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Nez Perce tribe rebuilds equestrian legacy lost in war

Posted: Friday, October 18, 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.

After several minutes, the exhausted horse slowed to a trot, and submitted to the will of the teenager.

''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 U.S. Army stripped the Nez Perce of their prized Appaloosa horses.

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 Shebala, 45, 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.

It was those horses that helped a small band of Nez Perce warriors to outrun and outfight the U.S. Army for more than four months in 1877.

Despite being slowed by their women and children, the sick and the elderly, the Nez Perce 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 be 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 other whites, and to tribes that helped the Army. Some 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 of nearby Moscow, Idaho.

So the tribe decided to create its own breed. They mixed western Appaloosa mares and Akhal-Teke stallions from Turkmenistan, Central Asia. A new registry, the Nez Perce Appaloosa, was launched.

''We wanted to create a modern Nez Perce horse,'' Shebala, 45, said.

That's more difficult than it sounds, because over the centuries humans have mixed many combination 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 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 and horse management, and the business opportunities available. 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 at a time, Shebala said.

The tribe is proud of its program, he said, taking horses to parades, shows and rodeos.

''Our 16 and 17 year olds say they were raised with horses,'' Shebala said.

The work is physically grueling.

One horse refused to accept a saddle, even though it had been run so hard that foam lathered its body. Shebala and his son Sheldon, 24, used lariats to tie up one of the animal's legs and force it to lie on the ground. The struggling horse nipped Sheldon in the arm.

A saddle was strapped to the prone horse and 17-year-old Carl Ray Powaukee straddled the animal as the others released the ropes. The horse popped to his feet, with Powaukee neatly in the saddle. He rode the angry animal for several minutes, as it tried to knock him out of the saddle by scrapping the corral fence.

Powaukee 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,'' Powaukee said afterward. ''To us it has to be important. We have to get our history back together.''



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