Breeders of the NEZ PERCE HORSE
The story of a tribe and its horses told ...; Through a camera lens
By Joan Abrams (Lewiston Tribune) -10/98

Rippling muscle. Sleek black contrasting with tawny gold. Glances. Prances. It's breeding time at the Nez Perce Tribe's Young Horseman Project south of Lapwai and filmmaker Janet Kern is there to capture close-up the courtship of an Appaloosa with an Akhal-Teke. This is the opening montage for a chapter of Kern's documentary, "Sik'em," about the Nez Perces' effort to create a striking new breed while also resurrecting its renowned reputation for horsemanship. Sik'em is the Nez Perce word for horse. The new breed is called the Nimipu Sik'em (the Nez Perce Horse). "I feel a tremendous responsibility to tell this story accurately, thoroughly and beautifully," Kern says during a visit to the reservation this week. "There's the drama of starting a business and the story of young people and horses is compelling in any instance. But then add the proud tradition of the Nez Perce. ... It's a
hell of a story." The New York City filmmaker was in town on her way to a sacred horse ceremony at the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana. Kern says was hooked on the idea for the documentary 1 1/2 years ago by an article in The New York Times headlined "Tribe Famous for Horses Sees Future in Them." The news story described the horse-breeding enterprise and two related projects: The Young Horseman Program that aims to instill horse tradition in Nez Perce teen-agers and The Mounted Scholars, a horse-centered tutoring program for fifth- and sixth-graders sponsored by the Chief Joseph Foundation. "By the time I finished the article I had envisioned the film," she says. "The horses, the history and the landscape provide vehicle and venue for the exploration of topics significant to us all: the relationship of humans to the environment, of human to animal, ethics to profit, despair to action, of past to present, and the role of cultural traditions in th
e evolution of character," Kern writes in her proposal for the 90-minute film. She contacted the tribe to find out if it would be interested in a documentary and Idaho Public Television to discover if anyone already had the idea. Encouraged by the responses, Kern applied for and received a $15,000 grant from the Idaho Humanities Council to start the project. For her team, she recruited Academy Award-winning editor Lawrence Silk and Oscar and Emmy-winning cinematographer Tom Hurwitz. It will take 15 months to complete filming, which will follow the horse breeding program and the young participants over the course of four seasons. "The children are the heart and soul of the film," she says. How they are affected by participation in the horse programs is the "dramatic core" of the story. In addition to the kids, key players in the film will be Rudy Shebala, director of the Young Horseman Program, and tribal elders such as Horace Axtell and Katherine Ram
sey. The footage will include ceremonies, interviews, archival photos and film, as well as day-to-day coverage of the programs. One segment will include a meeting between tribal members and Monty Roberts, author of "The Man Who Listens to Horses." Kern says the highly stylized and seasonal opening montages will contrast with cinema verite-style documentary. Some of the camera work will be done by the young participants themselves. She says she's using film for the project, not videotape, because the subject matter deserves the highest quality. Film almost doubles the cost of the project, estimated at $750,000. Kern sometimes is overwhelmed by the complexity of the story with all its historical, cultural, sociological, economic and political aspects. "It is a complex one," she acknowledges, "but you start with the horses and come to understand the rest of the story." She's learning as she goes, she adds. What she brought with her to th
e project, Kern says, was her "gut level" understanding of horses. Her own Appaloosa, Gorgeous Georgie O'Keefe, died in her arms earlier this year at age 27. She had owned the horse since i t was a "green-broke colt." This will be Kern's third feature film. Her last was "Begin With Me," a one-hour documentary narrated by Garrison Keillor, about a group of Soviets traveling down the Mississippi River. It was broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System in 1991-92. She took a break from making films to raise her daughter, who's now in college. To pay the bills, she works as a script supervisor on TV commercials for clients ranging from Pepsi-Cola to Proctor & Gamble. It took her five years to complete "Begin With Me" and Kern says she was only willing to tackle another project that "I would love enough to go through what you have to go through." When "Sik'em" is finished, she will enter it in several film festivals, including Sundance and Toronto. She anticipates it will be shown on PBS. "What the tribe expects and I expect is an extraordinary film," she says. Shebala says some were skeptical at first of this "city girl calling from New York." But the tribe decided to take a chance on Kern and Shebala believes it was a good decision. "We want people to know our story, as long as it's told thoroughly and honestly, with the art it deserves, and we believe that's what she'll do." Kern is grateful for the opportunity. "I already feel blessed beyond words to be doing this. ... The inexplicably generous instincts of a people who have experienced incomprehensible loss is a profound lesson to me. I am honored to be among the Nez Perce


National Museum of the American Indian

 NMAI homepage

 A Song for the Horse Nation Exhibition
November 14, 2009–July 7, 2011
George Gustav Heye Center, New York

A Song for the Horse Nation presents the epic story of the horse's influence on American Indian tribes from the 1600s to the present.
AA Song for the Horse Nation

Photos - Articles - Rules & Regulations - About Nez Perce - Contact Us - Return Home