Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Horses and Indians


[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The first horses seen by the mainland Indians were those of the Spanish invaders of Mexico . A few years later De Soto brought the horse into Florida and westward to the Mississippi , while Coronado , on his march to Quivira in 1541, introduced it to the Indians of the great plains. When the Aztec saw the mounted men of Cortés they supposed horse and man to be one and were greatly alarmed at the strange animal. The classical Centaur owed its origin to a like misconception. A tradition existed among the Pawnee that their ancestors mistook a mule ridden by a man for a single animal and shot at it from concealment, capturing the mule when the man fell.


The horse was a marvel to the Indians and came to be regarded as sacred. For a long time it was worshipped by the Aztec, and by most of the tribes was considered to have a mysterious or sacred character. Its origin was explained by a number of myths representing horses to have come out of the earth through lakes and springs or from the sun. When Antonio de Espejo visited the Hopi of Arizona in 1583, the Indians spread cotton scarfs or kilts on the ground for the horses to walk on, believing the latter to be sacred. This sacred character is sometimes shown in the names given to the horse, as the Dakota sunka wdkan, ' mysterious dog.' Its use in transportation accounts for the term 'dog' often applied to it, as the Siksika ponokamita, ' elk dog'; Cree mistatim, 'big dog'; Shawnee mishäwä 'elk.' (See Chamberlain in Am. Ur-Quell , 1894.)


The southern plains proved very favourable and horses greatly multiplied. Stray and escaped horses formed wild herds, and, as they had few carnivorous enemies, their increase and spread were astonishingly rapid. The movement of the horse was from S. to N ., at about an equal rate on both sides of the mountains. It moved northward in three ways: (1) The increase of the wild horses and their dispersal into new regions was rapid. (2) For 150 years before the first exploration of the W. by residents of the United States, Spaniards from the Mexican provinces had been making long journeys northward and eastward to trade with the Indians, even, it is said, as far N. as the camps of the Kiowa, when these were living on Tongue r. (3) As soon as the Indians nearest to the Spanish settlements appreciated the uses of the horse, they began to make raiding expeditions to capture horses, and as knowledge of the animal extended, the tribes still farther to the N. began to procure horses from those next S. of them. So it was that tribes in the S. had the first horses and always had the greatest number, while the tribes farthest N. obtained them last and always had fewer of them. Some tribes declare that they possessed horses for some time before they learned the uses to which they could be put.


On the N. Atlantic coast horses were imported early in the 17 th century, and the Iroquois possessed them toward the end of that century and were regularly breeding them prior to 1736. For the northern plains they seem to have been first obtained from the region W. of the Rocky mts., the Siksika having obtained their first horses from the Kutenai, Shoshoni, and other tribes across the mountains, about the year 1800. W. T. Hamilton, who met the Nez Percés, Cayuse, and other tribes of the Columbia region between 1840 and 1850, tells of the tradition among them of the time when they had no horses; but having learned of their existence in the S., of the purposes for which they were used, and of their abundance, they made up a strong war party, went S. and captured horses. It is impossible to fix the dates at which any tribes procured their horses, and, since many of the Plains tribes wandered in small bodies which seldom met, it is likely that some bands acquired the horse a long time before other sections of the same tribe. The Cheyenne relate variously that they procured their first horses from the Arapaho, from the Kiowa, and from the Shoshoni, and all these statements may be true for different bodies. A very definite statement is made that they received their first horses from the Kiowa at the time when the Kiowa lived on Tongue r. The Cheyenne did not cross the Missouri until toward the end of the 17 th century. For some time they resided on that stream, and their progress in working westward and southwestward to the Black-hills, Powder r., and Tongue r. was slow. They probably did not encounter the Kiowa on Tongue r. long before the middle of the 18 th century, and it is possible that the Kiowa did not then possess horses. Black Moccasin, reputed trustworthy in his knowledge and his dates, declared that the Cheyenne obtained horses about 1780. The Pawnee are known to have had horses and to have used them in hunting early in the 18 th century. Carver makes no mention of seeing horses among the Sioux that he met in 1767 in W. Minnesota; but in 1776 the elder Alexander Henry saw them among the Assiniboin, while Umfreville a few years later spoke of horses as common, some being branded, showing that they had been taken from Spanish settlements.


The possession of the horse had an important influence on the culture of the Indians and speedily changed the mode of life of many tribes. The dog had previously been the Indian's only domestic animal, his companion in the hunt, and to some extent his assistant as a burden bearer, yet not to a very great degree, since the power of the dog to carry or to haul loads was not great. Before they had horses the Indians were footmen, making short journeys and transporting their possessions mostly on their backs. The hunting Indians possessed an insignificant amount of property, since the quantity that they could carry was small. Now all this was changed. An animal had been found which could carry burdens and drag loads. The Indians soon realised that the possession of such an animal would increase their freedom of movement and enable them to increase their property, since one horse could carry the load of several men. Besides this, it insured a food supply and made the moving of camp easy and swift and long journeys possible. In addition to the use of the horse as a burden bearer and as a means of moving rapidly from place to place, it was used as a medium of exchange.


The introduction of the horse led to new intertribal relations; systematic war parties were sent forth, the purpose of which was the capture of horses. This at once became a recognised industry, followed by the bravest and most energetic young men. Many of the tribes, before they secured horses, obtained guns, which gave them new boldness, and horse and gun soon transformed those who, a generation before, had been timid foot wanderers, to daring and ferocious raiders.


On the plains and in the S. W. horses were frequently used as food, but not ordinarily when other flesh could be obtained, although it is said that the Chiricahua Apache preferred mule meat to any other. It frequently happened that war parties on horse-stealing expeditions killed and ate horses. When this was done the leader of the party was always careful to warn his men to wash themselves thoroughly with sand or mud and water before they went near the enemy's camp. Horses greatly dread the smell of horseflesh or horse fat and will not suffer the approach of anyone smelling of it.


The horse had no uniform value, for obviously no two horses were alike. A war pony or a buffalo horse had a high, an old pack pony a low, value. A rich old man might send fifteen or twenty horses to the tipi of the girl he wished to marry, while a poor young man might send but one. A doctor might charge a fee of one horse or five, according to the patient's means. People paid as they could. Among the Sioux and the Cheyenne the plumage of two eagles used to be regarded as worth a good horse. Forty horses have been given for a medicine pipe.


Indian saddles varied greatly. The old saddle of Moorish type, having the high peaked pommel and cantle made of wood or horn covered with raw buffalo hide, was common, and was the kind almost always used by women; but there was another type, low in front and behind, often having a horn, the prong of a deer's antler, for a rope. The Indians rode with a short stirrup - the bareback seat. Today the young Indians ride the cowboy saddle, with the cowboy seat - the long leg. Cowakin pads stuffed with the hair of deer, elk, antelope, buffalo, or mountain sheep were commonly used instead of saddles by some of the tribes in running buffalo or in war, but among a number of tribes the horse was stripped for chasing buffalo and for battle. Some tribes on their horse-stealing expeditions carried with them small empty pads, to be stuffed with grass and used as saddles after the horses had been secured. The Indians of other tribes scorned such luxury and rode the horse naked, reaching home chafed and scarred.


Horse racing, like foot racing, is a favourite amusement, and much property is wagered on these races. The Indians were great jockeys and trained and handled their horses with skill. When visiting another tribe they sometimes took race horses with them and won or lost large sums. The Plains tribes were extremely good horsemen, in war hiding themselves behind the bodies of their mounts so that only a foot and an arm showed, and on occasion giving exhibitions of wonderful daring and skill. During the campaign of 1865 on Powder r., after Gen. Conner's drawn battle with a large force of Arapaho and Cheyenne, an Arapaho rode up and down in front of the command within a few hundred yards, and while his horse was galloping was seen to swing himself down under his horse's neck, come up on the other side, and resume his seat, repeating the feat many times.


The horse was usually killed at the grave of its owner, just as his arms were buried with him, in order that he might be equipped for the journey he was about to take. A number of Plains tribes practised a horse dance. There were songs about horses, and prayers were made in their behalf. On the whole, however, the horse's place in ceremony was only incidental. On the occasion of great gatherings horses were led into the circle of the dancers and there given away, the donor counting a coup as he passed over the gift to the recipient. In modern times the marriage gift, sent by a suitor to a girl's family consisted in part of horses. Among some tribes a father gave away a horse when his son killed his first big game or on other important family occasions. In the dances of the soldier-band societies of most tribes 2, 4, or 6 chosen men ride horses during the dance. Their horses are painted, the tails are tied up as for war, hawk or owl feathers are tied to the forelock or tail, and frequently a scalp or something representing it, hangs from the lower jaw. The painting represents wounds received by the rider's horse, or often there is painted the print of a hand on either side of the neck to show that an enemy on foot has been ridden down. In preparing to go into a formal battle the horse as well as his rider received protective treatment . It was ceremonially painted and adorned, as described above, and certain herbs and medicines were rubbed or blown over it to give it endurance and strength.


Among some of the Plains tribes there was a guild of horse doctors who devoted themselves especially to protecting and healing horses. They doctored horses before going into battle or to the buffalo hunt, so that they should not fall, and doctored those wounded in battle or on the hunt, as well as the men hurt in the hunt. In intertribal horse races they 'doctored' in behalf of the horses of their own tribe and against those of their rivals.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 200-203.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College