'Horse Tribe' Documents the Nez Perce, the Appaloosa, and More

The documentary Horse Tribe had its pre-completion premiere in Moscow, Idaho in March.

The theater was nearly packed at last month's pre-completion premiere of the film Horse Tribe, in Moscow, Idaho on the homeland of the Nez Perce Tribe. Janet Kern, the writer/director, was present from her home in New York as was Rudy Shebala, a Navajo man who headed a horse breeding program for the Nez Perce Tribe and was prominently featured in the movie.

Kern's documentary weaves many threads together of the tribe’s long history with the horse, most notably the horse they’re closely associated with, the appaloosa.

Nakia Williamson, who works in cultural resources for the tribe, talked of the importance of the horse. “It is very important in the very deepest sense and even in the spiritual sense. Our connection to the horse is a very powerful thing to us and a very real thing. The horse came to us sometime prior to 1700 and became a part of us and we became a part of them.”

The story line brings together that introduction and then the loss of the horses during the Nez Perce War of 1877 when U.S. Army troops finally forced the tribe to stop fighting at the Bears Paw in Montana, just a couple of days' walk from the Canadian border and likely safety. The herd of roughly 2,000 animals which accompanied them on the 1300 mile trail toward Canada was lost, most shot by the army, and has never recovered.

Jump forward to 1992 when the tribe began a program to instruct Nez Perce youth in horsemanship. Along with that came the hiring of Rudy Shebala to initiate a horse breeding program to develop a new breed of horse which was called the Nez Perce Horse. Shebala is a superb horseman whose love of horses is evident as he talks of them. “Their smell and their nicker, I’m part of that. It’s satisfying whenever you get to spend a whole day with horses, very satisfying. There’s nothing bad about a horse.”

Horse Tribe brings these diverse lines together, showing how the breeding program was going well, using Akhal Tekes, desert-bred horses from north of Iran, and breeding them with appaloosas to develop a new breed capable of traveling long distances in hot temperatures and very similar to the horses the tribe lost in 1877. Shebala also developed a program involving Nez Perce youth working with the horses, gaining knowledge, responsibility, and pride in their role. His love of horses and ability to pass that love and knowledge to the youth shows in the movie. But not everyone was happy having a Navajo head up the program on the Nez Perce reservation and with other problems he was dismissed. The breeding program was reduced and many of the horses were sold although a sizeable number remain, and the Nez Perce Horse registry does remain open.

Shebala holds no regrets. He returned to college at the University of Idaho and has completed two degrees in Equine Management and Range Management and is now working on a PhD in Native American Studies. He also has 30 head of horses and is continuing a breeding program with his own herd.

It was an article in the New York Times about this breeding program of the tribe that caught Janet Kern’s attention. “After reading this article I knew it was a film I’d love to make.” Fourteen years have elapsed since that time and the film is still not in finished form although those viewing it at its premiere were enthralled with the various story lines which come together to complete an educational and intriguing documentary.

Kern acknowledged the film was still a work in progress. “The images are in low resolution. They will be spectacularly beautiful once we go back to our original negative. The sound has not yet been balanced so some may be difficult to hear, and the music track is temporary. I’m looking for the perfect score for the film.” One song she plans to incorporate, called "Song Sung from Horseback," dates to the beginning of the 20th century and comes from the Nez Perce archives. Her hope is that the final product will happen by midsummer.

Kern finished the discussion with words of gratitude: "It has been a signal honor and pleasure in my own life to have worked with the Nez Perce community and gotten to know many of them and to be able to count some of them as real friends."