On Sept. 8, 1858, U.S. Army troops under the command of Col. George Wright torpedoed Spokane-area Indian tribes already reeling from losses on the battlefields at Four Lakes and the Spokane Plains.
He ordered his men to round up the Indians’ horses, and on the banks of the Spokane River near modern-day Liberty Lake, the troops slaughtered several hundred of the animals.
The exact number varies. The monument erected at the site references 800 killed animals. Some believe the number was closer to 900. Regardless, it was a brutal act that devastated area tribes.
Beginning Saturday, artist Ryan Feddersen will lead the community in creating a temporary mural to honor the horses and acknowledge the slaughter’s impact on local Indians.
Feddersen, who identifies as being of mixed race, is descended from the Okanagan and Arrow Lakes Indian bands and is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Employing nine different horse stencils, public participation and liquid chalk paint (more durable than regular chalk, but still temporary), Feddersen aims to create an image of the horses galloping across the Spokane Tribal Gathering Place, the plaza at the top of Huntington Park next to Spokane City Hall.
“While this project has ties to my indigenous heritage, I don’t see that as a defining aspect of the piece,” Feddersen said in an email interview. “In this specific instance, the artwork is addressing an event that should impact people from all backgrounds, and it is equally valuable for any community member – regardless of their racial or cultural identity – to honor the horses in a way that pays respect to their life and to their role in the tribes’ livelihood.”
Laura Becker, director of Spokane Arts, said the new plaza felt like it needed “activation.”
“It’s a new park, and they have that plaza area that’s visually pretty stunning,” she said. “When we were thinking about that, I was thinking about artists who could lead that activity. Ryan Feddersen sprung to mind because I had become familiar with her work when I was working in Seattle. She does a lot of crowd-sourced installation work, kind of community engagement artworks. And she also is a Native artist. I wanted to commission a Native artist for this project.”
Among Feddersen’s previous public efforts was her participation in a large-scale paint-by-numbers project at Seattle’s 2011 Bumbershoot. She said she believes that interaction with art can be another tool to creating content.
“Art in general is a form of communication and like most conversations is more fully realized when there is a back and forth. Interactivity becomes an invitation to participate in the work not merely as a spectator, but as a component of the meaning,” she said.
The timing of “900 Horses” was intentional, Becker added. The project starts during Bazaar, the one-day-only arts sale on Post Street and at Riverfront Park. It’ll run through Hoopfest. The idea was to create a critical mass of potential participants. “I really wanted people visiting Spokane to have an arts experience while they’re here,” Becker said.
Feddersen came up with the concept after doing research and learning about the horse slaughter. “That singular event really left an impression with her,” Becker said. “So she wanted to pay tribute to that event.”
Feddersen will be directing the mural’s overall shape. Participants will be asked to avoid using names, logos or advertising in painting their horses. “Beyond that, it’s really up to the creative prerogative of each person, and that’s what we want,” Becker said. “But we do want participants to be respectful of the artist’s vision and the nature of the project.”
Photographer Dean Davis will be producing a time-lapse video of the mural’s creation over the week. And Feddersen will document the project on her Instagram page, @ryanfeddersen, using #900Horses.