On September 9, 1858, U.S. Army troops rounded up between 800 and 1,000 horses (accounts vary on the actual number) from the herd of a Palouse chief and, under orders from Col. George Wright, slaughtered the animals on the banks of the Spokane River. The act, meant to intimidate the Palouse, Spokane, Yakama and Coeur d'Alene tribes, who had been battling with Army troops in the months prior, was not only a symbolic takedown of the tribes' stature that would endure for generations, but also resulted in starvation among native people the following winter.
It's one of those stories you'd think lifelong Spokane residents would know, but that's hardly the case. There actually was a monument erected in 1946 at the site of the slaughter near Liberty Lake, but the words on the stone obelisk justify Wright's decision as a necessary and heroic one.
Beginning this weekend, residents will get a lesson in this sad history with the 900 Horses interactive chalk mural project in downtown Spokane. Seattle-based installation artist Ryan Feddersen, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, is inviting the public to color in stencils of horses at the Tribal Gathering Place above Huntington Park, commemorating the event through public art.
"I consider a lot of my work to be an invitation to look at the way we think about society and culture. For me, this is related to my perspective as a contemporary indigenous person and as a mixed-race person," she says. "I'm also interested in the way that we look at the rules of war."
After Spokane Arts approached Feddersen about creating a chalk mural in downtown Spokane, she turned to her husband, a historian, who told her about the horse slaughter as a possible topic for the installation. Growing up in Wenatchee as a self-described "mixed-race city Indian," Feddersen nevertheless had no knowledge of Wright's conquest through Eastern Washington.
"I wasn't aware of it. My father was very much aware of it, but it wasn't part of a narrative that had reached me," she says, adding that the slaughter came to be a symbol of oppression and angst among the region's native people that, in some respects, still endures.
Feddersen's other installation pieces have often been interactive, in that the public can actually contribute to the artwork. In this case, she's making seven different stencils of horses, totaling 900 in all (she split the difference of the reported totals) that the public will then have the opportunity to color with liquid chalk somewhere on the 2,000-square-foot Tribal Gathering Place. During appropriate times beginning on Saturday, Feddersen will curate the placement and also provide literature regarding the history behind the exhibit. The exhibit should get some heavy traffic, considering it's taking place alongside Bazaar the first weekend and Hoopfest the second weekend.
"I wanted to find a way to give back to the community, and provide an art experience that was at no cost, that had some content that people could chew on," says Laura Becker, the executive director of Spokane Arts. "I kind of want to just plant the seed and start thinking about how to be engaged in arts to Spokane."
Given that it's done in chalk, the mural isn't permanent — with no rain it will last a few weeks, but a torrential downpour would pretty much wash it out — but Becker has plans to document the exhibit, including a time-lapse video to be created by local photographer Dean Davis, as well as Feddersen's own social media postings.
She hopes that, in the end, this piece of history will be told a little differently than it is on that monument outside of town.
"Making the horses by myself wouldn't have the content from the community or the same energy," says Feddersen. "When you work on a subject, it's a meditation, and I want to invite people to think about [the horse slaughter] and engage on a personal level." ♦
900 Horses • June 20-28: Fri-Sun, 10 am-4 pm; Mon-Thu, noon-4 pm • Tribal Gathering Place (next to Spokane City Hall) • 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • ryanfeddersen.com