The story of the relationship of Native peoples and horses is one of the great sagas of human contact with the animal world. Native peoples have traditionally regarded the animals in our lives as fellow creatures with which a common destiny is shared. When American Indians encountered horses—which some tribes call the Horse Nation—they found an ally, inspiring and useful in times of peace, and intrepid in times of war. Horses transformed Native life and became a central part of many tribal cultures.
By the 1800s, American Indian horsemanship was legendary, and the survival of many Native peoples, especially on the Great Plains, depended on horses. Native peoples paid homage to horses by incorporating them into their cultural and spiritual lives, and by creating art that honored the bravery and grace of the horse.
The glory days of the horse culture were brilliant but brief, lasting just over a century. The bond between American Indians and the Horse Nation, however, has remained strong through the generations.
— A Song for Horse Nation, NMAI
The Plains Tribes stories of Horse Nation are undoubtedly beautiful, moving and well documented, and Indian Summer Festival is very proud to present them at this year's Festival. The story that has not been told is one of our own... the Woodland tribal horse. But before we talk about woodland horses, lets look first at horses in the Americas. Yes, horses lived in North America before European contact!
Some 10 million years ago, up to a dozen species of horses roamed the Great Plains of North America. These relatives of the modern horse came in many shapes and sizes. Some lived in the forest, while others preferred open grassland.
A Brief History of Horses
By 55 million years ago, the first members of the horse family, the dog-sized Hyracotherium, were scampering through the forests that covered North America. For more than half their history, most horses remained small, forest browsers. But changing climate conditions allowed grasslands to expand, and about 20 million years ago, many new species rapidly evolved. Some--but not all--became larger and had the familiar hooves and grazing diets that we associate with horses today. Only these species survived to the present, but in the past, small and large species lived side by side.
— The Horse, The American Museum of Natural History
Horses in Woodland Culture
Did you know that horses ran wild on reservations in and around Wisconsin up until the 1960's? Its true. Or that our Wisconsin tribes used horses to build their communities, roadways and tribal pow wow grounds? Native farmers also used horses to help them grow valuable crops thus provide for their families and community members, and horses were used to build the forestry legacy thriving on the Menominee Reservation to this day. Culturally speaking, horses were incorporated as part of the pagentry at pow wows, ceremonies and cultural gatherings. They provided not only the transportation to and from these important events, they were part of the culture — a part of our collective tribal story.
Our survival — culturally, economically and historically — relied on horses. The bond between us is inseparable.
Below are a few of the many accounts that help tell the Woodland tribal story with horses. We hope you enjoy them and then join us on September 5th through the 7th, 2014, to honor, celebrate and enjoy horses as Indian Summer Festival welcomes you to HORSE NATION CELEBRATION!
Feral horses ran wild on tribal lands in Wisconsin up until the 1960’s. Shown above: Wild horses photographed on the White Earth reservation in neighboring Minnesota.
Horses were farm animals to the Native people of the lakes and woods; fancy beaded horse outfits, occasionally made by Cheyenne women, were never done here (and the rodeo never caught on either). But the large bandolier bags, straps crossed like soldiers’ cartridge belts, made a brave showing, almost like beaded saddle flaps, on the rare occasions when there were horse parades.
Shown above: Ojibwe men in Walker, WI , 1919.
Indigenous modern horses died out in the Americas at the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago, and thus were absent until the Spanish brought domestic horses from Europe, beginning in 1493.
Up until the arrival of European horses, tribal people used dogs to help them transport necessities which is why horses were most often referred to as “big dogs.”
Shown above: Effigy mound in Wisconsin and the photo above the effigy mound is of an unidentified woman walking next to her horse who is outfitted with a “travois”. Before horses, she would have used a travois and dog(s) to move these things. This effigy mound is believe to be shaped after a big dog — in other words, a horse.
Shown above: A candid portrait of Potawatomi Chief Simon Onanguisse Kahquados, the last hereditary chief, who is holding the bridle of a horse.
By 1820, the Potawatomi had established more than 100 villages, including more than 80 in Wisconsin. Since the Potawatomi preferred to settle near waterways, travel and movement between these villages was increasingly by dugout canoes and larger bark canoes. However, as many Potawatomi grew successful though the fur trade and other pursuits, they increasingly adopted horses and used canoes only for local, short-distance travel. Horses were both ridden and used for farming, and carrying burdens of trade goods, wild rice, and meat.
Logging camps used horses including Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE) located on the Menominee Reservation, whose teams of horses hauled heavy timbers, and helped built roads. Horses were also used to build city roadways such as Keshena, Neopit and Oshkosh, and the beautiful Woodland Bowl in Keshena was built using horsepower.