Ousamequin (better known by his title Massasoit), of the Wampanoag Confederacy. The treaty established peaceful relations between the two parties and would be honored by both sides from the day of its signage until after the death of Massasoit in 1661.

Massasoit was interested in this peace because of his diminished status in the region, which owed to the loss of many of his people to disease, and the rise of the Narragansett tribe, to whom he now had to pay tribute. He hoped, by this alliance, to regain his former power and prestige. The pilgrims hoped to establish peace to prevent hostilities, and enable profitable trade.

It is the only treaty between immigrants and Native Americans from Colonial America (and, arguably, in the history of the later United States) which remained unbroken throughout the lives of the signatories.


The Doctrine of Discovery was initiated by the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. It stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered, claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers” and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and…  that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

Sovereignty is the power of a state to do everything necessary to govern itself, such as making, executing, and applying laws; imposing and collecting taxes; making war and peace; and forming treaties or engaging in commerce with foreign nations.

Marshall Doctrine of limited sovereignty. Citing the Doctrine of Discovery, the Marshall court issued a set of three Supreme Court decisions affirming the legal standing of Indian “nations,” but limiting their sovereignty.

  1. Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), held that private citizens could not purchase lands from Native Americans.
  2. Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia (1831), held the Cherokee nation dependent, with a relationship to the United States like that of a “ward to its guardian.”
  3. Worcester v. Georgia (1832) stated that the federal government was the sole authority to deal with Indian nations.

A treaty is a “binding formal agreement, contract, or other written instrument that establishes obligations between two or more subjects.” The US government signed 368 treaties with Indigenous nations from 1778 to 1871. From 1832 until 1871, American Indian nations were considered to be domestic, dependent tribes. In 1871, the House of Representatives ceased recognition of individual tribes as independent nations, ending the practice of treaty-making between the U.S. and American Indian tribes. Existing treaties retain their legal value.


Most people come to the Nez Perce story through the 1200-plus mile fighting retreat that we call the Nez Perce War of 1877. They then work back to the Nez Perce people, their history and culture before the War. That history is enmeshed in two major treaties and an aborted presidential attempt to make things right for one band of Nez Perce, all three of which preceded the Nez Perce War.

The treaty of 1855, made at Walla Walla, and the Lapwai Treaty of 1863, which shrunk the Nez Perce reservation lands by 90 percent and is often called the “Liars” or “Steal Treaty,” are well documented in the history books. Much less is written about President Grant’s executive order of 1873, which briefly established a reservation in the Wallowa for hinmato·wyalahtqit—Chief Joseph—and his band, the walʡˑma, the people of the walʡáwa.

This exhibit is a brief sketch of the people and ideas that addressed treaties and reservation land-promises from 1855-1875, before all collapsed into war in 1877. In this exhibit, we note that treaty language is still the law of the land, and allow Nez Perce descendant David Liberty to argue for “annulment” of the 1863 Treaty.

Walla Walla Treaty

In the early June 1855 days of the Walla Walla conference, Isaac Stevens stated his intent to create two reservations: the Spokans, Cayuses, Wallawallas and the Umatillas would move in with the Nez Perce; and several Columbia River bands and tribes would be included on another reservation in the Yakima country.

The conclusion of the Walla Walla Treaty Conference, and the treaty-makers’ decision to allow the Nez Perce their own reservation, was influenced by the arrival of Chief Looking Glass from a long trip in the Buffalo Country. The presence of Looking Glass and his warriors, and the total number of Nez Perce in attendance—over 2500—persuaded Stevens and Palmer to negotiate a separate reservation for the Nez Perce.

The final 1855 reservation was not a severe diminishment of lands generally considered Nez Perce, acknowledging their presence and power. The treaty language of continued hunting, gathering, root and berry harvesting, and grazing in “usual and accustomed” grounds outside reservation boundaries on what became three reservations—the Yakima, Umatilla, and Nez Perce—attested to the wisdom and negotiating skills of the tribes.

Gustavus Sohon

Gustavus Sohon, a native of East Prussia, arrived on the Columbia River in 1852 as a private in the U.S. Army. Isaac Stevens appreciated his artistic talents and had Sohon accompany him to the Walla Walla Treaty grounds. His drawings and watercolors of the event are the visual records we have. And Sohon’s “Arrival of the Nez Perce” matches Stevens words:

“a thousand warriors mounted on fine horses and riding at a gallop, two abreast, naked to the breech-clout, their faces covered with white, red, and yellow paint… decked with plumes and feathers and trinkets fluttering in the sunshine… firing their guns, brandishing their shields, beating their drums, and yelling their war-whoops.”

Sohon drew many of the leading Indians at the Council, including tiwi·teqis, Chief Old Joseph. It is the only image we have of him.

Sohon’s originals are at the Washington State Historical Society.