- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

LAPWAI, Idaho - Redwing Two Moons hung on to the reins as the exotic horse raced around a small circular corral. Rarely ridden, the horse known as Yellowhand was refusing to take orders from the 16-year-old member of the Nez Perce Indian tribe. But after several minutes, the exhausted animal slowed to a trot and submitted to the teenager's will.
"You did good, Redwing," riding instructor Rudy Shebala said. "You got the worst out of him, that's for sure. You keep him running until he acts good."
Despite the dust and the sweat, this small drama was an exercise in cultural pride. After Chief Joseph made his famous vow in 1877 to "fight no more forever," the Army stripped the Nez Perce of their prized appaloosa steeds.
It took more than a century, but the Nez Perce are finally breeding horses again.
"We are keeping up the traditions of our ancestors in our time," said Mr. Shebala, who runs the horse program for the tribe.
Horses were the trademark of the Nez Perce since they first acquired runaway Spanish animals in the 1700s. Eventually they bred the appaloosa war horses that allowed them to become a dominant Inland Northwest tribe.
Those horses were the ones that helped a small band of Nez Perce warriors outrun and outfight the Army for more than four months in 1877.
Despite being slowed by their women, children, sick and elderly, the Nez Perce men conducted an epic flight across parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana with the Army in pursuit. Only 40 miles from the Canadian border, soldiers caught the Indians in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana.
Rather than see his people annihilated, Chief Joseph laid down his rifle and the Nez Perce were taken to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Many of the tribe's surviving horses were given as prizes to soldiers and tribes that helped the Army. Some of the animals were slaughtered.
With their nomadic existence at an end, the Nez Perce found little use for horses in the following century, even after they were resettled on a reservation in northern Idaho.
While individual Nez Perce continued to raise horses, the practice was dormant as a tribal enterprise until the mid-1990s, when a proposal was made to start a horse farm as a "culturally appropriate" business.
By then, the appaloosa breed had been appropriated by other horsemen and is now registered by the Appaloosa Horse Club in nearby Moscow, Idaho.
So the tribe decided to create its own breed. They mixed Western appaloosa mares and Akhal-Teke stallions from Turkmenistan. A new registry, the Nez Perce horse, was founded.
"We wanted to create a modern Nez Perce horse," Mr. Shebala said.
That's more difficult than it sounds, because over the centuries humans have mixed many combinations of horses to create breeds, and it can be difficult to find a new mixture.
The first four stallions were donated to the tribe by a Minnesota breeder.
The idea was to blend the appaloosa's blocky, muscular traits and distinctive spots on the rump, to the slim and elegant Akhal-Teke horse. The Asian horses are believed to be similar to the original Spanish horses brought to North America, which were the ancestors of the Nez Perce war horse.
The new breed the oldest is animal now 6 years old is distinguished by a deep chest, pronounced withers and long muscles. The horses are tall and built for endurance.
Besides breeding horses, the program is intended to teach Nez Perce youth the arts of horsemanship, horse management and how to run a business. Money is made by selling horses and offering trail rides to tourists.
The work of raising and training the horses falls to more than a dozen Nez Perce high school students.
The tribe is proud of its program, Mr. Shebala said, taking horses to parades, shows and rodeos.
"Our 16- and 17-year-olds say they were raised with horses," Mr. Shebala said.
The work is physically grueling.
One 3-year-old stallion refused to accept a bridle, even though it was already saddled. Mr. Shebala and his son Sheldon used lariats to tie up one of the animal's legs and force it to lie on the ground. The struggling horse nipped Sheldon's arm.
A bridle was placed over the horse's head and a bit in his mouth. Then 17-year-old Carl Ray Powaukee straddled the animal as the others released the ropes. The horse popped to his feet, with Carl neatly in the saddle. He rode the angry animal for several minutes as it tried to knock him out of the saddle by scraping the corral fence.
Carl has been around horses much of his life, and last month traveled to New York state to learn horseshoeing.
"I'd rather do this than work anywhere else," he said. "To us it has to be important. We have to get our history back together."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide