The Role of Horses in Native American Culture

Indigenous people of Indigenous America revere horses as family, spiritual partners, and sacred medicine providers. Horses play an integral part in family, sacred ceremony, and religious practice – they even feature at sanctuaries such as Alabama’s Sacred Way Sanctuary or South Dakota’s Black Hills Wild Horse Trail where caretakers work hard to save these horses from extinction.

But when and how did horses first enter Indigenous societies? New evidence hints at this being widespread by the early 1600s — decades earlier than what many historical accounts claim.

Origins

Analysis of bones and DNA of an ancient horse discovered in Utah offers new clues as to how horses were raised, ridden, and cared for long before Europeans arrived. Published this week in Science, these findings echo oral histories that suggest Indigenous communities encountered horses well before 1680’s Pueblo Revolt – an uprising against Spanish colonizers that drove them from much of what is today New Mexico.

Study authors used radiocarbon dating of horse remains from sites in New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas to demonstrate that horses had arrived on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains by early 1600s–clearly prior to Pueblo Revolt. Researchers analyzed ancient horse skeletons to search for evidence of human use; such as bony growths on one skull that would accommodate bridle attachment points or dental damage consistent with chewing hay or grass for sustenance.

Researchers concluded that horses were likely brought to America through an arrangement between European settlers and Indigenous populations, before spreading northward along Indigenous trade routes.

Uses

War-painted Plains Indians riding horseback with rifles aimed at buffalo or U.S. soldiers is an iconic image from Native American history; yet its depiction only lasts a surprisingly brief period: only about 100 years. At its height, Native American horse culture reached its pinnacle from late 1750s through to 1870s when Indian Wars ended and tribes were forced onto reservations.

Tribes used these horses differently, but generally owning one was seen as an indicator of wealth that could be traded for rifles or saddles. Furthermore, owning horses increased mobility across the Great Plains while prompting tribal warriors to engage in increasingly bitter territorial battles according to Live Science.

Early on, most tribes obtained horses through trade with neighbors. One Nez Perce tradition passed down over generations is that upon receiving their mare for trade with other villages, its first village would gather daily to observe how she behaved around humans and learn more about her personality – this way allowing them to make decisions regarding its use or care.

Breeding

Native tribes found the horse an invaluable way of traveling across the Plains and hunting buffalo in greater numbers. Additionally, its increased mobility allowed them to expand their traditional nomadic lifestyle across the Plains while simultaneously increasing warring tribes’ chances of conflict with one another, as possessing a good horse became an indicator of one’s wealth and possession became one of many measures of status for men residing within these warring factions. Stealing horses from other tribes or white men became common practice and some Indians even developed skills at quietly taking them without leaving traces behind.

The Nez Perce tribe of the Pacific Northwest were experts at breeding spotted horses, and are thought to be the only Native people who practiced selective breeding to create true breeds. Unfortunately, their horse culture only flourished fully for about 100 years until forced relocation during Indian Wars resulted in forced relocation onto reservations.

Scientists have long examined Indian-horse relationships through a European lens, which obscured just how unique and indigenous these relationships really were. But with the recent discovery of a horse skeleton accidentally filed away in an Ice Age museum in Utah has provided new insight into how horses became beloved members of Indigenous cultures’ daily lives and fostered respect among their owners and protecters.

Training

Millions of Americans associate Native American warriors on horses with consummate riding skills and indomitable courage – an idealized depiction that speaks of open spaces free from social constraints – but new research recasts this storyline, showing the profound ways horses revolutionized Indian communities.

At present, most researchers have examined the relationship between Native Americans and horses from a European viewpoint; horses arrived by boat and white colonists then altered indigenous understanding of them. Yet an increasing body of archaeological and genetic evidence shows that horses existed long before European contact in North America and that Indigenous groups developed close ties to them.

Nuuchiu (Ute) tribes in Colorado developed a rich horse culture over centuries by breeding and training their horses carefully, using specialty tack, riding techniques that enabled warriors to hang from them while running and use the animals as shields, and horse races that attracted large crowds of spectators. Furthermore, the Nuuchiu would sometimes give away one of their hard-earned horses to widows or those in need in an act of kindness that strengthened bonds between animal companions and people alike.

Care

Native American warriors galloping across a herd of buffalo is a familiar scene, yet Indigenous peoples lived without horses for millennia until Europeans introduced them into native life. From then onwards they played an essential part of Native life – Pawnee, Comanche and other nations rode them twice annually during buffalo hunts to travel faster across “sea of grass” of Great Plains regions; owning one could even serve as an indication of wealth!

Wild horses were difficult to catch. Researchers studying ancient equids have discovered evidence of them being bridled, while bones from other horses revealed they ate maize crops which were indigenous crops.

Even after centuries of partnership between Indigenous people and horses, some Indigenous individuals still feel disconnected. For some like Four Bear of the Youth Mentor Equine Program, however, their horses serve more than simply practical functions; they’re an ally who help heal from trauma and restore balance to lives. Four Bear says he wants to return to having a good connection. “I want my horse’s company and support,” he states.

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