Weippe Prairie Exploration
More than two hundred years ago, Weippe Prairie was a major transportation and trade junction for the Nez Perce Nation. The prairie was simply called Weippe by those living in the area (Weippe being derived from the Nez Perce term Oyáyp). Weippe Prairie was also one of the main root-gathering grounds, with American Indians from different bands making the journey to Weippe to harvest the root qém’es, later called the “camas” root by explorers.
On September 20, 1805, Lewis and Clark exited the Lolo Trail over the Bitterroot Mountains and entered Weippe Prairie. Clark took a scouting party and went ahead where they were met by Al-We-Yas, a Nez Perce village leader and the brother of Chief Twisted Hair. Al-We-Yas approached Clark’s group with caution. Unbeknownst to Clark, Chief Peo-Peo-Tah-Likt had strategically sent Nez Perce warriors to surround Clark’s group, waiting for any hostile movements. This is the first recorded historical meeting between Nez Perce leaders and US representatives. Al-We-Yas sent messengers to neighboring tribes announcing the coming of the Americans. This also represented a moment prophesied by American Indian spiritual leaders, which caused many chiefs and village leaders to make decisions concerning their relationship with the Americans. They debated whether to kill them or establish a peaceful and friendly relationship with them. Because Clark had made a favorable impression on Chief Twisted Hair and his son, the village leaders decided not to kill Lewis and Clark’s exploration group. This interaction was a pivotal moment in the life of Chief Twisted Hair’s son, Aleiya, who would later be known as Chief Lawyer. Chief Lawyer would go on to become one of the most influential advocates for an alliance between the US government and the Nez Perce Indians.
Nez Perce were greatly generous toward Lewis and Clark’s exploration group. In addition to feeding the famished explorers, Nez Perce also provided geographical knowledge so they could navigate the Clearwater River. They also tended the expedition's horses throughout the winter while the group travelled to the coast and back. On September 24, the Lewis and Clark exploration departed the Nez Perce village and continued via dugout canoes on to the Pacific. The following year on their return journey in 1806, Lewis and Clark reunited with the Nez Perce on their return journey and stayed with them for up to seven weeks while waiting for the snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains.