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American Indians Offer Programs for Horses That Treat the Sacred Animals as a Way of Life

On November 18, President Obama approved the lifting of a congressional ban on domestic horsemeat inspections. In doing so, he raised the possibility that horses could be legally slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S. for the first time in years. Just as important, he spotlighted a major clash of cultures.

Horse meat has long been considered a delicacy in many countries. Today, its cultivation is a highly regulated agribusiness. In Europe, the legal term “humane slaughter” is even used to denote the preparation of horses for eating by people.

But in Indian country, there is little that is viewed as humane about horse butchering. Indeed, so keenly felt are Native views on horses that they raise important questions of long-term relationships with animals who remain indispensable to the Indian way of life.

Vernell White Thunder (Lakota Sioux) of Medicine Root Creek, South Dakota, typifies those who have a complex, even lyrical, understanding of equines. As did his grandfather, he raises and trains spotted Lakota ponies and hosts summer visitors from many parts of the world who ride the horses. “A person just doesn’t come into this life, they are born into it,” he says. “It’s in your lineage. I could never be on this earth without a horse.”

His charges are not just animals, he insists; they are sentient creatures to be cherished and cared for: “I raise horses to be self-sufficient. Romanticism is an easy thing. But if you are lying in bed and it’s 30 below, I know the horse is cold, can’t drink because there is ice on the creek. I break a few and sell for hay, but I am not in it for the money, because it is a way of life, and I have respect and admiration for the horses.”

White Thunder recalls how the Lakota Sioux environment of social service entitlement resulted in learned helplessness, land loss, alcoholism, and horses with nowhere to run. But for his people, at least, things changed when tribal money funded the Big Foot Ride. An annual event, the ride commemorates Chief Big Foot’s band of Minneconjou Lakota and their flight from the Standing Rock Reservation that tragically ended at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, where approximately 300 men, women and children were killed in the last armed engagement between the U.S. Cavalry and the Lakota Sioux on December 29, 1890.

“When you are Lakota, you show up ahead of time and wait for everything to come to you,” he reflects. “Being ready is the Lakota way. We didn’t wait for money to get ready for war. We knew what we had to do.”

Paul Tohlakai, a Diné elder who runs Navajo Trails in Piñon, Arizona, also has a personal interest in the dignity of horses. “My last BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] rescue died at 27 years old,” he recalls. “I learned from that horse as much as from any other human.”

Thus, he is considerably concerned that domestic horse slaughter may resume. Because such slaughter is not a Diné tradition, he says, it is an issue “very sensitive to us, being of the original horse cultures.” Not surprisingly, he is wary of commercial ventures that view horses mainly as a commodity. “For a lot of us, this direct value system is confusing,” Tohlakai says. “For them [business interests], time is money. Native time is sacred.”

Indian country by no means uniformly opposes the selective slaughter of horses. The National Tribal Horse Coalition represents five tribes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington that are being hurt because a population explosion of free-roaming horses is trampling their rangeland forage, which is needed to feed livestock and retain soil. The tribes feel that turning these horses into food might be a solution. It has even been suggested that opening slaughter plants on reservations could provide economic benefits for certain tribes.

But Tohlakai disagrees. Catering as he does to special interest groups from Europe and Japan, he is more interested in sending an important message about Diné heritage. “We have to foster good international understanding about our culture since there is so much misconception and romanticizing,” he says. “We also need to be sharing because there is too much appropriation of Native culture and ceremonies.”

Even a cursory glance at horse-related activities around the nation reveals how deeply and diversely the horse remains embedded in Native tradition. Noqah Elisi from Cherokee, North Carolina, for instance, is readying a July 20 ride from Red Clay, Tennessee to Lame Deer, Montana to commemorate the Trail of Tears and the Cheyenne breakout of Little Wolf and Dull Knife. The ride will end at the house owned by Grandmother Margaret Behan, Arapahoe/Cheyenne, a fourth-generation descendant of the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre. Her property is in Lame Deer, where the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers will have their next council.

“We are combining the rides because of the important history our ancestors shared at that time,” Elisi says. “We will be there for the council and take the blessings and prayers of the Grandmothers back to Red Clay”—the last place the Cherokee met as a united nation before removal.

Elisi emphasizes how the humane nature of the ride reflects deep-seated attitudes toward these special beasts: “We will have no metal in the mouth, no shoes. We are booting them. We don’t use pain as a tool to control.”

So significant is the ride that Crow horseman and stuntman Rod Rondeaux and Suzi Landolphi of Red Horse Nation in Los Angeles are sending horses to participate. Their organization consults with Native American experiential horse programs that deal with at-risk youth and veterans. Red Horse also certifies equine-therapy programs like the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. And it has trained 30 National Indian Youth Leadership Program counselors in the organization’s Gallup, New Mexico office in wild-horse therapeutic techniques.

Furthermore, Red Horse has a California affiliate, Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue, which provides horses for a variety of affirming purposes. In April, Lifeseavers delivered a large herd of wild mustangs to rancher Bryan Deans of Slim Butte, South Dakota. There, Deans runs the Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative, which is a provider for the Oglala Sioux Tribe Access to Recovery program. This community-driven wellness initiative will initially be licensing men in permaculture—an ecological design system that supports sustainability, green building and much horse training.

“We are creating and changing a mindset where money isn’t an emphasis,” says Deans. “We can grow our own food, build our own homes and barter exchange. When you change your mindset you can do something for yourself.”

By employing wild horses for such uses as job training, mental well-being, recreation and other purposes, Red Horse and Lifesavers have shown that slaughter is not the only means available for dealing with their burgeoning numbers. And they are not alone. Witness the efforts of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which has a representative on the National Tribal Horse Coalition.

The Umatillas are using adoption and auction to reduce a herd of 307 to 100 on 147,000 acres. They are also researching youth programs and a partnership with a local community college.

Opportunities are available, say natural horsemanship veterans. “I think there is a tremendous market for mustangs gentled by Native Americans,” says Jim Rea, a veteran trainer in Colorado. “You have to have a reputation for being able to turn out a soft, smooth horse that is not afraid.”

And then there is the equine science program at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a small private college in Indiana, which has partnered with the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse adoption program for five years.
“We’ve always had an untouched yearling course,” says stable manager Angie McMillin. “Our colts come in every March. Students can be as creative with them as they would like to be, but we have certain training requirements. The program has gotten us a lot of exposure and it’s been extraordinary for the students.”

For sheer concerted consideration and humane use of horses, though, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community of Arizona serves as an exemplary model. Through the process of adoption, the community has reduced its herd by half, from 400 to 200. The program, says manager Brian Gewecke, is a 12-month trial ownership with initial inspections and two to three follow-ups per year. Meanwhile, the Salt River Rodeo Association runs a cowboy camp for youth, complete with traditional Tohono O’Odham teachings on life that instill respect for the animals.

The tribe’s stated policy is forceful, categorical and definitive: “The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (‘SRPMIC’) finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic heritage of the community and that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the community and enrich the lives of the people. It is the policy of SRPMIC that these animals shall be protected from capture, harassment, starvation, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the community lands.”

Altogether, Indian country is employing many innovative techniques and programs to save one of nature’s most majestic creations from ending up as just another dinner entrée. Filmmaker Janet Kern, who is currently completing her documentary on the legendary Nez Perce horses—a project that has been 14 years in the making—needs no convincing.

“The horses,” Kern says, “understand the songs.”