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Horse Nation: The Bond Between the Horse and Native Americans
By: Susan Larson On November 10, 2013

"When we walk together in the tall grasses, I feel her as if I am walking with mystery, with beauty and fierce powers …" 




From 'Affinity: Mustang' by Linda Hogan, Chickasaw




The horse holds a special place in Native American culture.










Central Plains (possibly Oto or Kaw) beaded leggings (ca. 1900) from Oklahoma.  Made with seed beads, metal spots, pigment, hide and cotton thread. 


American Indians regard all animals as fellow creatures sharing a common destiny.  The horse is even more highly honored.



Detail of a Cheyenne River Lakota shield cover (ca. 1880s) from South Dakota.  Pigment on rawhide. 


"The intimate bond between human and animal is nowhere so evident or powerful as in the case of the horse," W. Richard West, founding director of the National Museum of the America Indian, wrote in his forward to "A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures."  "The horse is a respected comrade, loved and admired for its bravery and grace.  Among the Indians of the Great Plains, especially, horses were integral to life and culture." 



Kiowa horse mask (2010) form Oklahoma. Made by Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa, b. 1952). Courtesy of Randall and Teresa Willis.


In 2006, the National Museum of the American Indian presented an exhibit honoring the bond between Native Americans and the horse.  A Song for the Horse Nation featured the history, cultural impact, relationship and artistry of horse and American Indian.  I went twice, so moved by its information and beauty. 



Bridles. Red fringe is a Lakota bridle (ca. 1895) from South Dakota or North Dakota. Floral pattern on white background is a Cree bridle (ca. 1900) from Canada. Silver headstall is Dine (Navajo) by John Silver (ca. 1970) from New Mexico (the 'e' in Dine is accented).  Most often Native Americans simply inserted rope into the horse's mouth in the gap between the teeth, then looped and tied the rope around the horse's head and formed a single rein.


Researchers believe horses became extinct in the Western Hemisphere after herds migrated across the land bridge that once existed between what is now Alaska and Siberia.

Columbus is credited with returning the horse to the Americas when, on his second voyage in 1493, he brought with him 25 horses of Andalusian decent.



Lakota tipi (ca. 1890–1910) from South Dakota. Muslin, paint.


Indians began to acquire horses from Spanish herds descend from these Andalusians.  Then during the 1680 Pueblo Uprising in Santa Fe, N.M., Native Americans acquired what is believed to be their largest one-time herd.  

Under Pope, a Tewa religious leader, the Pueblo Indians rose against Spanish domination.  The Spaniards fled, leaving behind their animals, including more than 1,500 horses.  

From Santa Fe, the horse population quickly expanded along established Native American tribal trading networks.  Strays from colonial ranches and settlements formed wild herds.  The natives caught these, tamed them and added them to their existing bloodlines.  



Lakota buffalo horse mask (ca.1860) from South Dakota or North Dakota.  Made with eagle and grouse feathers, pigment, buffalo horn, buffalo hide, rawhide and cotton thread 


Some tribes called the animals Horse Nation, as expressed in this Teton Sioux song by Lone Man:

'out of the earth
I sing for them
A Horse nation
I sing for them'


The return of horses to the Americas by Christopher Columbus changed everything for Indians -- from the way they travelled, hunted and waged war to how they celebrated generosity, exhibited bravery and conducted ceremonies," the museum said in the exhibition.


The Nez Perce especially became known as excellent horsemen and breeders.  They created large herds known for their strength, intelligence and beauty.  Meriwether Lewis wrote of the Nez Perce horses in a Feb. 15, 1806 diary entry:


"Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are lofty, eligantly [sic] formed, active and durable…some of these horses are pided with large spots of white irregularly scattered and intermixed with black, brown, bey [sic] or some other dark color."


The greatness of the Horse Nation was short-lived, however.  By the 1870s, westward expansion, slaughter of the Buffalo herds, and the U.S. Government's forced marches of Native Americans onto reservations brought disintegration to the prominence of the horse in Indian culture.  


Over the decades since, tribes have worked to maintain their identities.  When the U.S. Government forbade the practice of ceremonial life, Native Americans overcame the ban by incorporating traditional practices into U.S. holidays, like the Fourth of July.  As many tribes still considered horses a fundamental part of their culture, they used their ornaments as parade regalia.  


Native Americans continue to honor their important personal and cultural relationship with the horse.

The Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Young Horseman's Program, for example, is preserving the Appaloosa breed made famous by their ancestors.


The Lakota tribe host an annual two-week, 300 mile horseback trek in South Dakota called Oomaka Tokatakiya, Future Generations Ride.  "While it still pays homage to Big Foot and his followers, today’s ride is meant to foster leadership qualities in youth," the webpage says.


The annual Crow Fair Celebration on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana features more than 2,000 horses and riders.  Tribe members perform the tradition of "giveaways" -- honoring friends and relatives by giving them a horse.


"For some Native peoples, the horse is still an essential part of daily life," Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota), curator of the exhibition, said.  "For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history.  The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories and our works of art."


A Warrior, To His Horse

'My horse be swift in flight
Even like a bird;
My horse be swift in flight.
Bear me now in safety
Far from the enemy's arrows,
And you shall be rewarded
With streamers and ribbons red.'

~Lone Man (Sioux); translated by Frances Densmore


Author's Note:  This overview was written for Horse Collaborative to honor Native American Heritage Month 2013.  Native American Heritage Month has been recognized in the United States each year since 1990.  One of its key purposes is to provide opportunities to counter deeply held stereotypes and teach cultural respect.  Click the hyperlinks in the article to connect to the resources used and for more information.


All photos were taken by Susan Ujka Larson during the press preview of the exhibit and with permission. 


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