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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

The (Re)introduction of the Horse

The story of the horse in North America is a curious one, not least because palaeontologists and zoologists have spent so much effort on tracing the evolution and development of the horse and all its cousins. (Why the horse has been subject to such special effort is another question.) The horse evolved initially in North America, and palaeontologists believe that they migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge into Siberia over several million years. Around 2 million years ago horses were at their most successful. They were living on all continents except Australia and Antarctica, 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. In the American case Inidgenous peoples were long considered the main cause of the extinction of all larger animals during the Pleistocene, but more recently it has become clear that the destruction of so many species can't be pinned to one cause alone.

A number of First Nations have ancient stories 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 often been unsuccessful. 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 a real memory.

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 were 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 people failed to realize the horse could be a mixed blessing.

The Dakota tell an important story that deals briefly with the horse. The story is an especially old one, describing the arrangement of the world. 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 elaborate their material culture beyond the wildest dreams of many of their ancestors. Now it was possible to make great tipis, and to have more clothing and other goods. It became more practical to preserve and store 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.

Human responses to the horse also contributed to problems. The Plains Cree found that the Atsina, who live in what is now called North Dakota, demanded large amounts of goods in exchange for horses. Frustrated and often unable or unwilling to pay such a price, 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. 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. The result was over thirty years of war. During that time there was one short lived peace, memorialized in the name of the Peace River.

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 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. In fact even today horse-drawn carriages are used for transportation in the more rugged areas of British Columbia by First Nation communities.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:42:02 MDT