The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors this past weekend to a new exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” The exhibition, nestled on the third floor of the museum, tells the epic tale of the how the return of the horse to the Americas changed Native culture, from lifestyle to war to art and beyond. “For some Native peoples, the horse still is an essential part of daily life,” said exhibit curator Emil Her Many Horses (Ogala Lakota). “For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history. The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.”
To walk the exhibit’s path is to walk side by side with the conjoined path of Native and horse. Though horses were introduced to the Native Americans relatively late in North American history—the early 1700s saw the initial widespread explosion of the horse from captured Spanish mounts in the southwest—the image of Indians astride these graceful animals is one that is common to modern Americans. The “Horse Nation” quickly entwined themselves with Native communities, forever altering tribal culture and the Indian way of life.
The Smithsonian’s exhibit seeks to give us a view into that not-so-distant past. But it’s more than just a simply history lesson: subtly but surely, “A Song for the Horse Nation” reveals how interwoven both horse and man became among 38 tribal communities from the Plains and Western United States. The horse was more than a beast of burden or a tool; the animal became a part of Native culture that still resonates among the people today.
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
It opens with historical context, showing the arrival of the horse to the North American continent from as early as the 1500s. Believed to have returned to the continent after evolving and moving westward through Asia and Europe, the horse made its return among the exploratory ships of the Spanish and British. The first appearance of the horse was quite the shock to the native peoples and helped the Spanish to quickly overcome any opposition. Natives had never seen an animal that could carry a person and many struggled to come up with a name for the new creature. Many Native names for the horse ended up being a derivative of “dog” such as the Cree’s “big dog” (mistatim), the Lakota’s “mystery dog” (sunkakhan), or the Blackfoot’s “elk dog” (ponoka-mita).
Natives quickly turned their fear of the horse into desire for them. In 1680, the Pueblo Uprising opened up the floodgates as hundreds of captured Spanish horses were traded to nearby tribes. The horse population quickly expanded north and east across established tribal trading networks. Historians often note that as the acquisition and absorption of the horse moved west-to-east, the rifle’s debut and spread among Indians moved east-to-west. By the time of the country’s western expansion in the 1800s, both rifle and horse were fixtures among the encountered Native communities.
courtesy of ‘bhrome’
The exhibition quickly recounts the historical narrative, however, moving from scholarly education into that of cultural definition. By the time of America’s expansion into the West, horses had made their mark among the Indians. Their likenesses decorated shirts, dresses, tipis, blankets, and toys. Because the Native perspective sees creation around them as a partner in life rather than an obstacle to overcome, the horse was a fellow creature to share the land with. It’s grace and beauty were respected and honored by Natives; to own a horse was a mark of prestige and blessing. The practice of “giveaway” became an honored tradition and a symbol of wealth. Owning several horses was one thing; generously giving them away in times of ceremony and to those less fortunate was the ultimate gesture in prosperity and humbleness.
Of note is the lengths the exhibition goes in pointing out the importance of horse capturing to these communities. Young men would often go out either solo or in small groups and raid an enemy’s encampment through taking horses. Several artifacts on display show a warrior’s personal record or stories to that effect, decorating their blankets or clothing with these heroic exploits. A young man who could return to the camp with a captured horse received praise and honor from family and friends. Horse capturing was elevated to an art form. And there was no greater honor for such a young man to return astride such a prize and then give it away to a widow or other unfortunate member of the community. Such actions manifested the man’s generosity of spirit, as well as his bravery.
When seen from this point of view, it isn’t hard to page back through the history books in our minds and remember the stories taught about “Indian horse thieves” and how it was a scourge upon the Western colonists. From the white man’s viewpoint, it was breaking the law. From the Indian view, it was a cultural norm. These contradictory viewpoints were but a part of the constant conflict that clashed repeatedly between the ever-expanding Americans and the Natives of land.
Even as the West was lost and the reservations became the norm, the horse never left the Native communities. By the 1900s, the horse was irrevocably tied to Native culture, honored in beadwork and drawings in both art and personal belongings. Though many horses were confiscated by the U.S. government (such as the vast herds of the Nez Perce), they remained an undeniable part of the community. As the exhibition winds through the last days of the frontier and the ends of the Indian Wars, the horse is seen more in cultural symbols and traditions of the tribal communities than as a weapon of war.
It becomes obvious that the cultural shift remained permanent. Even as the reservation lifestyle forever altered Indian ways, it did not sever the connection Natives had to the horse. More and more, Native peoples honored the horse through their beadwork and crafts, creating elaborate decorations and ornamentation for use in celebrations, parades, and powwows. The Smithsonian’s exhibition blooms at the end with artwork from the turn of the 20th Century through the modern day. Contemporary artwork using traditional methods such as beadwork and quillwork, as well as ceramics and oil painting, still convey the respect and honor Natives have for the horse. At the very end, a short film highlights the Nez Perce’s continued efforts to rebuild their horse herds through the Young Horsemen’s Program, which seeks to preserve the Appaloosa made famous by their ancestors. Their dedication to not just breeding but in respecting the animal speaks volumes of the attitudes of many tribal communities today.
By showcasing modern artwork through everyday items such as martingales and blankets, masks and paintings, the exhibition ties together and drives home just how important the horse truly is to Native culture and relevance. It is a syncretistic blend of the old and new, adaptation and growth, and a shining example of the spirit of today’s Native people. The Horse Nation is alive and well because of their efforts and will remain an integral part of the history, culture, and understanding of Native America for generations to come.
A Song for the Horse Nation will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. You can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.