LAPWAI, Idaho (AP) – More than a decade after its inception and in the recent wake of a not-so-glowing documentary film, the Nez Perce Horse Registry has gone from a galloping start to a tentative trot.

But tribal officials said they remain dedicated to ensuring both the registry and a young horseman’s program as a means of embracing the Nez Perce Tribe’s equestrian past.

Rumors of the horse registry’s demise are false, said Allen Slickpoo Jr., a Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee member.

“It’s best to hear it from the horse’s mouth, to find truth and fact,” Slickpoo said. “Gossip can go around and around. But if you don’t really know, go to the individuals who do know and ask. That’s how it’s going to get clarified.”

About 200 horses have been registered and the tribe still owns about 40 horses, according to tribal records. Called the Nez Perce Horse, the breed is a cross between spotted Appaloosas and a central Asian breed called akhal-teke. The original Nez Perce horses are thought to be extinct.

Initially, officials hoped the creation of a new tribal breed would generate enough enthusiasm and dollars to become a self-sustaining proposition. But, after three horse auctions to pare down the herd and other attempts to cover costs, about $150,000 in casino profits are needed annually to keep the dream alive.

The documentary film, titled “Horse Tribe,” was written and directed by Janet Kern of New York City. A rough-cut version was shown recently in Moscow as part of the University of Idaho’s Annual Native American Film Festival.

“It is a work in progress. It’s taken way longer than anyone expected,” Kern told an audience at Moscow’s downtown Kenworthy Theater. “We’re finishing the film and many people thought that would never happen.”

Encompassing almost 15 years, the film is an unvarnished look at an equestrian program that started with high ideals and fanfare, but today struggles amid the realities of a slumping horse industry, intra-tribal disputes and a lingering question of how to fill an historical void in a contemporary world.

“Our goal is to ultimately get our people to buy into the horse,” Slickpoo said. “Originally the horse program was set up because the Nez Perce were renowned horsemen of the plains. We want to give the horse culture back to the Nez Perce people.”

So the Nez Perce Horse Registry was started in the mid-1990s under the leadership of Rudy Shabala, a member of the Navajo Tribe who said he came to Idaho because of his love for horses and his respect of the Nez Perces as a horse people.

Kern’s documentary stemmed from her reading a 1996 story in the New York Times about the registry and Shabala. “As soon as I finished reading that article, I knew it was a film I wanted to do.”

But Kern reveals in her film that Shabala, for all his accomplishments, was not embraced by all Nez Perces. Indeed, some scorned him as a questionable horseman and an outsider. The film also depicts Shabala’s dismissal some eight years ago after being arrested for driving under the influence.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Shabala said. Now a doctoral graduate student at UI’s College of Natural Resources, Shabala said he missed the youngsters he worked with and the horses he left behind.

Slickpoo said lessons have been learned and the past should remain the past. “For me, sitting at this table here for the government, I’d rather have the story be positive rather than negative.”

Aaron Miles, of the tribe’s natural resources department, has joined with Kim Cannon of land services to rein in the horse programs and then spur them toward a new future. Ideally, Slickpoo, Miles and Cannon agreed, tribal members would own their horses. Then the registry, like most horse registries, could focus on being a repository for documentation of equine lineages as well as a public relations arm to promote the breed.

“It’s been a struggle for us, trying to get more tribal members involved,” Miles said.

Lack of land upon which to keep, tend and train a horse, Slickpoo said, also figures in the equation. “After the Allotment Act, most of the reservation land was taken from the tribe. So we have a huge land issue. Not everyone owns land.” Slickpoo said he’s purchased four Nez Perce Horses from the tribe. But his family, by owning enough land to keep horses, is an exception.

“Our difficulty with having more people involved is that they don’t have the pasture or property where they would be able to adopt or buy a horse and acquire their own pasture.”

Miles said the registry’s product, the Nez Perce Horse, speaks for itself, as do the people who come in contact with them. “I think the horses we have, people swear by them.” Two hundred years ago, Meriwether Lewis lauded Nez Perce horses as being “of an excellent race; they are lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable.”

But the registry and the Nez Perce cultural link to horses, Slickpoo said, will ultimately hinge on tribal members, not just tribal government, embracing the horse as part of the future.


Information from: Lewiston Tribune,