As Rudy Shebala walks through a pasture full of quietly grazing horses on a nickel gray autumn day, a long-legged colt approaches him and nuzzles his arm, and Shebala reaches out and scratches the sleek beast’s nose.
It is an unusual horse Shebala is stroking. This cross between an appaloosa and a rare Central Asian breed called akhal-teke is the centerpiece of a campaign the Nez Perce Indians hope will resurrect their horse culture, a proud tradition of selective breeding and horsemanship that was destroyed by a 19th-century war.
Tribal leaders also hope the breeding program will provide a “culturally appropriate” business on a reservation plagued with an unemployment rate as high as 70 percent.
“We’re leasing our lands out, working in sawmills and learning to be teachers,” said Shebala, a Navajo Indian who is married to a Nez Perce and runs the Lapwai breeding program. “We were once horsemen, we once raised cattle and worked our own land. These horses will help us get the old ways back.”
The Nez Perce were famous among Western tribes for the quality of their horses and sophisticated breeding. In 1805, when Lewis and Clark stumbled out of the Bitterroot Mountains into present-day eastern Idaho after a torturous trip, the Nez Perce gave them food and shelter. In his journal Meriwether Lewis wrote of the Nez Perce: “Their horses appear to be an excellent race. Many of them look like fine English coursers and would make a figure in any country.”
In the summer of 1877, the Nez Perce were ordered by the U.S. Army to leave their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of eastern Oregon for a smaller reservation in Idaho. But the Indians fled. Some 800 men, women and children and 2,000 horses traveled more than 1,100 miles in four months, battling the pursuing Army, trying desperately to reach Canada.
Most were caught in a final battle in north-central Montana 30 miles south of asylum, where their leader, Chief Joseph, made the famous statement that he would “fight no more forever.” The Nez Perce war-horses, bred over generations, were scattered, and the breed disappeared.
Deprived of their horses and their nomadic existence at an end, the Nez Perce people severed contact with this distinctive part of their past.
“The loss of horses was like the loss of a good friend, like losing a dog,” said Angel McFarland, whose parents are taking part in the tribal breeding program. “It’s similar to taking away our braids, our strength, and with the horses, we have that strength back.”
Four akhal-teke stallions were donated to the tribe by a Minnesota breeder. The idea is to blend the blocky, muscular traits of the appaloosa, as well as the distinctive “blanket” - spots on the rump - to the slim and elegant akhal-teke horse of Turkmenistan. Akhal-tekes are believed to be similar to the original Spanish horses brought to North America, which were the progenitors of the Nez Perce war horse.
The offspring, Shebala says, will be similar to the type of horse that was lost. The first foal crop of 24 horses was born last spring, and are distinctive looking, with long legs, an erect neck and a narrow chest and head. Along with their graceful look, they have been bred for their endurance and riding comfort.
This new breed, Shebala says, has been named the Nez Perce horse. “We want a horse that people will remember us for,” Shebala said. A registry of the new breed is being created, and it is hoped that the demand for the horse will be enough to create employment for the tribe.
The new breed has brought a renewed interest in the old ways on the reservation, where many stories handed down about Nez Perce horsemanship are still remembered. “My great-grandfather was called Man of the Horses,” said Horace Axtell, a tribal elder. “He would walk a circle around his horses and they wouldn’t leave it.”
The breeding program dovetails with two others the tribe has developed to help young people. The Young Horseman’s program aims to instill the horse tradition in 20 Nez Perce, age 13 to 21, each year, teaching them to care for, raise and ride horses. Most of the participants had never been on a horse; now they are helping with cattle roundups and taking tourists on trail rides.
Another program, called Mounted Scholars, is for children who are doing poorly in school because of problems at home. Math, history and other subjects are taught, with the curriculum built around horses. Classes include riding instruction.
“The outside of a horse,” said Rosa Yearout, a member of the board of directors of the program, “helps the inside of a kid.”
The pride generated by the horses on a reservation beset with high unemployment and other social ills is almost palpable.
“His name is Skeeter, and he’s my little horse, ‘cause I always ride him,” said one 12-year-old girl in the Mounted Scholars program, as she sat on an appaloosa.
Children are taught about Jackson Sundown, the nephew of Chief Joseph, who was the saddle bronc champion at the Pendleton, Ore., roundup in 1916. With his braids tied together under his chin, the 50-year-old Nez Perce rode a horse named Angel to victory. Sundown was first denied the trophy because he was Indian, but the judges later relented.
The Nez Perce program is part of a trend to create “culturally appropriate” development on reservations throughout the country. The breeding program, which has cost more than $500,000 so far, was financed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Nez Perce tribe and a nonprofit group called the First Nations Development Institute, which promotes such businesses in Indian country.
Indians “have been the victims of federal development schemes,” said Rebecca Adamson, president of the institute, which is based in Fredericksburg, Va. “They don’t fit our values, community goals or even our definition of success.” The horse breeding program, she said, “embodies a rich heritage, includes the value of the people and provides economic revenue.”