Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When The Horse Arrived On The Northern Plains

Inyan Woslata, or Standing Rock. Legend says that a woman turned to stone. There are three variations of the story of how she turned to stone, as well as three stones to commemorate her. This one is located in Fort Yates, ND.
The Horse Arrives on the Northern Plains
An Examination Of Oral Tradition And Pictographic History

By Dakota Wind
FORT YATES, N.D. - When I was growing up on the vast open plains on Standing Rock, under an equally broad blue sky, I listened to stories of horse-stealing raids, heard songs to honor the equine spirit, saw meticulously carved and beautifully painted horse sticks, and I’ve heard at least four variations about how the horse came to the Lakota people.

My grandfather was a minister, an Episcopal priest, in Fort Yates. He was once a professional baseball player in the Great Depression, a World War II and Korean War veteran, a railroad worker, and a bus driver. To me and my brothers and sisters he was our “Lala.” “Lala” in Lakota is “grandpa,” and that’s what we called him.

A map of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. It straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border, and is one of the bigger reservations in North America. Check it out on Google Earth. 

My Lala was often invited or called upon to go to different parts on the reservation, sometimes off too. He and my grandmother would often take me and my younger brother to go with them. We’d gas up at Tim’s and get a Coke before the drive to Cannonball, McLaughlin, Wakpala, Kenel, Bullhead, and sometimes to Whitehorse, or wherever else my Lala was called to be at. 

On those drives, no matter how long or short, we rarely listened to the radio, and only then to hear how the weather was going to be. We’d always listen to AM radio too, which rather irritated me because the music and sound quality sounded old-fashioned. On the drive home we’d listen to Paul Harvey tell the rest of the story.

As my Lala drove us to wherever he’d always have a story to share. Sometimes he’d tell the same stories about places we visited and for that I’m grateful because sometimes I didn’t pay attention or fell asleep. If only I’d had the interest then as I do today. Twice, at least twice that I remember when I was paying attention or was awake, he told about the horse.

I regret that I didn't readily have a picture of the those flat topped buttes south of Fort Yates, but I found this one on the Standing Rock Water website. At some point I'll take a descent picture and post it. 

The Crow came one year and stole horses, or stole them back, south of present-day Fort Yates. You, dear reader could stand on Golf Hill (Boot Hill, or if you want to be culturally correct, The Hill That Stand Alone as the Cheyenne knew when they lived there three hundred to two hundred years ago) and look directly south, there in your field of vision on the far horizon are some flat topped buttes, is where this horse incident took place, so my grandfather told me.

When he was a young boy himself, raised along the banks of Wakpala and Grand River, he was riding horse, bareback, when his horse became spooked by a rattler. His horse reared bucking my lala off its back, but his foot became ensnared in the bridle during his fall, and as his horse broke into a gallop it drug him four miles in all across scrub, rocks, and cactus (Missouri Pincushion its called) before his horse came to stop. My lala was seen by the reservation doctors who proclaimed they could do nothing for him. My great-great-grandmother, Emma Creek, at this point stepped in and used traditional Lakota medicine on brought my lala back from the knife’s edge of death. So my lala and my aunts and uncles told me.

A horse pictograph. On stone, they're called petroglyphs. This one looks to be the latter and painted scarlet too. 

And I wondered about the horse.

The Lakota didn’t always have the horse, in fact, when it did come to us we called it Tasunka (Big Dog), Sunka Wakan (Holy Dog), even Sunka Hehaka (Elk Dog). But there are cultural experts better and greater than I who can tell you about the high horse culture which flourished on the Great Plains. There are books on the subject of the changes in warfare and trade on the collective American Indian culture.

Growing up on Standing Rock, I heard that the horse came to the Dakota-Lakota people out of the Missouri River, Mni Sose (Water A-Stir), as we called it. The story, at least this version goes, we were breaking camp and as we crested a hill, there below us coming out of the river itself was a herd of ponies.

A picture of Nakota horses running in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The horses hae a rough history in the park there, being they were going to be culled or removed at one point. The Nakota Horse Conservancy was established and took in as many as they could. This breed of horse is said to descend from the Hunkpapa herd of horses which were taken from them after they returned from Canada. A beautiful horse, look up the conservancy for yourself and see the images on their website. 

On Standing Rock, there is a prominent Ihanktowana (Yanktonai Dakota) elder, Mary-Louise Defender, who has a different take on the tale. According to her oral tradition they broke camp one morning long ago, along the Missouri River. They were traveling over the prairie and as they came to the top of a hill, some scouts who’d run ahead were excitedly calling everyone to hurry and see something. As the tiyospaye, the band or extended family, came to the hill top, they looked down to the river, and as they watched, strange creatures drew themselves out of a great swirl of water and came to the shore where the people were. They saw that one of these creatures was wearing a rope, and they knew that these creatures, these Sacred Dogs or Elk Dogs, were meant to help the people. And that’s how the horse came to the people. Ho hece tu welo (That’s the way it is). This, of course, is my brief summarization of the story by Unci Wagmuhawin (Grandmother Gourd Woman).

Here's the cover of one of Mary-Louise Defender Wilson's CD. Visit Makoche's website and gratify yourself with a copy today.
Some say the horse came with the thunder of a storm. Others say the horse appeared in camp when they woke up in the morning. 

According to the John K. Bear Winter Count, the horse entered the Dakota-Lakota culture in 1692. The story goes they were camped along the river, where the James River converges with the Missouri River, today that area is called Armidale Island near present-day Yankton, SD. 

Horse stealing quickly became an art of war as evidenced in the 1706 entry of the Brown Hat Winter Count. 
An exquisite example of the Lakota horse stick in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. 

Regardless of the story or variation of the horse’s arrival, one thing is universal: the horse is a sacred gift, a part of the mystery of creation, and should be treated respectfully.