Native American artist brings 900 horses back to life in Spokane

Horses slaughtered by U.S. Army in 1858 to break spirit of Washington territory tribes now commemorated in mural

College friends April Kirby, left, ad Johnna Avis were driving from Connecticut to Seattle in June when they made a stop in Spokane, Washington, and encountered the “900 Horses” mural. They each decorated a horse in commemoration of the slaughter of tribal horses by the U.S. Army in 1858.
Kevin Taylor

SPOKANE, Wash. — In 1858, when Col. George Wright ordered U.S. Army soldiers to massacre 900 horses they took from the Native American tribes of Washington Territory, the grisly job took only two days.

“This work of slaughter has been going on since 10 o’clock a.m. yesterday and will not be completed before this evening,” he wrote in a report to the secretary of war about his punitive campaign to defeat the combined forces of several Plateau Culture tribes.

“A blow has been struck which they will never forget,” he continued.

On that count, Wright was correct. But how the horses were remembered 157 years later might have surprised him.

It took artist Ryan Feddersen, an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, nine days under a relentless sun — temperatures in Spokane last month were 20 to 30 degrees above normal — to move inch by inch on a sizzling concrete plaza, using blue and green chalk to color a background for a mural that would become known as “900 Horses,” filling the downtown plaza with a flowing river of brightly colored ponies painted by hundreds of hands.

Feddersen, who grew up off the reservation and now lives in Seattle, did not hear of Wright’s horse slaughter until she was brainstorming for a theme for the public art piece, sponsored by Spokane Arts, with her historian husband, Brock Johnson.

The facts are grim. Wright torched storehouses full of food set aside by the tribes for the coming winter, had 16 surrendering Native warriors summarily hanged and then had the captured 700 to 1,000 horses (estimates vary) shot to death. A pioneer group erected a monument at what became known as Horse Slaughter Camp in 1946. Feddersen wanted something different to mark the events.

“Monuments are symbols of power. They celebrate and reinforce the primacy of a political or historical viewpoint,” she said.

By making a memorial, “we create a focus for our remembrance to honor the deceased. This event is so important to remember, not just to recognize the history of place but as a lens through which to view violence and warfare.”

Bloody history

“Nothing can more effectually cripple the Indians than to deprive them of their animals,” wrote Lt. Lawrence Kip in a journal written during Wright’s campaign and published in 1859.

The enigmatic Kip left a rare firsthand account in “Army Life on the Pacific: A Journal of the Expedition Against the Northern Indians.” He wrote that after Wright met with officers the morning of Sept. 9 and decided to kill the captured horses, two companies of soldiers were ordered to hastily build a corral along the Spokane River, near what is now the Washington-Idaho border, and drive the horses in. Then, he wrote:

One by one they were lassoed and dragged out and dispatched by a single shot … The colts were led out and knocked in the head. It was distressing all during the following night, to hear the cries of the brood mares whose young had thus been taken from them. On the following day, to avoid the slow process of killing them separately, the companies were ordered to fire volleys into the corral.

Capt. Erasmus D. Keyes, another of Wright’s officers, said, “Towards the last, the soldiers appeared to exult in their bloody task, and such is the ferocious character of men.”

Several accounts say the mass of bones was visible until at least 1911.

“I wanted to draw attention to the incident but in a way that was more of a recognition of the loss and an acknowledgment of the scale and how it must have felt,” Feddersen said.

The slaughter, she said, “is a way for people to look at the Indian Wars in a different light.”

Color and remembrance

As the plaza filled with color, Ellen Welcker, who recently moved to Spokane, said, “It’s really overwhelming, almost dizzying, to look at the horses, because they are so colorful and there are so many of them. Seeing that and then thinking about what it would be like to be in the midst of 900 to 1,000 real horses — murdering those horses — was very moving.”

“It was painful,” said LaRae Wiley, a Native woman who learned of the horse slaughter as an adult.

Feddersen said one of her favorite moments came early one morning when Wiley, a co-founder of the immersion elementary Salish School of Spokane took its students to see the project.

They formed a line at the head of the mural and, with hand drums that they’d made themselves, sang a blessing song in Salish for the horses.

Mireya Parkin-Pineda, 8, a second-grader at the Salish School, chose white, black and pink paints for her horse. “I painted it pink with black curlicues, a black mane and white stripes and a black tail with white curlicues.”

But she was most impressed, she said, “that everybody got to honor the horses.”

Time lapse video by Dean Davis

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