A Song for the Horse Nation - November 14, 2009–July 7, 2011 - George Gustav Heye Center, New York

October 24, 2011

A Song for the Horse Nation Spotlight: Counting Coup

The museum's staff is busy this week putting the final touches on A Song for the Horse Nation, an exhibition opening this Saturday that traces the horse’s influence on American Indian tribes from the 1500s -- when horses were first introduced to the Western Hemisphere -- to the present day.

In the meantime, we thought we'd give you a sneak preview of the more than 122 objects, paintings and historic photographs in the exhibition. Today, we're highlighting an object known as a coup stick.

 14_9565Piikuni (Blackfeet) coup stick, late 19th century (NMAI 14/9565)

In the buffalo days of the mid-1800s, one way a Plains warrior demonstrated his bravery was by "counting coup," that is, galloping up to an enemy and touching him, sometimes with a special stick made for that very purpose, instead of killing him. Coup sticks were also carried in ceremonial dances, during which warriors related stories of their courage and daring.

The rawhide horses attached to this coup stick represent the horses its owner rode in battle, and the hair locks are scalp replicas, made by attaching hair from a horse's tail to a piece of cloth or rawhide and painting it red. Similarly, the hair on many warrior shirts is frequently taken from cherished horses because to carry a lock of hair was to hold some of the power from its source.


To celebrate the opening of this exhibition, we've invited the D.C. Mounted Police and Crow artist Kennard Real Bird to present the U.S. and Crow Nation flags on horseback this Saturday at 3 p.m. on the museum’s outdoor Welcome Plaza. Following the presentation of the flags, Cherokee singer K. J. Jacks will perform the U.S. national anthem.

We've also partnered with the Washington International Horse Show, which happened to be commemorating its 53rd year at the Verizon Center the very week of our exhibiton's opening. Together, we're hosting free family activities all day on Saturday, as well as a free shuttle between the museum and the Verizon Center. Museum activities include beading and ledger painting workshops as well as storytelling sessions with Sioux illustrator S.D. Nelson. Activities at the Verizon Center include pony rides and live pony-painting demonstrations.

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.


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I’ve been visiting your blog for a while now and I always find a gem in your new posts. Thanks for sharing.
Gaya HIdup Sehat

that event interests me, maybe sometime i wanna go there

October 19, 2011

Travels Through the Horse Culture

Horses The Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) are restoring their historic Appaloosa herds through a breeding program using as a foundation the Akhal-Teke horse from Turkmenistan, possibly the oldest extant domesticated breed. The off-spring combine Appaloosa markings with the silken sheen of the Akhal-Teke coat. (Photo by Emil Her Many Horses)

By Emil Her Many Horses

“The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories and our works of art.”

These words opened the exhibition A Song for the Horse Nation at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City in November 2009. As I have worked on an expanded version of the exhibit for the Mall Museum in D.C. this October, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the direct inspiration of the Horse Nation throughout Indian Country.


I think of the horse-stealing songs sung at the annual I’n-Lon-Schka or ceremonial dance of the Osage. These songs tell of raiding enemy horses. Sometimes the songs are also called trot songs; the beat of  the drum and the style of dance to the songs emulate a trotting horse. It’s truly a beautiful sight  watching a dance floor filled with men, women and children dressed in their colorful regalia dancing to  the rhythm of the trot songs. I can only imagine how a warrior felt sitting on the back of a raided enemy horse as he paraded through camp. What a sense of pride and honor he must have felt. These songs transport you back to another time.

The Osage people have another tradition in which a horse plays a prominent role. The ceremony is called “Paying for the Drum.” It is held when a young man has been selected to fill the role of the drum keeper for one of the three Osage districts. It is the young man’s role to care for the drum which is essential to singing the necessary songs for the four days of the I’n-Lon-Schka dance. The newly selected drum keeper and his family will have a year to prepare to pay for the honor of his position. The drum keeper will also select a new committee to sponsor the dance, and they host the other two Osage district committees.

At the end of the year, the new drum keeper and his family must pay before the dance can begin. The drum keeper and his new committee are led to the dance harbor by the camp crier, followed by men carrying the drum. A horse is led in the procession, followed by women in wedding clothes and the rest of the committee and his family. A striped Pendleton blanket will be draped over the back of the horse, and both will be given as gifts to the former drum keeper. The wedding clothes represent the military  coats given to Osage leaders who in turn gave the coats to their daughters to be worn in Osage weddings. Today, the Wedding Coats are also given away in honor of the new drum keeper. It is a great honor to be selected to serve as a drum keeper for one of the three districts.

New Mexican Horse Project

Since the reintroduction of the horse to the Americas by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, horses spread and eventually became an important asset to Native peoples. The horse that returned with Columbus in 1495 was a changed animal from the horse that became extinct in the Western Hemisphere around 10,000 years ago.

Carlos Lopopolo is now working to preserve the Spanish Mustang by finding horses of the old Spanish descent through the New Mexican Horse project. His vision is to identify Spanish traits through genetic testing of the wild horse herds in the U.S. Once these horses are identified, he brings them to his horse sanctuary in New Mexico. At the sanctuary he lets the horses live and breed as they would in the wild. It is his hope to introduce these horses in all National Parks as indigenous animals. The Wild Horse Preserve is dedicated to Carlos’ late wife, Cindy Rogers Lopopolo, and others who fell victim to cancer.

While visiting the Preserve I was able to take a group tour. We made every effort not to disturb the horse herds, but we were fortunate to see a new foal that had just been born in the wild.

Young Horsemen Project

One cannot talk about the horse culture of the Plateau and Plains without talking about the beautiful Appaloosa horses of the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce). In 1806, while travelling among the Nimiipuu, Meriwether Lewis described their horses as having large spots of white, irregularly scattered and intermixed with brown.

In 1994 the Nimiipuu began the Young Horsemen’s Program to teach its youth about tribal history as well as about breeding and caring for the horse. The Nimiipuu program uses as its foundation stock four types of mares, Arabian/Appaloosa, Thoroughbred/Appaloosa, Quarterhorse/Appaloosa and Appaloosa/Appaloosa. To breed with the mares the Niimiipuu chose the Akhal-Teke horse from Turkmenistan, which some think is the most ancient domesticated horse breed still extant. The crossbreeding has produced a horse with the traditional spots of the Appaloosa, but when the sunlight strikes the horse, it gives the coat a silky sheen. Some believe this project will destroy the Appaloosa horse, but the Nez Perce have a long history of breeding horses, and I believe the Appaloosa will long be part of their cultural identity.

At the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitors Center in Spalding, Idaho, I had the great fortune to  learn the proper function of a painted parfleche horse ornament located in our collection. I had originally selected this object to be included in the exhibition but I was unsuccessful in determining how the  object should or could be worn on the horse. At the museum this ornament is displayed with saddle and crupper intact. The painted parfleche is worn beneath the saddle and is quite beautiful once you see its proper use.

Horse Nation ArticleJackie Bread (b. 1960), a Pikuni (Blackfeet) artist, beaded these saddle bags especially for the Song for the Horse Nation exhibit. Pikuni flat cases, 2009, Montana. Seed beads, tanned hide, rawhide and wool.

Horse Art and Horse Medicine

Beaded and painted horse regalia are some of the most beautiful items created by Native artists. I approached Jackie Bread, a Pikuni (Blackfeet) artist and asked if she would be willing to create a pair of painted parfleches in the Pikuni (Blackfeet) tradition. I had given her an image of what I had in mind.

Initially, Bread said she would but later reported that she was uncomfortable with theassignment. What I had requested resembled parfleches which were used for horse medicine. Individuals who had been given this medicine could treat horses as well as human beings. Bread felt she didn’t have the right to produce the parfleches.

I was aware of her beadwork skills and I knew whatever she created would be amazing. I told her to feel free to create what she was comfortable with. She went on to produce two beautiful beaded bags worn behind the saddle. She used fresh smoked hide for the long fringe, which I could detect before I even
opened the package.

  Dancing StickBryan Akipa (b. 1957), Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota wood-carver and musician, revived the tradition of the horse stick after seeing the famous 19th century carving of No Two Horns (Hunkpapa Lakota) in a museum visit. Akipa’s horse staff honors his uncle Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble, awarded the Medal of Honor for valor in the Korean War. Dakota horse staff, 2008, South Dakota. Wood, horsehair, imitation feather, ribbon and paint. (26/7158).

Bryan Akipa and the Horse Stick

In the exhibition we have a very famous horse stick made by No Two Horns, a Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock reservation. It is believed that he created this stick to honor his favorite horse, which had been killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The horse stick shows six wound marks with blood gushing from each wound. No Two Horns reproduced this horse stick several times.

I knew there were contemporary examples of horse sticks. One was made by Bryan Akipa from the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, who was inspired by seeing the No-Two-Horns stick in a museum in 1985. At the time, he said, “There were no horse staffs anywhere (except in museums), and most people did not know what it was.”

I asked Akipa why he created his horse stick. He said that he made the stick to commemorate his uncle Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble, U.S. Army. Keeble’s Dakota name is Mato Sapa or Black Bear, and he is one of three full-blooded Indians to receive the Medal of Honor. Akipa, a Northern Traditional Dancer, carried this horse stick with him as he danced at powwows. Elders from his community  approached him and asked why he was carrying the stick.

“I had a giveaway, put on a meal, and told the story to the people,” Akipa told me. “My uncle knocked out three machinegun bunkers single-handedly. Approaching the third machine gun bunker he was hit by many grenades.” His uncle thought he was about to die, but a spirit of a man on horseback came and
encouraged him. Although Keeble’s story has been displayed in many places (including the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon), said Akipa, it is always written in the military format and never includes the part where he saw a horse and rider on the battlefield.

“The story I grew up hearing always included his vision of a horse and rider. The horse was painted. The designs were painted circles around the eyes, lightning bolt on the forehead, lightning bolts on the front and hind quarters, handprints under the lightning bolts and rings painted around the legs. The rider was a decorated old warrior with a double trailing warbonnet holding a great lance. The horse and rider appeared to him larger than life.

“My aunt with all her oral-history knowledge has said the warrior on the horse was most likely my uncle’s great-grandfather Anawang Mani, also a great warrior.”

After Akipa told this story, the elders decided he had the right to carry the horse stick.


During the annual Crow Fair in Montana, participants hold a daily parade through the campground, displaying the elaborately beaded regalia that decorate their horses from head to tail. (Photo by Emil Her Many Horses)

Crow Fair

I cannot talk about horses without talking about the Crow from Montana. At their annual Fair held the third week in August, the Crow people gather to compete along with other tribes in horse races, rodeo and dance competitions. The campground is lined with beautiful white canvas tipis, and so the Fair
is known as “the Tipi Capital of the World.” One of the most colorful events is the daily parade through the camp. Men, women and children participate, but it is the women who have the most elaborate regalia. The women dress in their finest outfits, and their horses are decorated with beadwork from head to tail. The long hours spend on beading their regalia pay off at this one event. The Crow
people have succeed in keeping their horse culture alive with their distinctive style of beadwork horse regalia.

Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) is a member of the History and Culture Research Unit at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2011 issue of American Indian, the museum's quarterly magazine for members.

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.

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The fabric of public society lies in the manners of the individuals that make up that society. To hold this fabric together, you have to have those manners. If you don’t have them, then public society will kick you out.

that's unique costume. the combination of colors is so really nice. i like it

Love those saddle bags, I wish I could have them in my store. right now you actually gave me a great idea for designs! thank you so much for the inspiration!

September 01, 2011

A Song for the Horse Nation: Typecast Indians

P4178_HorseBK #90
Spokane woman on horseback with infant in baby carrier, 1899. Colville Reservation, Washington. P4178

As a child in the early 1970s, I conceived many notions about family, identity, and life roles by sitting in front of my grandmother’s television set. Raised in the city by my non-Native mother and grandmother, I learned about single-parenting issues from A Family Affair and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. My female role models, Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, were stylish, independent, career-minded women, much like my mother. My first impression of Native culture also came by way of television, through the genre of Hollywood Westerns. On celluloid, garishly painted, red-faced actors portrayed Natives as savage scalpers and merciless killers bent on unspeakable acts of murder and violation.

In films such as War Arrow (1953), wild “Kioways” on the warpath madly circle wagon trains of doomed pioneers. In Kit Carson (1940), other pioneers in peril are saved from Shoshone attacks as they ramble through Monument Valley, Utah. In the end, the hero—a frontier scout, cavalryman, or cowboy—gets the girl, and the Indian meets a grisly death. These death scenes, humorous and horrendous, involved dramatic feats of demoralizing comeuppance: an Indian grave shot from his war pony, somersaulting into the sagebrush, or shot and dragged behind his porn, arms flailing pitifully. Unfortunately, many other children my age drew the same conclusion about Indians as I did: we were dirty savages and merciless killers of women and children. Being the only Native American in my grade school, I became the target of hollering, war whoops, and hand-to-mouth “Indian” chanting.

Through illustration, portraiture, photography, journalism, and film, generations of Native people have been haunted by the cultural stereotypes of the past five centuries. Seventeenth-century European illustrations of Iroquois scalpers, battle reenactments in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, dime novels, and souvenir postcards, for instance, have shaped the public’s erroneous sentiments about Native Americans. Depending on the political agenda of the time—whether in Europe or North America—the evolution of Native identity in the popular press has been dominated by two extreme stereotypes: savage marauder or docile member of a conquered race.

In the United States, portraying Native Americans in a hostile light justified extreme measures in Indian policy, such as the use of brutal military force, land theft, and treaty violations. The idea of Indians as uncivilized and un-Christian also legitimized forced conversions, mandatory attendance at boarding schools, and other religious abuses.

A century ago, the popular pastime of postcard collecting created a market for a flood of images that greatly contributed to the miseducation of several generations of Americans about who Indians are. To me, the seemingly benign photographs document the success of the length and exhaustive U.S. military campaign to forcibly obtain Indian lands. By the late nineteenth century, most tribes had been relegated to reservations, creating dependence on government subsidies. Other forms of dependence and need manifested themselves in the extremes of religion or alcoholism. No matter the grim reality, in the postcard images, Indians and horses are paired to create a sense of nostalgia and security—a commercial device to lure homesteaders and financiers to the newly tamed West.

Westward expansion gave rise to the railway, tourism, and mass production. Adventure-seeking travelers were lured west by the brochures and souvenir books produced by companies such as the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company, whose advertising images promised the thrill of Indian encounters.

P16618 Early 20th-century postcard of Cree man in traditional dress on horseback. P16618. It appears that the warrior pictured here has been cut out and given another background, a technique common to images in this genre.

Unfortunately, the posed portraits in both postcards and brochures created misconceptions and false expectations about American Indians. Images like these continue to serve as a kitschy measuring stick of “Indian-ness,” warping our own sense of Native identity and expression even as we modernize our communities and strive to continue our traditions in language, ceremonies, and arts.

These types of images have led to the commercial manufacture and gaudy interpretation of the most sacred Native objects. Curios come in a variety of forms, from hideous war bonnets and grotesque collector dolls to the “End of the Trail” belt buckles found in airport gift shops. In turn, these representations—usually in the visage of iconic chiefs and alluring Native maidens—reach large-scale international audiences through the mediums of Hollywood productions and sports team logos as well as vehicle, clothing, and food brands. To add insult to injury, the mass-produced appropriations create untold prosperity for everyone but the tribes themselves.

From century-old postcards to contemporary logos, these stereotypical images have distorted and oversimplified our cultures. They have created false understandings of the traditions of the hundreds of tribes that have their own languages, stories, art forms, and ceremonies. The self-esteem of our youth is damaged as they recoil from these grotesqueries and eventually their own true cultures. Ironically, our communities have often become dependent on perpetuating these Hollywood ideals in order to sustain any measure of economic stability.

Yet, as we endeavor to share with the world our unique voices and lifeways, our communities are increasingly empowered to redefine and celebrate our authentic identities. At the heart of my own nostalgic quest for the Indian and his horse, I need not look any further than my own photo albums. Today, one of my most cherished photographs is of my dad, John C. Martin, and his horse Skipper. Photographed on family land near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, he is the image of a real Indian, a hardworking, spiritual man who has embodied many different identities throughout his life: husband, father, grandfather, educator, tribal councilman, businessman, and rancher. But he’s truly a Navajo cowboy at heart.

—Linda R. Martin (Navajo)


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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This picture is really great "Spokane woman on horseback with infant in baby carrier, 1899". Nice blog..

thanks for sharing for such informative topic contains lot of information

Love the picture of the Spokane woman with her baby in the cradleboard.

I've love the colored art! I didn't know that it was common to cut out the main part for a different background.

August 24, 2011

A Song for the Horse Nation: Remembering Lakota Ways

105940 Lakota painted drum, ca. 1860s. South Dakota or North Dakota. Pigment, rawhide, wood, wool cloth, and sinew. (10/5940).

My last name, Her Many Horses, is the Lakota name of my paternal great-grandmother. A more accurate English translation of her name is Many Horses Woman, meaning that she owned many horses. Among Lakota people, horses were a means of measuring wealth, but a far more important demonstration of wealth was the gesture of giving away horses in honor of a family member. Generosity is more important than possession.

“The Fourth of July used to be a good time,” Grace Pourier, my maternal grandmother, recalled. I liked to listen to her stories about what Lakota life was like in the early 1900s. She knew her Lakota ways as they had been passed on to her by her relatives. Born in 1907 on Pine Ridge Reservation and raised on Horse Head Ranch in Manderson, South Dakota, she remembered how community members and extended family gathered to celebrate with giveaways, traditional dances, parades, and feasts. Later in life, she said she wished her grandmother had made her pay  more attention to the events surrounding her, but at the time, she was just a kid having fun.

Much of traditional Lakota culture was threatened in the early 1900s. After the Lakota people were placed on reservations in the late 1800s, the U.S. government forbade their language and ceremonial life. Lakota people continued their traditions by incorporating traditional dances and giveaways into the Independence Day (and other American holiday) festivities in which they were encouraged to participate. For this reason, Fourth of July celebrations became something to look forward to. After Lakota men joined the military to fight World War I, the use of the U.S. flag in beadwork and quillwork took on a new meaning. Today, if a bead worker uses the flag design, he or she is probably a veteran or a family member of someone who has served in the military.


Horses painting Lakota Horse Mask, 2008, by Jim Yellowhawk (Cheyeene River Lakota, b. 1958). South Dakota. Acrylic on paper, gold leaf. (26/7199)

In the early years of my grandmother’s youth, horses still played an important role in the lives of Oglala Lakota people. Since their introduction to the region in the early 1700s, horses had revolutionized Plains culture. But they were more than work animals; horses were, and still are, cherished. The Pourier family was known for its racehorses. During the reservation period of the early 1900s, beautiful beaded horses head covers, saddle blankets, and saddlebags were made to decorate favorite horses on special occasions, such as the Fourth of July parades. Horses were often given away at naming ceremonies, memorial ceremonies (held a year after a family member’s death), and giveaways (which might celebrate a returning veteran or honor a graduating student). Traditional giveaways centered on the giving away of horses, money, clothing, blankets, and other material objects. Hosting a giveaway today involves tremendous preparation, including the gathering of gifts, such as brightly colored star quilts, Pendleton blankets, and handmade shawls, as well as feeding the whole community.

Grandma Grace once told me that her grandmother really knew Indian ways: “Grandpa Pourier would have been a rich man, but Grandma Pourier kept giving her horses away.” A horse to be given away would be brought into the Fourth of July dance arbor or other community gathering, while men on horseback waited outside. The horse was shown to the people or paraded inside the arbor, then taken outside, given a slap on the rump, and released. The man on horseback fortunate enough to catch the freed horse became its proud new owner.

My grandmother also remembered that women would give away dresses made of tanned deer hide, with the yoke of the dress completely covered with beadwork. “They would take off their beaded dresses right there in the dance arbor and give them away.” The woman giving the dress away wore a cloth dress beneath the beaded dress. Giving away a fully beaded dress in honor of a relative was tremendous act of generosity. The person receiving the valuable gift would shake hands with the giver and with the relative being honored.

Emily Her Many Horses, my paternal grandmother, remembered receiving her Lakota name at about age ten. She wore a wool dress embellished with many elk teeth, valuable because only two of each elk’s teeth—the incisors—are used for decoration. They are natural ivory. Along with this dress, she wore beaded moccasins and leggings, and after the naming ceremony, she was told to give away the dress, moccasins, and leggings. She struggled to keep the dress, but her parents made her part with it—at such a young age, she did not understand what this act of generosity meant, and she wondered why her grandfather had her shoes, which were tied together by their shoestrings and thrown over his saddle horn. Her grandfather gave away five horses that day in her honor.

Wintercount_full Winter Count on cloth, by Long Soldier (Hunkpapa Lakota), ca. 1902. Fort Yates, ND. Muslin cloth. (11/6720). 

Leo Her Many Horses, my father, was given a horse at a Hunka Lowanpi, a naming ceremony held during a Sun Dance. He received a wooden stick that had attached to it a rawhide cutout of a horse. This meant that he would later receive the actual horse. The Hunka Lowanpi is a Lakota naming/adoption ceremony. It creates a kinship relationship that is respected by all the family members involved, and it is at this ceremony that Lakota names are given. The family of the  person receiving the name will ask a well-respected individual to name its relative. The person naming the individual will pray with an eagle feather and then tie the feather in that person’s hair. The names given at a Hunka Lowanpi are used only on special occasions—to have one’s name sung publicly in a song is considered a great honor. The person whose name was sung or his or her family members will give away money, horses, or blankets for this honor.

Often on Memorial Day or after a death, people will place articles of clothing, bowls of fruit, packs of cigarettes, or other such items on the grave of a family member. These things are put out with the idea that other people are welcome to come by and take them. This act is performed to honor the deceased family member. My father said that one method of giving a horse away to place the horse outside the cemetery with the reins left hanging loose to signify that anyone was welcome to take it.

  Oglala_Lakota_Beaded_Horse_Mask_1413Oglala Lakota beaded horse mask, ca. 1904. Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. Seed beads, hide, and sinew. (1413).

In the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, there is a beautiful, elaborately beaded horse head cover used at a 1904 Fourth of July parade at Pine Ridge, where my grandmother would be born three years later. The catalog information states that this horse head cover was collected by J.W. Good and was “used by chief of Teton Sioux to lead parade.” Imagine the horse that wore this, the white beads glinting in the July sun.

It’s a wonderful piece of artistry in its geometric design and lazy-stitch technique, but what’s unique about it is that it appears to have been made with the intention of later being recycled into many different objects. The beaded section, which would be placed over the face of the horse, could be remade into a pair of women’s beaded leggings, and the area over the horse’s cheek could be made into a pipe bag. The upper neck section of the cover would have been made into a pair of tipi bags, also known as a “possible bag,” because anything possible was stored inside. The lower neck section could be made into a pair of moccasins.

The resourceful woman who created this horse mask obviously had future plans for it—plans that were, fortunately for us, never carried out. A fusion of gifts never given, it is a reminder of Lakota traditions piece together, a silent testament to what lies hidden within all those Fourths of July.

—Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota)

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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very beautiful art work indeed

Amazing art work, so beautiful!

Those art works always remind me of the cave arts of the native americans.. :-)

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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Great article. Love to read about the history and linking it to today.

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