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Revving Up a Lost Art by Making Saddles the Old Way

A story about HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Pinkham, who makes saddles the old way.
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Not many people still make the traditional saddles from scratch; in fact, HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Pinkham doesn’t know of anyone else making saddles the old way, but that’s her passion. “I would like to make as many saddles and horse regalia outfits as I possibly can. I am totally amazed that somebody in the past figured this out,” she says. “How did they do that?”

There are still many vintage Indian saddles around but most are family heirlooms, passed down through generations and carefully stored away till the next major event. You can see them at places like Crow Fair in Montana, the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon or similar events elsewhere. The vast majority of them date from the 1800s or early 1900s.

Pinkham, who is enrolled Yakama but also has ancestral ties to the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla, Chippewa and Cree, was pretty much on her own when she set out to learn how to make saddles. There is an old saddle in her family that was photographed by noted photographer Edward Curtis in 1910, a photo he titled Holiday Trappings. The woman in the photo was Pinkham’s great grandmother (or possibly great-great grandmother). This is the saddle Pinkham learned on, unbeknownst to her mother. She took the saddle apart in 1999, when she was a young adult.

“I sat in it one time and heard this crick,” she explains. Without telling her mother, she decided to take it apart to repair it. “I don’t know the proper names because no one taught me, but the wing on one side was cracked. I kind of whittled it away, made a [new] piece to fit perfectly and then had to do new rawhide and new buckskin over it as much as I could while still leaving the important parts intact. I did some repairs on the beads and stuff, but I got it fixed.”

She does it all old-school, by hand. (Jack McNeel)

Dolores Huerta appears in ‘Dolores’ by Peter Bratt, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Dolores Huerta appears in ‘Dolores’ by Peter Bratt, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

She used old trade beads from beadwork that had become damaged, and when the repair was finished the saddle looked the same. Her mother wasn’t too happy when she caught HollyAnna putting the saddle back together, “but when it was all done, it was fine,” Pinkham laughs. “We’re still using it at every Pendleton Round-Up.”

That experience gave her the confidence and knowledge to begin building saddles from scratch, first using material she bought. “It’s a lot easier to go to the store and ruin a couple of pieces and start over again,” she laughs. “I probably ruined 50 to 100 pieces before I figured out how you should do it because there was no one to teach me. I couldn’t take [our] saddle apart again.”

She has completed eight saddles over the years, has also repaired old saddles for a few people and is now on a pace of making one saddle per year. There’s one very special saddle, still unfinished, that shows the strength of her desire to build the old way. She is making this one without any modern tools. She even made a stone axe to cut the trees for the basic saddle parts. She killed elk and deer with bow and arrow for the rawhide and buckskin that she brain-tanned. Brain-tanned? “It’s a traditional method of making buckskin. The brain tanning makes it the white color,” she explains. It’s a process still used by mountain-men types and Native Americans where the brain of the animal is actually worked into the hide, which makes it very supple in addition to adding the white color. (If they want the tan color they then smoke the brain-tanned hide.) The stirrups for this saddle are presently under construction—they will be made of elk antlers. The antlers form the arch over the foot and she will then use pins and the rest of the antlers to form the bottom, where the foot rests. The pieces are put together with pins she has made and fitted into holes drilled by hand and then sealed together with sap and resin. The idea for this type of stirrup came from a saddle she saw in the Appaloosa Museum in Moscow, Idaho. “It was the only saddle I’ve ever seen that used antlers for stirrups,” she says.

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She laughs as she talks about making this saddle. “When I was cutting down the tree I wanted, the [axe] head came off and hit me in the head. Mind you, I’m learning how to make these tools. Or, like when I was trying to learn to use the bow and arrow to hunt—I’m an awesome tree-killer!

“Eventually I got the hang of it, and now I’m way better at it.”

What makes this remarkable story even more remarkable is that Pinkham is a four-time cancer survivor. The first time was in 1993 when she turned 23, then again in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Today she’s off most of the medication, feeling and looking healthy, but she’s now allergic to sunlight, and she must keep totally covered when she’s outside. (That doesn’t pose any problems when she’s riding her beloved motorcycle because she’s covered with motorcycle gear and wears special contact lenses that filter out light.)

She is employed by the Yakama tribe as a homeland security emergency management planner and will soon become the first American Indian woman to complete FEMA training. She hunts and has brothers who hunt, so she uses those hides for her rawhide and buckskin. “Everything underneath [a saddle] is covered with rawhide,” she explains. “When it dries it sort of shrinkwraps around [everything] and helps make these sections a lot stronger.” She prefers elk hide because it’s thick, easy to work, and dries hard and sturdy. She uses brain-tanned buckskin on the top part of saddles. She prefers deer for this part because it’s easy to bead through.

Not only does she do her own beading, she also makes some of her own beads. It’s no surprise that she prefers the old-school styles, “traditional looking as opposed to the whole outfit matching each other which is more contemporary. It makes it a little more interesting to do the beadwork.”

She tries to use every part of the animal. Holding up a small bag made of elk hide with the dew claws still attached, she says, “This is one of my favorite pieces, a very early piece from an elk I shot and its dew claws. I was going to throw it away but thought, I can use that. I don’t know how many of these I’ve made now.”

She continually expresses amazement over how Native people first learned to do these things. Using a saddle as an example she points to the two horns, one on either end. “Why did they have two horns like this?” she asks. Then she partially answers that in saying, “I dig roots; I gather; I hunt; I fish; and it was like they put two horns on so you can balance out your load. You can have your bag full of roots [hanging] on both sides and keep the horse balanced, and you can add other stuff on there.”

She uses pine mostly for the sides or “wings” and prefers cottonwood for the forks, although she’ll sometimes use cedar or tamarack. The forks are “the front and back of the saddle that make the horn and also bind the two sides together,” she explains. If you look at the basic skeleton of a saddle, they are the upright pieces that will eventually be covered with buckskin. “I like cedar for the top parts on the more traditional saddle trees because it carves a lot nicer and is a lot smoother. When you put buckskin on it, and do the beadwork it doesn’t seem to rub as much. Plus, it’s a natural insecticide.”

Asked why she has this burning desire to create saddles the old way, she responds, “It’s a connection to those who are gone now—my great-great-grandmother and my grandmother, and especially to my uncle. He taught me Western saddle-making, which gave me the tools to learn to make the traditional saddle. It’s just a way of carrying on our family story. It’s my part in the story of the family.”