Qualchan Story Told In Art Artist’s Account Of Indian Wars Hangs In Endicott School
Growing up on the northern fringe of the Palouse, Nona Hengen rode her horse dozens of times where Qualchan, son of the Yakama chief Owhi, summarily was hanged by the U.S. Army more than a century ago.
She had seen the memorial noting that the hanging marked “the end of Indian warfare in the Pacific Northwest.”
But it wasn’t until around 1980, after she had quit work as a college professor to paint on her parents’ farm, that she realized she knew next to nothing about what had happened on that spot on the morning of Sept. 24, 1858.
Around the Palouse, she had heard of the nearby stream known as Hangman Creek but knew little more. In school, the matter barely came up.
“Qualchan’s hanging was, at most, a sentence,” she said. “Even though we lived close to where those events occurred, they had absolutely no significance in the state’s history books. Just a footnote.”
With an easel and a master’s degree in history, Hengen set out to tell Qualchan’s story on a 5-foot-wide piece of canvas. Then she painted the Army’s slaughter of some 800 Indian horses near what is now the Idaho state line. Then she painted the Battle of Spokane Plains, the climax of ill feelings set in motion by the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.
She ended up with 11 paintings and three portraits interpreting one of the bloodiest, most tumultuous and forgotten moments in regional history. School groups streamed through her Spangle studio to see the illustrated story, from Col. Edward Steptoe’s April meeting with Chief Vincent of the Coeur d’Alenes to the shooting of Owhi by Army captors five months later.
“And that’s how Daddy got his Palouse ranch,” she would tell them.
But when the paintings began to crowd her Spangle studio, Hengen, 63, began to worry about what might ultimately happen to them. Worried about them someday being sold out of sequence, she began wondering to friends whether the works might need a “noble death.”
The thought burned the ears of Dick Scheuerman, a St. John-Endicott educator and co-author of “Renegade Tribe: The Palouse Indians and the Invasion of the Inland Pacific Northwest” (1986, WSU Press).
Scheuerman and his wife, Lois, arranged to buy the series for $2,000 - the rough cost of Hengen’s expenses and a fraction of the paintings’ value - and install them in the library of the Endicott School.
This week, the paintings were unveiled in the school. It’s a remote venue, with maybe 350 residents. But with the largest gym outside of Pullman, it draws thousands each winter for B League basketball tournaments.
More than anything, the paintings are now in the heart of the Palouse band’s homeland. They hang just miles from the Kentuck Trail, a major Nez Perce thoroughfare and the one-time home of Kamiaken, the Palouse and Yakama chief who brought together the area’s tribes to fight the Army.
“They belong here,” Scheuerman said.
“It’s really so wonderful they can stay here in the county,” said Edwin Garretson of the Whitman County Historical Society. “This is great - a treasure like this can stay here at home.”
The treeless, rolling Palouse may rank among the world’s most striking landscapes, but it wears little of its history. As Scheuerman pointed out in his remarks at Wednesday’s dedication, there is nothing to mark where Col. George Wright crossed the Snake River to begin his “punitive campaign” to avenge the routing of Col. Edward Steptoe three months earlier at what is now Rosalia.
Qualchan is buried in an unmarked grave known to few.
A handful of memoirs and other sources describe the Steptoe and Wright campaigns, but as Hengen pointed out, they were “pre-Kodak, pre-Dan Rather, pre-satellite transmission.”
To make a visual history, Hengen set out to read different soldiers’ accounts of the time and research the rifles, saddles and Indian dress of the period. To paint the shooting of hundreds of horses, she photographed her own horse wallowing and resting to capture the different stages of slaughter.
Her path was full of chuckholes.
Different accounts described Qualchan’s horse as a bay, a gray, a dun, an appaloosa and a buckskin. “Academic freedom and artistic license kicked in there,” she said, “and I decided to paint him on a bay.”
She aimed to render an objective account. But talking Wednesday with Carrie Schuster, a Palouse Indian who lived on the Snake River as a child before the dams came, Hengen betrayed her insecurity.
“I don’t know if you’re going to hear some truths from me here tonight or not - kind of the white side of the story,” Hengen said.
Schuster was diplomatic, saying the paintings can motivate people to read more about the Palouse band.
“She picked a good place to start because this is a tribe that is not as well known as others,” she said.
For her part, Schuster spent part of the day speaking to students in nearby St. John about her way of life: the cattail shelters, the origin of her name - “woman who can just get over anything” - the steel bells sewn on her son’s deerskin shirt, the better to keep track of him.
She was showing some kindergartners and first-graders a porcupine-quill necklace when it became obvious how much the Palouse had changed since her ancestors’ day.
Trying on a beaded glove, Callie Kolb looked up at Schuster and, in all innocence, asked, “Are you an Indian?”
“Yes,” Schuster said, breaking into a laugh, “I’m an Indian.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos