Nez Perce Woman's Saddle

The earliest documented Nez Perce saddle from the Spalding-Allen Collection.

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: 

In 1836, Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza joined Marcus and Narcissa Whitman on a mission to bring Christianity to the Indians of 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.

Traditional Knowledge: 



Williamsonsaddleclip.mp3, by william.clements

Nakia Williamson discussing the construction of the 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

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 [in the Spalding-Allen Collection], 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. Nakia Williamson


Location Description: 

Saddle located at the Nez Perce National Historical Park.