steptoe battlefield spokane indian wars 1858 nona hengen historical painting

Native American & Pioneer History: The Paintings of Nona Hengen

steptoe battlefield spokane indian native american wars 1858 nona hengen historical painting

Steptoe Battlefield, depicting the war between the U.S. Government and the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Palouse Native American tribes, by Nona Hengen

It’s easy to forget that, for most of history, there were no cameras.

So when we see a movie of an historical event, or an illustration, or a painting, we rely upon the artist’s interpretation of what they thought happened, hopefully based upon scholarly historical research.

steptoe government indian native american wars historical painting nona hengen

Steptoe Meets the Coeur d’Alene, historical painting of the U.S. Government and Native American conflict, by Nona Hengene

“There are no photographs, no ‘cast of thousands’ to help establish placement, maneuvering, long shots, medium shots or close-ups for cameras,” says artist and historian Nona Hengen, who has spent 30 years researching, and painting, the “Indian Wars” of the Inland Northwest. One of Hengen’s focus has been the Steptoe Battles of 1858, in which government troops led by Colonel Edward Steptoe were routed and defeated by the Spokane, Couer d’Alene and Palouse tribes.

On the eve of the Civil War, this battle, also known as The Battle of Pine Creek, set into motion events that led eventually to the extermination of the Native Americans’ traditional way of life. And because this happened in the region where Hengen presently lives, she has studied it, spoken on it, and painted it extensively. It’s what she does: she brings history to visual life, whether that history is the war between the Native Americans and the U.S. government, the life of the pioneers and immigrants in the region, or even carousel horses.

History and the Present

horse buggy nostalgic history vintage painting nona hengen

Don’t Sell the Horses Yet, Bob! Vintage nostalgia, capturing early 20th century pioneer life, by Nona Hengen

“The subject matter of her realistic canvases are the houses, the barns, the tractors, the horses, hills, and fields of the Palouse country,” wrote Dr. W. Robert Lawyer, director of libraries at Western Washington University, in an introduction to a showing of Hengen’s works in Bellingham.

“Her deep attachment to the land and to country  life, coupled with her fine powers of observation, find expression in genuine recreations infused with the life, the strength, the vigor, the loneliness, and the vastness of life in the country.”

Hengen, who at 10 years old wrote to her uncle that she planned to be an artist, took the long way round, earning her PhD in education and history, then teaching at universities, because there were no art schools in the area. When her mother became ill, she returned to the 1904 family homestead in Spangle, later settling in permanently and picking up the dream she had set aside 23 years before.

carousel odyssey vintage nostalgia horses nona hengen poster

Carousel Odyssey, an exploration of a different kind of history, by Nona Hengen

She began writing and illustrating for numerous magazines — Cats and Kittens, Dog and Kennel, Bird Times, Wheat Life — and authored 16 books on life in the Palouse region. Her artwork appeared on cards from Leanin’ Tree, as puzzles from Sunsout, and on the front page of the 1998 Voters Pamphlet. National Geographic has contacted her, seeking permission to include paintings from her historical series in two recent publications.

Preserving the Barn, and History

In 2014, Hengen applied for, and received, a grant to restore the homestead’s historic barn, which now houses a generous selection of her many, many paintings. By appointment, she shepherds interested groups through the gallery, explaining the rich and diverse history of the area, seeking to show the people of today their connection to the people of the past, whether those people were the pioneers, or the people who were here long, long before that.

To bring this life to visual life, Hengen pores over historical accounts: diaries, memoirs, letters, sketches by eyewitnesses, and then adds a dose of artistry to the research. For one of her historical works, Horse Slaughter Camp, depicting the U.S. Army’s shooting of more than 800 Indian horses in 1858, Hengen relied heavily upon the cooperation of her Quarter Horse, Sam.

“I spent numerous leisure moments on hot days observing my horse cooling himself off in a dust wallow he had made for himself in the farmyard,” Hengen explains.

horse slaughter camp history government indian native american wars nona hengen

Horse Slaughter Camp, a depiction of the U.S. Army’s shooting of 800 Native American horses by Nona Hengen. Hengen’s quarter horse, Sam, served as the principal model for this artwork.

“I would nudge him and coax him to pull himself up on his front legs, giving me opportunity, sketchbook in hand, to observe the ‘getting up’ maneuver.

“At other times, he seemed to say, ‘Really? And just what is the purpose of this unwarranted pestering and intrusion into my naptime?'” Eventually, many photos and sketches later, Hengen had the material she needed to work out a composition.

Native American and Pioneer Life

It’s a combination of history, research, reading, sketching, writing, artistry, and imagination, and the result is a body of work that invites the past into the present, encouraging people of modern day to notice not only the differences between the eras, nor the similarities as well, but the pain and the joy, the injustice and the adventure.

Such is human history: family, hard work, leisure time, hopes, dreams, disappointments, the day to day activities that comprise a lifetime, violence, peace — it can all be found in the Palouse region.

“These are the sorts of subjects that revive family memories and look back at the experiences of pioneering in the Palouse — in short, the tie to the land, and the shared bonds of a life lived in earlier times.”

Wenaha Gallery

Nona Hengen is the featured Art Event  at Wenaha Gallery from Monday, January 29, 2018, through Saturday, Saturday, March 3, 2018.  She will speaking at the gallery Saturday, March 3 at 1:30 and 3, discussing the U.S. Government/Native American conflicts of the Inland Northwest. Joining her that day will be watercolorist Roy Anderson of Walla Walla and glass artist Gregory Jones of Pasco.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at




Men Die, But History Lives — The Books of Kevin Carson

The Pacific Northwest 91st Division during World War I, photo courtesy of Kevin Carson

The Pacific Northwest 91st Division during World War I, photo courtesy of Kevin Carson

It’s been called The Great War and The War to End All Wars.

Those accustomed to learning history from Hollywood movies might guess the event to be World War II, but that one is known as The Good War. Our war in question is World War I, which could understandably be called The Forgotten War if the appellation weren’t already taken by the Korean War (brought out of obscurity by the T.V. show, M*A*S*H).

The Dayton Congregational Church's World War I Service Banner honors men of the area who fought in the war. Carson's great uncle, Fred Bauer, is represented in the gold star

The Dayton Congregational Church’s World War I Service Banner honors men of the area who fought in the war.

But all wars are memorable to the people who fought in them, as well as to the survivors of those who died, military or civilians. For Kevin Carson, a former Dayton resident who researches Pacific Northwest history, World War I hits close to home.

“I have always been interested in World War I,” Carson says. “As a young person, I saw it through the eyes of my grandfather, Art Carson, who had lost his brother (Fred Carson) in the Meuse Argonne campaign.

“It was still as painful for him as it was on the day that Fred died.”

Fred’s name and memory are memorialized on a World War I Service Banner, found stuffed in the attic of the Dayton Congregational Church, and later framed for display and presentation. In all, 42 names are listed, representing those associated with just that church who were sent overseas. Many others from Dayton served as well, members of the 91st, or Wild West Division, encompassing soldiers from Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming.

It is this group men upon which Carson focuses in his upcoming book, The Wild West Boys, from which he will be reading excerpts during an appearance at Wenaha Gallery over Dayton’s Alumni Weekend, July 16. At the forefront of hard fighting in France and Belgium, the 91st Division was part of the Meuse Argonne Offensive, one of the largest campaigns in military history and instrumental to bringing the war to its end. The Offensive involved 1.2 million U.S. soldiers, of which more than 26,000 died and 95,000 were wounded.

Marching to the front, World War I.

Marching to the front, World War I.

Thirteen Dayton men, Carson reports, received French memorial decorations for their part of the Offensive. All 13 men, including Carson’s great uncle, died in combat.

“I think this group of men needs to be recognized for what they did during their big push in the Meuse Argonne and then their brave dash through Flanders to liberate Belgium and flank the German Army,” Carson says.

“The mystique of these men spoke to me. I thought that perhaps I could write a historical fiction piece that has a western feel at its core, and highlights what these tough and brave soldier did.

“It seems their history is little known. I mean to change that.”

Two Scrapers from the Palouse Indians, a people who lived in the area long, long before The Great War, The Good War, or the Forgotten War. From the private collection of Kevin Carson

Two Scrapers from the Palouse Indians, a people who lived in the area long, long before The Great War, The Good War, or the Forgotten War. From the private collection of Kevin Carson

Highlighting history, and rescuing from obscurity information that remains pertinent today, is a passion with Carson, whose earlier book, History Book Club selection The Long Journey of the Nez Perce, features hand-drawn maps by the author to illustrate battles that many in the area have no idea of happening. With scrupulous attention to research and a painstaking sense of fairness, Carson looks at the “last of the Indian wars” from both sides, telling the story, according to Washington State Magazine, “with immediacy and fascinating analysis.”

The Wild West Boys, Carson explains, is also the result of extensive research and analysis, set in a fictional, yet realistic setting. Composites of actual soldiers that Carson has researched, the characters are drawn from real men with very real lives — such as the George Young cattle rustling gang that menaced Southeast Washington in the late 19th century, and the understaffed lawmen who doggedly pursued them. It was a genuine Western tale, long before John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.

In addition to reading from his book, Carson brings historical and area-based artifacts from his private collection, including World War I photographs, letters and flag, as well as Palouse Indian arrowheads, hide scrapers, a handwoven basket dating from the 1880s, and a frog effigy and paint pot from Celilo. They are all part of the history that makes up our lives today, and which he seeks to keep alive through his books.

“The themes that are interwoven through my stories have a lot to do with the importance of family, and the role of older men in helping shape young men,” Carson says. His work records the timeless story of sacrifice, love, and the limits of courage, because these are subjects that should never be forgotten.

Or, as one of his principal characters  of The Wild West Boys writes,

“I do not believe that the stories of our  lives should die with us.”

Wenaha GalleryKevin Carson is the featured Pacific Northwest Art Event artist from Tuesday, July 5 through Saturday, August 6. Carson, a 1976 Dayton High School grad, will be signing books at the gallery Saturday, July 16, from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. during Dayton’s Alumni Weekend. He will be reading from his new book, The Wild West Boys, at 1 p.m. Photos from World War I will be on display, the sale of which will benefit the Blue Mountain Historical Society of Dayton.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at

Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists.   Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.

This article was written by Carolyn Henderson.