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August 11, 2011

Introducing: "A Song for the Horse Nation" on the National Mall

On Oct. 29, 2011, the museum opens A Song for the Horse Nation, an exhibition about the return of horses to the Western Hemisphere in the late 1400s and their enduring influence on American Indian tribes.

The exhibition, which premiered at the museum's George Gustav Heye Center in New York, will include 15 new objects in Washington, D.C., including a 19th-century Lakota tipi featuring hand-painted horse-raiding scenes. Below is an introduction from the exhibition's companion book, written by Curator Emeritus Herman J. Viola of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. 


Historic_Photo         From the exhibition: Spotted Rabbit (Crow) on horseback, ca. 1905. Montana. Photo by Fred E. Miller (N13766)

Introduction: Freedom, Bravery, and Generosity

The image of warriors wearing eagle feather war bonnets and galloping across prairie grasses astride painted ponies is so ingrained in our psyched that it is hard to imagine a time when horses were not a part of the American landscape. If pressed on the subject, some people would probably say that Indians on horseback welcomed the settles at Jamestown or the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Even well-read Americans, however, would probably be startled to learn that the Indian horse culture of the Great Plains was a rather brief moment in the history of North America, little more than a hundred years. In truth, horses reached the Great Plains at about the time of the French and Indian War, and that romantic, buffalo-hunting, horse-dependent culture of the Plains Indians was virtually gone—with the buffalo—when the United States celebrated its centennial in 1876. But while it lasted, the marriage of horse and Indian was a joy to behold and a thing of beauty, as these treasures from the National Museum of the American Indian so well express.

America’s Native peoples have little for which to thank Christopher Columbus except the horse. Although the horse had originated in the Americas more than forty million years ago, it had become extinct in its homeland after spreading to other parts of the world, and it was Columbus who returned horses to the Western Hemisphere after an absence of some ten thousand years. His cargo on his second voyage in 1493 included twenty-five horses of Andalusian ancestry.

At first, the horses scared the Indians. They had never seen an animal that could carry a person. They called the horses “sky dogs,” believing that they were monsters or messengers from the heavens. The first Hopi to see horses paved their way with ceremonial blankets.

Awe quickly gave way to a desire to obtain these wonderful creatures, but the Spanish were equally desirous of keeping them out of Indian hands, knowing that horses would give Native Americans a powerful tool for protecting their land from invasion. Nonetheless, by the late 1700s, virtually every tribe in the Far West was mounted or at least had access to horses (some of the mountain tribes ate rather their rode theirs). How did this happen?

118044A From the exhibition: Assiniboine horse stick. Made by Medicine Bear, circa 1860. (11/8044) A warrior would often immortalize a horse that saved his life by creating a wood carving in the horse's image. The famous warrior and diplomat Medicine Bear carved this likeness of his war pony, killed in northern Montana in the mid-1800; the mane and taile on this dance stick came from that pony. 

Historians once credited Francisco Coronado and Hernando de Soto for this remarkable accomplishment, claiming their runaways were responsible for the vast herds of mustangs that eventually roamed the West, but subsequent research has discredited this theory. Although both expeditions were mounted—Coronado, for instance, had 558 horses—their horses could not have contributed to the wild horse herds because of the simple fact that Spanish law required soldiers to ride stallions. Thus, of Coronado’s 558 horses, only two were mares, and both were returned to New Spain. The generally accepted explanation now is that the Indians acquired their horses from Spanish herds in New Mexico. Some they captured, but the bulk they obtained as a result of the Pueblo Uprising of 1680.

As New Spain expanded, the Spanish eventually moved into what is now the United States, establish a large colony in Santa Fe, the heartland of the Pueblo Indians. For the better part of a century, these placid people endured Spanish ecclesiastical and political domination before rising in rebellion under Pope, a Tewa religious leader from San Juan Pueblo. Their sole purpose in rebelling was to expel the Spanish from their country, which they accomplished with remarkable ease.

Pope assaulted Santa Fe, killing some five hundred Spaniards and forcing a thousand more to flee southward. Left behind were sheep, goats, cattle, and hundreds of horses, which the Pueblo people traded to neighboring tribes. From New Spain, the horse population expanded rapidly across North America, moving north and east along established trading networks that existed between the various Indian tribes.

The value of horses was so readily apparent that most tribes, on learning of the new and marvelous creatures, wasted little time in acquiring some. Indeed, imagine confronting an enemy on a horse for the first time. One such witness was a Cree Indian named Saukamaupee, who told his story to Hudson’s Bay fur trader David Thompson during the winter of 1787-88. As a young man, Saukamaupee had lived with the Piegan Indians, who are Canadian relatives of the Blackfeet. The Piegan were continually at war with their Shoshone neighbors, and Saukamaupee participated in several fights. In his first one, which took place in about 1730, several Shoshones were riding horses, a creature he and his Piegan friends had never before seen. Swinging their stone clubs, the mounted Shoshones charged and quickly routed the Piegans.

Soon after, the Piegan got their first close look at a Shoshone horse, which had died from an arrow wound in its belly. “Numbers of us went to see him,” Saukamaupee recalled, “and we all admired him. He put us in mind of a stag that had lost his horns, and we did not know what name to give him. But as he was a slave to man, like the dog, which carried our things, he was named Big Dog.” Later, because horses were the size of elks, the Piegan began calling them ponokomita, or “elk dog,” which is still their word for horse.


Glass horse mask, 2008. Made by Marcus Amerman (Choctaw, b. 1959). New Mexico. Multicolored glass. (26/7193)

The horse drew some tribes onto the Great Plains. The gun chased others out of the eastern woodlands. At the same time that horses were moving north from Mexico, guns were moving west from New England. The English, the Dutch, and the French began trading and selling guns to Indians even though everyone knew that Indians with guns would become a formidable foe in battle. As the eastern tribes got guns, they began to make war on their neighbors to the west. Eventually, tribes such as the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and Crow, who lived in the area of the Great Lakes, were forced to move onto the Great Plains. There they got horses coming from the other direction. In time, they also got guns from the east. The result was the mounted Plains warrior, who became a feared opponent as the United States fulfilled its Manifest Destiny.

Horses became an integral part of the culture of many western tribes, such as the Nez Perce and Blackfeet of the far Northwest, the Kiowa and Comanche of the southern Plains, and the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux of the northern Plains. Young men would risk life and limb to enter villages of enemy tribes in order to capture a prized horse staked near its owner’s tipi. Capturing an enemy’s horse was a coup, a great achievement meriting praise and honor from family and friends. Plains oral histories abound with stories of lucky and luckless young men who made horse capturing an art. After returning from a successful raid astride a fine horse, a proud young man more often than not would give his prize to a widow or other unfortunate member of the community, thereby manifesting his generosity as well as his bravery.

The horse culture of the Plains Indians ended in the 1870s. A combination of factors caused its demise, but essentially, there were too many white people and too few buffalo. Where once the Plains Indians had roamed at will across the endless prairies of the West, they were now rooted on barren patches of soil and forced to learn a new lifestyle they neither wanted nor understood. Adding insult to injury, the federal government also dismounted these splendid riders in the attempt to make them yeoman farmers. But try as it might, the government could never fully erase their love of horses, and to this day, many of these tribes still consider horses a fundamental part of their culture. To them, horses will always symbolize freedom, bravery, and generosity. Indeed, as in days past, when a young man would give away a horse he had captured at the risk of his life, many Indians still give them away to friends and loved ones. Frequently, this is done in a powwow ceremony known as “the giveaway.” Powwows are tribal gatherings much like family parties, where friends and relatives meet once a year to renew old friendships, dance, and carry on the traditions of their past.

Lot 179_HorseBK         From the exhibition: Navajo women at the Gallup Ceremonial, circa 1940. Gallup, New Mexico. Photograph by Rolf Tietgens. Lot 179

This is especially evident at the Crow Fair, the grand powwow held annually on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana. One night at the 1991 fair, Crow families gave away six horses. These are a people who today drive pickup trucks or cars, for whom horses are no longer needed for transportation. Because of this, I asked a Crow friend if horses were really still important to Crow people. My question shocked him. “Herman,” he said,” a Crow man would no more want to be seen riding a sorry-looking horse than he would want to have disobedient children. And a good friend, a good clan uncle, a good son-in-law deserves a good horse. Last year, my three daughters came to the house for Christmas dinner, and I told their husbands to look under the Christmas tree, where there was an empty bridle for each of them. ‘In the spring,’ I told them, ‘go to my pasture and pick out the horse you want from my herd. It is my gift to you for being such good husbands to my daughters.’”

—Herman J. Viola, Curator Emeritus, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution


From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota). Published by the National Museum of the American Indian in association with Fulcrum Publishing.  ©2006 Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

A Song for the Horse Nation is curated by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota). The accompanying book, edited by Her Many Horses and the scholar George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin), is available at the museum’s shops and the museum’s Web site.

For the online exhibition, visit http://nmai.si.edu/static/exhibitions/horsenation/

For an online overview, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/item/?id=905.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center is located at One Bowling Green in New York City, across from Battery Park. The museum is free and open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 8 p.m. For information, call (212) 514-3700 or visit the museum’s Web site at http://www.americanindian.si.edu/.



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