Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The (Re)introduction of the Horse
Vintage Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, 1995
There are many curious stories of the horse in the americas, not least because palaeontologists and zoologists have spent so much effort on tracing the evolution and development of the horse and all its cousins. Horses are remarkable beings, but the general scientific focus on them has less to do with their own merits than the particular ways they have been objectified in colonizing cultures, where they have and often still do represent conspicuous consumption and military power. The horse evolved initially in north america, and palaeontologists have argued that they migrated across the supposed bering strait land bridge into siberia over several million years. According to the fossil record, around 2 million years ago horses were at their most successful. They were living on all continents except australia and antarctica, not being swimmers or especially cold adapted, and zoologists have been able to divide them into numerous species based on fossil remains. But in the late pleistocene, all but six species of horses died out in asia, africa, and europe, and all horse species in the americas became extinct. Since the pleistocene was a difficult era of intense cold and repeated glaciation, and horses have greater susceptibility to the cold, it should be no surprise that they had a difficult time.
In the american case, two ruling theories have framed the story of horses before europeans began invading. First, another version of the "bering strait land bridge" hypothesis, this one applied to Indigenous peoples, starting from a firm political basis in undermining Indigenous relationships and claims to the land. One of the earliest proponents of this hypothesis, who also connected it to the question of land rights, is Thomas Jefferson. Second, a core group of palaeontologists insisted that horses in the americas couldn't possibly have been struck down by the difficult climate and attendant changes in food and predator neighbours just of the four-footed variety. No indeed, horses didn't fall, they were pushed, along with all the other pleistocene megafauna, by Indigenous peoples, who apparently had nothing better to do than invade in fierce waves over the bering strait land bridge and kill every large animal in sight. Of course, this bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actions of european invaders when they starting pouring across the atlantic and later the pacific into the americas. None whatsoever.
Quite apart from the transparent racism in both frames, neither had the best evidence behind it. For a careful consideration of the first theory, see Elaine DeWar's 2001 book Bones: Discovering the First Americans. The references in her footnotes are well worth reading in their own right, and provide pointers to the best places to look for more recent information. The second, which is of greater concern here, is begrudgingly fading away simply because neither archaeological nor palaeontological evidence bears it out. If it was just or primarily horses that died out and no other megafauna for example, and their vanishing could be closely tied to human presence, then that would be a whole different thing. But that isn't what the evidence shows. On top of that, getting bigger is a key cold weather adaptation because it reduces the surface area available for an animal to lose heat from. Horses didn't get bigger. There is no evidence for giant horses, and they remained pony size in the majority of their species, especially in colder regions. When the temperatures finally started to go up and stay there, selection pressure turned against giant herbivores who were now too big to cope with warmer temperatures, and that meant in turn that things were going to go badly for the giant carnivores dependent on them. I think we can all agree that humans aren't giant carnivores.
Numerous First Nations have ancient oral records of their interactions with miniature horses. Like all animals in that ancient time, these mysterious horses could talk, and they taught people many things before leaving this world. Efforts to trace the origins of these stories in an effort to connect them to the spanish reintroduction of the horse to north america have been unsuccessful. There are different stories that reflect on those cases. Archaeologists, paleontologists, and folklorists aren't at all sure what to make of that, although remains of what could be called miniature horses have been found dated to the right times and in the right places to show the stories hold real memories, which is of course no surprise to Indigenous people whatsoever. Some of the most recent fossil horse finds by eurocanadians in the right time and place for example were found in a region presently referred to by settlers as southern alberta at wally's beach. There were plenty of camel bones too, but nobody seems nearly as concerned about the fact that camels evolved in the americas and went extinct here around the same time the horses did.
First Nations took to horses right away once they were brought back to the americas, not simply as draft animals, or even simply as a form of wealth, but as spiritually potent and intelligent beings who are to be honoured with the best tack and food a person could supply. On the plains only the bison stands taller, because they provided almost everything the people needed. But this didn't mean plains nations failed to realize the horse could be a mixed blessing. The Dakota in their explanation of the arrangement of the world include a consideration of the horse and how it came to become part of their societies. This particular story was recorded by anthropologists and unfortunately decontextualized, so that the appropriate recognition of the original storyteller, place, and time is missing. The telling I provide here is based on the version I learned from Doctor Barbara Wilkes during an advanced ethnography class at Mochk-kinstsis in 2006.
Inktome, one of the most important Dakota spirit people, was the one who arranged the world. When the Dakota had nothing, he set up the special relationship between the bison and the Dakota, by which the bison would provide food, tools, and clothing to them. He taught the Dakota how to hunt the bison, and how to use every part of them so that their sacrifice would not be dishonoured by waste. And for quite awhile, the Dakota lived happily, using dogs to drag their travois and following the ways Inktome had taught them. Then they noticed some of their neighbours had horses, and seeing all the ways the horses could make life easier for them, the Dakota pleaded with Inktome to bring some of the wondrous animals to them. Inktome refused, because they were already able to provide for themselves well. With the horse, they could easily take too much, which could lead to other problems. Still, Inktome did not bar the Dakota from getting horses for themselves, if they still wanted them.
With the advent of the horse, plains First Nations were able to pack and carry, for lack of a better word, more stuff. Now it was possible to make great tipis, and to have more clothing and other goods. It became more practical to preserve, store, and carry staples like pemmican and dried berries, since horses were capable of drawing larger travois than dogs. This also made it possible to have larger bison hunts more frequently. Bison hide goods and pemmican could be traded over greater distances, providing access to a broader range of goods and materials. Horse tack was elaborately decorated in honour of its wearer, as was the clothing of the horse's riders. Horses themselves became an important measure of wealth among First Nations. These trends were re-emphasized by the growing availability of european goods. It is easy to misinterpret this as an elaboration of Indigenous material cultures, as indeed I did on first researching and writing this article, but this is inaccurate. For one thing, the appearance of elaboration is created less by fact than by the impressions left by europeans in their records. In the early days, europeans often couldn't perceive the complexity and riches of Indigenous cultures, or refused to acknowledge them when they did. What they interpreted as "elaboration" was often the integration of certain types of european trade goods, and later the forced adoption of european goods as the war to destroy Indigenous economies began to succeed. Certainly Indigenous peoples created and adapted their own practices, frameworks, and tools to bring the horse into their cultures, but how much "elaboration" that actually represents turns out to be a complicated question. More stuff is just more stuff.
Human responses to the horse also contributed to problems. The Plains Cree found that the Atsina, who live today in what is currently called north dakota, demanded large amounts of goods in exchange for horses. Frustrated and often unable or unwilling to pay such prices, Plains Cree warriors took to raiding for them. This was a risky tactic, because the Atsina and Blackfoot Nations were allies, and while the Plains Cree and Blackfoot Nations were allies too, the Plains Cree were relative newcomers, still earning respect and prestige among the peoples born of the plains. Previously, the Cree generally had remained further north in a broad east-west band across the parklands with the northern plains as their southern border and the subarctic bordering them to the north. Finally the raiding situation became bad enough that the Atsina declared war on the Plains Cree, and the Blackfoot Nation chose to stand with their older allies, resulting in over thirty years of war that pulled in the Nakota, Saulteaux, and Red River Métis Nations. During that time there was one short-lived peace, memorialized in the name of the peace river, a striking marker of not only the peace, but also of how far north and east the fighting extended.
Nonetheless, First Nations took advantage of the experience in horse breeding and training they gained as they found ways to survive the onslaught of european and european descended newcomers. Even when laws were made to force the dispersal of First Nations-owned herds in an effort to break their new economies, it was far from unusual for First Nations to find ways to keep at least a few horses, even if purely for transportation purposes. Today horse-drawn carriages are still used for transportation in the more rugged areas of the rocie mountains by First Nation communities because they are more capable and fuel-efficient for the conditions than trucks or cars.