k’úusey’ne sapoˀsaapóˀs (Woman's Saddle) Nez Perce

The earliest documented Nez Perce saddle from the Wetxuuwíitin’ Collection.

In 1836, Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza joined Marcus and Narcissa Whitman on a mission to the Oregon Country. In 1846, Spalding acquired Nez Perce clothing, artifacts, and horse gear which he shipped to his friend and supporter, Dr. Dudley Allen, in Ohio. Dr. Allen wrote to Henry Spalding on March 27, 1848 that the box containing this saddle was badly damaged.In exchange for these Native American goods, Dr. Allen, a benefactor to the Presbyterian mission sent needed commodities to Spalding. After Allen's death, his son, Dudley, donated the Spalding-Allen Collection to Oberlin College in 1893. Oberlin College in turn loaned most, but not all, of the collection to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) for safe keeping where it languished for decades.

In 1976, curators at Nez Perce National Historic Park (NEPE) rediscovered the collection. After negotiations, OHS loaned most of the Spalding-Allen artifacts to the National Park Service in 1980 on renewable one year loans. However, in 1993 OHS abruptly demanded the return of the collection. In negotiations with OHS, the National Park Service learned that OHS would sell the collection, but only at its full appraised value of $608,100 with a six month deadline to provide the money. The Nez Perce Tribe raised the money within six months with help from thousands of donors and purchased the collection where it is now on loan to NPS.


A decorated Nez Perce woman's saddle made circa 1830-1845 with cotton wood frame and painted geometric designs on the fenders from the Spalding-Allen Collection. Bison hide tie laces secure the rawhide inner pieces forming the pommel.

L 60 x W 32 CM back; 27 width front; 38.5 height fenders 76 x 43 CM (approximately).

Cultural Narrative: 

Nakia Williamson-Cloud describes the labor involved in making this saddle:


"Saddle making is primarily a man’s sort of endeavor. But that was somewhat different for our tribe, at least in this situation, because this was a type of saddle that was utilized by women and girls. And from my understanding, these saddles were made by the women. There were certain women that obviously excelled at this, making these sorts of items. But I think it was a fairly widespread kind of necessity at that time. You know, everything that our people utilized was pretty much made by the people themselves. And I don't know if there were necessarily specialists, like there were in other communities where certain people specialized in being blacksmiths or specialized, you know. I think there were people that were probably excelled. But that all people had a lot of this type of knowledge to take care of their own lives. 

And so a lot of the women, I think, obviously the hide, the fenders, and I’m not sure about the rawhide, I don't know, but I know a lot of the rawhide that’s part of the fenders and part of the rigging is made out of buffalo hide. Which, for the most part, would have been hunted by men, obviously, more than likely in what is now Montana/Wyoming plains. There were buffalo on the west side of the mountains. And our oral histories do talk about buffalo being on this side of the mountains. And then even as early as probably the 1700s they were hunting them on the Snake River Plain and some of those areas. You know, so the hide would have been hunted by the men.

But a lot of the hide work and things of that nature was done primarily by the women, simply because they were the experts at that. And they would have more likely harvested the cottonwood utilized for their frame, you know, here locally or wherever they might have been when they were putting together this item. And it’s sewn together with solid pieces. It’s similar to the way western saddle making is, where the pieces are sewn together around a frame. But I think the difference is they use sinew to sew all the rawhide on. Then it was formed. Then it slowly, basically, dried and shrank and made that combination of the cottonwood and the rawhide made it a very sturdy sort of structure to, basis for the rawhide.

And the fenders were painted with various types of, I think most of them were earth pigments. I’m not sure what the analysis was. But a lot of them are consistent with what would have been found locally or within the areas where they could trade various types of colored pigments." 

Kevin Peters on how this is a Cadillac of saddles:


"This is a Cadillac. And I’ve always kind of found that funny is that some of the elder women like to have a big car. And my aunty had her big car. And they would go berry pick, her and her friend, and you’d see all their bags in the back. And off they would go. And it was one of the things where she told me one day about being stuck up on a hill. And as they rounded the corner, it was a hairpin corner, a landslide came down. Covered the road on the top of the corner and the bottom, and they were trapped in between. And then she told me, “This is the reason why we have road food when you take a trip.” She said, “We were stuck there for six hours. We had everything we needed. We had food, water and toilet paper. And we had two big seats we could rest on.” 

And it was like, okay, I kind of see a reason for having a big car. You know, this was their horse at the time. That was probably back in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, that happened. But it was kind of interesting to see that because the woman controlled the household goods and it was her ability to move everything, that they would do it in style. It wasn’t just, “Okay, let’s hop on the horse and go.” No, we’re going to do it and look good doing it. That way, you all get together and you say, this is who we are. Even we’re moving, you’re making a statement. And that’s what I found out about these was that there are other pieces, like the fenders. And this being one of the only fendered Native American saddles in America. But the fenders are a construction of rawhide and painted, and probably had beadwork around the edges from all the little holes I can see on it, or maybe had a wrapping of cloth around the edge of it. 

Around the world in other museums, I don't know, there are five or six other pieces that are fenders that look like these. I mean, just about identical. So somebody was making a statement at some point in time, in a group, that said this is who we are. And I find them beautiful. I mean, it’s just an amazing saddle. I’m amazed we still have it. But it’s just quite beautiful. It’s a piece of artwork. It’s a very three-dimensional piece of work that just looks, you know, that would look good hanging just being by itself, it’s beautiful. Doesn’t even need a horse underneath it."


Traditional Knowledge: 

Nakia Williamson-Cloud on what makes this a woman's saddle:


"[The] high pommels, those are women’s type saddles. And then the stirrups, which aren’t shown here, you know, are the really wide kind of stirrups. The men’s mostly, if they did ride a saddle, it was usually a smaller framed saddle, without the high pommels. Or one of those pad saddles. Or oftentimes they just rode bareback. But for traveling, I think they utilized more of some sort of, I think they call them prairie chicken saddles, those smaller framed saddles. But again, they don’t have the high saddle horns on them, such as on this one, that’s definitely a woman’s saddle, or a girl’s saddle." 

"One of the stirrups has little tiny triangles in it cut out of the rawhide, which is wrapped around the cottonwood. But there's a little piece of wool cloth around that, so there is a little construction that is beyond just having to wrap with rawhide and sew it up. They took a little piece of material, put it behind the rawhide in between the wood, sandwiched in there, and it becomes a design element. Then as you see after 60 years, the design element is now a big triangle and it's on both stirrups. And you've got like fenders hanging down off the stirrups. It's like, you know, this is a Cadillac.

This being one of the only fendered Native American saddles in America. But the fenders are a construction of rawhide and painted, and probably had beadwork around the edges from all the little holes I can see on it, or maybe had a wrapping of cloth around the edge of it.

Around the world in other museums, I don't know, there are five or six other pieces that are fenders that look like these. I mean, just about identical. So somebody was making a statement at some point in time, in a group, that said this is who we are. And I find them beautiful. I mean, it's just an amazing saddle. I'm amazed we still have it. But it's just quite beautiful. It's a piece of artwork. It's a very three-dimensional piece of work that just looks, you know, that would look good hanging just being by itself, it's beautiful. Doesn't even need a horse underneath it." Kevin Peters


Nakia Williamson-Cloud on the continuity of the Nez Perce people and their relationship with the land:


"We can see that there’s a certain amount of continuity between the people that were living at that time. These collections probably butt up against the time of when Lewis and Clark had came through here. Some of these collections go back to probably approaching that time. We don’t really know. But so the very early collections, and you can see the continuity throughout the years of similar types of items being made and used by Nez Perce people. And I think they’re really, you know, it’s really, I think it was a great thing for the Nez Perce people. And working with Nez Perce National Historical Park and other partners to bring together, to ensure that these remain in their, you know, even though they’re in a curated facility, they’re still in the environment which they came from. You know, the cottonwood used for the saddle frame, the rawhide, you know, everything that was used to make those items is mirrored in the landscape that we live and that they exist. And that’s important because like what our own laws say about who we are is that it’s the earth and this land that defines us. Not that we, and the non-Indian view is that, you know, is almost sometimes the complete opposite. You change everything to suit your needs. Whereas us, we, our law was this land. Our land was what we now call resources. And interacting with the land and what we now understand as resources, of course our people didn’t think about it in those terms, is how we basically, it’s what informed Nez Perce identity. And so when you look at these items, you know, it just, it’s reflective of this landscape. It’s just like similar, and it’s appropriate and it fits in our way of understanding our place in this larger landscape that our people lived. 

I mean, it’s the same way in which you see that when you pick berries, you have [tuxkaty?], those imbricated cedar root baskets that we use when we pick huckleberries. Why not use just the plastic Tupperware or whatever? But you know, there’s a spiritual aspect to a lot of these things, obviously. But then you know, just in terms of the materials you think about. And I’ve heard others talk about, like in case of those. So you’ve got cedar root and you’ve got bear grass that are used to construct those materials. And those are the same sort of materials that when you go pick huckleberries, they’re in the same area. And so they go together. They’re with one another. And what lot of people, our people know, is when you put them in those baskets, that they stay fresher a lot longer. So there’s a pragmatic aspect. They stay fresher a lot longer because they’re from the same place. They’re from the same even elevation, a lot of these items. And so it allows, our people understood that that was important. Even just in terms of preservation of foods to utilize things that came from the same elevation and you know, kind of area as the resource that you’re trying to store. So our people, I think, understand the connection to the land in a very, very deep level in that way. And it was even reflected in a lot of these ethnographic items as we now understand them. Now. And then obviously there’s a spiritual aspect, component to that as well."

Nakia Williamson-Cloud on the connection between the items in the Wetxuuwíitin’ Collection, the elders, and the land:


"We have to maintain connections to these things that tie us back to this land. And these things truly do that. And not only to the land, but to our experiences and our history that reinforces our identity. And so I think that I try to retain not only these items that were handed down from generation to generation and up unto myself, but also try to have understanding about how these things are made, how they’re put together and what that means to us as Nez Perce people. I try to have that kind of understanding as well. Not simply that I have the item and if I were to lose the item, then that’s it. I’m trying to retain the knowledge about a lot of these things as well. So again, that’s important.

I want my son and I want my nieces and nephews and someday grandchildren to understand what these mean to us. And that they have a deep meaning to us because of what they represent. And to respect them and not to trivialize them in any way. 

As we’re told in our way of life, we’re taking care of our life as Indian people. And that’s how we do it is in a lot of these ways that connect us back to the land. That’s the way we take care of ourselves. And it’s a continual maintenance that we have to do. And it’s the work we have to put forth and the effort we have to put forth. And never forget it. And always hold onto it. And we have to keep that knowledge that ties us to this land. And that’s so important. Without that, like I said, you know, everything does not really matter as much.

Because these are, all the things that we have within our culture are just basically devices and ways in which we connect ourselves to our elders and to our land. And they’re reminders, constant reminders to us of our true value system and identity as Nez Perce people. And so when you surround yourself with these things and it continues to reinforces and reminds you on a day to day basis, you know, who you are and what you represent. And that’s really important. So that’s what a lot of these do for us is they remind us of the old people.

So they used to say this about how to be. Or they would say this of how to hunt. Or they would say this was the proper time to dig roots. It just allows you a way into, to tap in and to remember that knowledge. 
And it’s knowledge that can never really truly be written down and encapsulated in a book or in any written form. And that’s what our old people talked about. It’s something you have to live and it has to be inside your heart. Because you can write it down, and write things down. And that’s good in a way. But unless you live it and believe it and do it, and it’s a part of you, when you write something down, it automatically limits it. Because it’s only limited to what’s on the written page. And there’s so much more to a lot of these things that our people understood. And so that’s a part of it. These are part of the ways in which we access that knowledge and access that type of understanding. And they’re reminders to us about the value system of our elders and everything else that are important to maintaining our identity."

Location Description: 

Saddle located at the Nez Perce National Historical Park.