The 10th Annual Sapatq’ayn Cinema Native American Film Festival will take place beginning tonight at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre in Moscow.Fifteen years ago a headline in the New York Times caught the eye of filmmaker Janet Kern – “Tribe Famous for Horses Sees Future in Them.”
The article was about the Nez Perce and their efforts to create a new breed of horse, the Nez Perce horse, a cross between an Appaloosa and a rare Central Asian breed called Akhal-teke. The tribe was long known for its skill and breeding of horses. The quality of their mounts was noted in the journal of Meriwether Lewis.
Kern, a middle-aged New Yorker who has ridden horses most of her life, immediately made plans to travel west with her camera.
“I thought this was a story I would feel deeply about and have some visceral understanding about because I know what it feels like to value being in the company of horses,” said Kern, who will present a rough cut of “Horse Tribe” at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Sapatq’ayn Cinema, the University of Idaho’s 10th annual Native American Film Festival at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre in Moscow. A panel discussion will follow.
After receiving permission from the tribal council to make the film Kern followed the story for years staying with it as its trajectory changed in unexpected ways.
“The story that evolved, instead of being a straight-forward and almost predictable story of a goal and the process to achieve it, it became a way more complex story of human nature, fragility and resilience, all those things which contain both elements of pain and love. I think it resulted in a story of greater significance as all of us, whatever community we live in, struggle with what’s the right thing in this situation.”
It was an exciting time when Kern began filming. The breeding program was in full-swing with four Akhal-teke as the program’s foundation. There are only about 3,000 Akhal-teke in the world. They are thought to be similar to the horses the Spanish introduced to North America. Breeding them with the Appaloosa, the spotted horse long associated with the Nez Perce, the goal was to create a horse like those preferred by the Nez Perce in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through a Young Horseman Program teenagers acquired skills working with the registry.
Kern was given permission to film at some tribal ceremonies where the horses were used.
“The horses were brought to those ceremonies to participate in full regalia and tremendous solemnity,” she said. “It was always very meaningful for me to be there personally as well.”
The story took a turn about eight years ago when the program’s director was dismissed by the tribe.
“Continuing to operate within the same scope became increasingly challenging,” Kern said of the program.
A decision was later made to sell some of the horses at a public auction.
“I filmed that auction. Some people thought that was a sensible strategic decision … but it was a difficult decision and other members of the tribal community were pained by this choice.”
The horse registry program continues on a more limited scale than when she began filming, she said, but her film is about more than that – it speaks to the power of community and the connection human beings have with other forms of life.
“I think that the tribe’s vision for having their horse culture be a vivid presence in the community was extraordinarily creative and courageous and I do hope that eventually as more audiences see this film that the public interest will perhaps help the horse registry to continue.”
Funding for the project has come from several sources, including a grant from Native American Public Telecommunications.
“Horse Tribe” is one of three films Kern has made that represent a quest on her part to better understand the American nation. Other projects include “On My Honor,” a film about an Eagle Scout who chose prison over military service, and “Begin with Me,” which followed a Soviet citizen delegation down the Mississippi in search of the real America.
The film she will show Saturday still is a work in progress. She hopes to complete “Horse Tribe” later this spring and would like to hold an official premiere at the Nez Perce Historical Museum at Spalding.
“I’ve done my level best to tell the story honestly and with respect and I hope the film is of value,” she said.
Jennifer K. Bauer can be reached at (208) 848-2263, or by email at email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
- WHAT: Sapatq’ayn Cinema Native American Film Festival
- WHEN: 7 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday
- WHERE: Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, Moscow
- COST: Free