The Nez PercÚs or "Pierced Noses" really were not Pierced Noses any more than any other Indians; for the North American red men, the country over, wore ornaments in their noses when they chose to.
But as the Pierced Noses this nation in the far Northwest was known. They were members of the Sha-hap-ti-an family of North Americans—a family not so large as the Algonquian, Siouan, Shoshonean and several other families, yet important.
Their home was the valley and river country of western Idaho, and the near sections of Oregon and Washington. The two captains, Lewis and Clark, were well treated by them along the great Snake River, above the entrance to the greater Columbia.
They were a small Indian; a horse Indian who lived on buffalo as well as fish, and scorned to eat dog like the Sioux; a brave fighting Indian; and withal a very honest, wise-minded Indian, whose boast, up to 1877, was that they had never shed the white man's blood.
They used canoes, but they used horses more. Horses were their wealth. They raised horses by the thousand, and the finest of horses these were. A fat colt was good meat, but without horses they could not hunt the buffalo and the buffalo supplied stronger meat.
Once a year, when the grass had greened in the spring, they traveled eastward, across the Rocky Mountains by the Pierced Nose Trail-to-the-buffalo, and hunted upon the Missouri River plains, in the country of their enemies the Blackfeet.
The Blackfeet, in turn, sought them out, west of the mountains, to steal their horses. With the Blackfeet and the Sioux, and sometimes with the Snakes, they fought many a battle; and when they had anything of a show, they won out. It took numbers to whip a Pierced Nose warrior. Like most peace-lovers, he made the hardest kind of a fighter.
The early whites in the Northwest had nothing but praise for the Pierced Nose Indians. The trapper who married a Pierced Nose woman thought that he was lucky. She would be a good wife for him—gentle, neat and always busy. Besides, as a rule the Nez PercÚs women were better looking than the general run of Indian women.
The early fur-hunters and explorers found that the Pierced Noses were very religious, in a way akin to the Christian way. They did not eat, drink nor sleep without first giving thanks to God. They had one day each week, like Sunday, when they did not hunt or fish or work, but listened to talks by their priests or medicine-men.
It was said that they had been taught first by a Christian Iroquois Indian, who in 1816 came in from Canada and told them the things that he had been told by the French priests. At any rate, when the Roman Catholic priests themselves arrived to live among them, these Pierced Noses already had learned a great deal. They were anxious to learn more.
However, More the missionaries of any church visited them, the Pierced Noses tried to learn more, by themselves. In particular, they wanted a copy of the Book of Heaven. And what started them on the trail of the Book of Heaven, was this:
Among the leaders of white fur-hunters in beaver-trapping days in the west, there was Trapper-Captain Jedediah S. Smith—the Knight in Buckskin. This Captain Jedediah Smith was fearless and upright. Hunting beaver, he traveled far and wide, from the Missouri River to California, and from New Mexico to the Columbia, protected only by his rifle and his Bible.
Wherever he carried his rifle, he carried his Bible; used them both, and no man but that respected him. The Comanches of the Southwest finally killed him, in 1831, when fighting alone against great odds he died a real hero's death.
He had spent the winter of 1824–1825 in the Pierced Noses' country. Of course he told them much about the white man's religion. They saw him frequently reading in his little, black-leather book, which, they said, must be the White Man's Book of Heaven. He would not sell them the book, for any amount of horses or beaver skins. When he had left, they took counsel together and decided that they should get such a book.
Twice they sent into the East for it; and no word came back. But the Pierced Noses did not give up. They were still without the wonderful Book of Heaven which, had said Captain Jedediah Smith the trapper, guided the white men on the straight trail to the Great Spirit above.
In the early part of 1832 they called a council of the nation, and chose four men, to set out, again, for the big, unknown village where dwelt the Red Head Chief, and where, they hoped, a copy of the Book of Heaven might be found.
The snows had scarcely melted when the four men started. Two of them were old and wise; their names are not written. Two of them were young and strong; their names were Rabbit-skin Leggins and No-horns-on-his-head.
A long, long, dangerous road lay before them: three thousand miles, across the mountains into the Blackfeet country, and across the plains guarded by the Blackfeet and the Sioux and other hungry people as bad.
But they got through all right, for they were clever and in earnest. They arrived at St. Louis in the summer.
St. Louis was then nothing like the St. Louis of today; but to the four strangers from the Columbia River basin it was amazingly large. Never had they dreamed of seeing so many white people. No one spoke their tongue; still there were trappers and Missouri River boatmen who understood signs, and by the sign language they inquired for the Red Head Chief.
The kind-hearted Governor William Clark was glad to greet them. Their fathers, almost thirty years before, had helped him and Captain Lewis the Long Knife; he remembered the two old men when they were young. The Indians of the West might always depend upon their friend the Red Head.
So he took charge of the four Pierced Noses, and entertained them. He showed them the sights of the white man's big village beside the big rivers. They were entertained by banquets and balls and the theatre. They went to services in the Roman Catholic church, where the white people worshipped—for Governor Clark was a Catholic.
And they saw copies of the Book of Heaven—the Roman Catholic testament, and the Bible: but the books did not speak their language!
In all the white man's village there was no one who might read from the Book, in their own language.
After a few months they began to despair. The food of the white man and the close air of the lodges made them ill. The two old men died. Rabbit-skin Leggins and No-horns-on-his-head were homesick for their country beyond the mountains. In the winter they prepared to go.
A farewell banquet was given to them, but they were tired of banquets. They wanted a Book of Heaven that could talk to them. No-horns-on-his-head delivered a speech, as best he might, in sign language and broken English, through an interpreter.
I have come to you over the trail of many moons from the setting sun. You were the friends of my fathers, who have all gone the long way.
I came with an eye partly open for my people, who sit in darkness; I go back with both eyes closed. How can I go back blind, to my blind people? I made my way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands that I might carry back much to them. I go back with both arms broken and empty.
Two fathers came with us; they were the braves of many winters and wars. We leave them asleep here by your great waters and wigwams. They were tired in many moons and their moccasins wore out.
My people sent me to get the "White Man's Book of Heaven." You took me to where you allow your women to dance as we do not ours, and the book was not there. You took me to where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, and the book was not there. You showed me images of the good spirits and the picture of the good land beyond, but the book was not among them to tell us the way.
I am going back the long and sad trail to my people in the dark land. You make my feet heavy with gifts and my moccasins will grow old carrying them, yet the book is not among them. When I tell my poor blind people, after one more snow, in the big council, that I did not bring the book, no word will be spoken by our old men or by our young braves. One by one they will rise and go out in silence.
My people will die in darkness, and they will go a long path to other hunting grounds. No white man will go with them, and no White Man's Book make the way plain. I have no more words.
They left. Rabbit-skin Leggins reached his people; No-horns-on-his-head fell upon the trail and died.
But his words lived. As translated into English, they were printed in Eastern papers, and aroused great desire among the churches to give them the right answer. Should these Indians beyond the mountains remain in darkness? No!
Missionaries were called for, to carry the Book and the Word to the Columbia River. In the spring of 1834 the first party, of four Methodists, set out; others followed, the next year; soon the Roman Catholic church sent its Black Robes; and the Pierced Noses M and their kin the Flatheads were made glad.
Not in vain had their warriors died, while seeking the road to the white man's heaven.