Thursday, May 30, 2013

Traditional Lakota Horsemanship Lives

A spotted black horse keeps a watchful eye on visitors.
Šhuŋg Nağí Kičhí Okižhu
"Becoming One With The Spirit Of The Horse"
Traditional Horsemanship On Standing Rock
By Dakota Wind
Fort Yates, N.D. – I met Jon Eagle at the Sitting Bull College right outside of Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. It was a bright spring morning, a few distant clouds hung in the sky, not enough to provide shade, nor heavy enough to promise rain. Meadowlarks flew boldly through a light breeze carrying short sweet songs of courtship.

Jon had taken me to his niece’s land just south of Fort Yates near the wačhipi (pow-wow) grounds. We followed a short bumpy dirt road, more trail than road, and the pickup kicked up a small cloud of dust which dissipated with the quiet wind. Suddenly we were there, where we saw his horses grazing along the meandering Akičhita Haŋska Wakpa (Long Soldier Creek).

The sun shown clear and true, but not hot, at least not yet, not in the spring in the land of forever. The snow had all but melted and only in the shade of the bends of the creeks was compacted snow still holding out. Tips of trees and ends of bushes bore small tight buds, a sure sign that spring had arrived.

On the drive to the horse range, we spoke of family lines. I had heard him refer to a lekšhi (uncle) of mine as lala (grandfather). To one another, however, we addressed each other as théhaŋšhi (male cousins) and it seems comfortable to do so as we are closer in age than in generation. In knowledge, Jon possesses practical, experiential traditional knowledge handed down to him and he’s quick to acknowledge who and where he acquired it.

“When a horse shares breathe with us, that’s a sacred thing.”

Jon brought me to the horses to talk about them in front of them, and it was far better to speak about the return of traditional horsemanship on site rather than back in the confines of an office. The talk bounced between ancestral or genetic memory, traditional stories of the horse, Lakĥóta societies of history and the recent Black Spotted Horse Society, and traditional horsemanship which is based on developing a relationship versus the western dominion of horse-breaking.

We stepped out of his pickup and onto the floodplain of the creek, a gentle steppe above a wandering waterway that’s quietly shaped and cut a path at the bottom of the valley floor over thousands of years. Horses circled around the little steppe looking for fresh green spring grass and found it shooting up through last year’s brown remains.

Jon stopped us perhaps twenty feet from a mottled brown and white pony as we continued to exchange pleasantries about the day. After a while the mottled pony came over and shared an affectionate greeting with Jon, and introduced herself to me. I held my hand up and she sniffed and huffed at me for a few minutes and tolerated the touch of my palm to the bridge of her face. “When a horse shares breathe with us, that’s a sacred thing,” explained Jon, “They’re sharing their spirit with us.” The mottled pony made a final quiet non-committal huff of me, took a few steps back into the grass and put her nose back to the ground.

A horse made of shadow and light on a bluff along Long Soldier Creek.

In the cool breezy morning air under a now cloudless azure sky our conversation began in earnest about the horse and the return of the practice of traditional horsemanship by the people of Iŋyáŋ Wosláta (Standing Rock).

“The horses have a language of their own, and a natural social order,” explained Jon. With domestication of the horses, humans have interrupted the natural order according to Jon.

The pony that brought herself over to Jon and introduced herself to me, is “untouched” explained Jon. “She’s never known a halter, she’s never been saddled, and I’m trying to preserve that in her.” Indeed, there’s a spirit of equality that emanates from her as though we’re brother and sister, rather than man and animal. It feels as though she would let me ride on her back at her prerogative rather than mine.

...a telling quality of spirit, a gentle quality found in their eyes.

Jon says that he looks for a telling quality of spirit, a gentle quality found in their eyes. “It tells me that they’re intelligent and that she’s trainable, that I can develop a relationship,” he says. For Jon, horses are friends to develop a relationship with, not merely a domestic work animal for breaking, pulling and riding. When people ask him how to learn how to ride a horse, he says that’s something that he can’t teach. In fact, he insists that one needs to develop a relationship with the horse. If one can’t develop a relationship with a horse, one can’t ride a horse.

It’s a lifelong lifestyle for Jon Eagle. He was born into a horse ranching family who rode along the Snake and Grand rivers in South Dakota. In those days, not so long ago, before ATVs, ranchers depended on horses to ride the range and cross the steppe. “We wanted what we called an ‘All Day Horse.’ A horse that could go all day and could get the job done.”

Jon and one of his spotted horses. Our interview commenced after her careful inspection and approval of me.

Jon’s children take an active role in horsemanship. They water and feed the herd, venture into the field to repair fence line, anything that puts them in direct field contact with their horses. They ride some of their horses and are equally practiced in saddle and tack as well as bareback riding. Jon doesn’t push them into the field, but rather lets his children determine their own time with their horses. “I want them to enjoy this. It’s a way of life,” said Jon.

I asked Jon if he rides bareback, a question which he graciously answered and led us into discussion about western horsemanship and traditional Lakĥóta horsemanship. “I can’t ride bareback,” he said and then recounted an incident back in 2000 when he rode a two-year old mare all summer then put her away for the winter. When spring returned, he corralled her and when he rode her, she “clicked,” doing everything he wanted her to do as though he had ridden her only yesterday. Feeling rather enthusiastic about his mare’s recall, he took her out in the field when she began to behave unfavorably. Thinking that Jon had to “correct” his mare he directed her to a run.

“I realized that our cowboy way of horsemanship was disrespectful and abusive. We broke them and they resented that.”

“I was 5’11” when I started that day, and became 5’10” by day’s end. I had shattered my pelvis and fractured by back,” recalled Jon with a distant gaze in his eyes that told me he wasn’t just looking over my shoulder down the dirt road, but was looking back in time. The incident humbled Jon. He was raised as a cowboy and was trained to have dominion over the horses, to break them. “I realized that our cowboy way of horsemanship was disrespectful and abusive. We broke them and they resented that.”

In the time Jon was laid up in recovery, he began to rethink his approach to the horse. He picked one of Monty Roberts’ books about natural horsemanship which talks about the concept of “join up.” Jon then brought his horse into the corral, and after she read Jon’s body language, she became comfortable with him again and approached him after a short while.

In another version of the horses' arrival, the horse came out of a swirl where the James River converges with the Missouri River.

Jon contacted his théhaŋšhi, Greg Holy Bull, in Red Scaffold on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation and heard the story of the Lakĥóta story of the horse. This, Jon graciously shared with me:

A long time ago, the people traveled west to some mountains, then turned south where they encountered a camp of people whom they had never before met. In that camp, they noticed too, that there was an animal that they had never before seen. Unfortunately, enthusiasm of first contact swiftly broke down and violence broke out. During the conflict, the horses broke free and scattered. Warriors went into the new enemies’ camp during the fight and stole women thinking to make wives of them. The people, the Lakĥota, made a run north with the enemy in hot pursuit. Gradually, it happened that the enemy lost heart and turned back. The people slowed their flight in response the enemy retreat and to their wonder, encountered the harras. Warriors wanted these horses and tried taking them without success. In the evening, after camp was established, the enemy women went out in the field and sang to the horses which drew them in. With the horses drawn closer to the familiarity and soothing tone of the women, warriors would attempt to capture them to no avail. All the while the tiyošpaye kept moving. A day came when they came to a river, there they made an abrupt turn east, back to their ancestral territory, and lo, the harras followed. Gradually the horses and warriors came to an understanding and so that’s how this one band of Lakĥota came to have the horse.
Note: According to the story as Jon heard it, the enemy whom the Lakĥóta took women and horses from were the Spanish.

...singing and allowing the horse to come forward on its own accord, is the method the Lakĥota came to call Šung Naği K’sapa, The Wisdom Of Spirit.

The natural approach to the horse, the singing and allowing the horse to come forward on its own accord, is the method the Lakĥota came to call Šung Naği K’sapa, The Wisdom Of Spirit. The spirit of the horse senses the natural order of the world and the natures of men, and they respond. In the natural world, they know when thunderstorms are coming. Horses read the body language of men, and determine if they will get close or allow humans to come close to them.

Jon doesn’t teach people how to ride horses or master horses. He teaches people how to have relationships with horses. He passionately recalls the lessons of the Lakĥota people and how they look at the horse as their own nation, the Šung Wakaŋ Oyáte. That everything out there is a nation unto itself. That everything has a spirit.

This natural and spiritual approach to horsemanship leads Jon to be able to harness and ride his horses without ever having to go through the traditional “breaking” or bribing of the horse. “I can actually get them to come walk over and stick their head in that halter, and it’s all because we’ve established a meaningful relationship based on trust,” Jon explains.

Jon has carefully examined the meaning of the Lakĥota word for horse. A search online, and in person among various Lakĥota communities have yielded different words and even different meanings. Šhuŋka Wakáŋ, which many give a contemporary interpretation as “Holy Dog,” but which Lakĥóta elders render in the traditional sense as “pitiful,” not in the western mindset of downtrodden but as “beautiful, innocent and pure.”

Part of the Lakĥota word for horse, wakáŋ, reaches back to creation. When Iŋyáŋ, Stone, let his blood flow, his blood which ran blue and became the waters of the world, his blood was Kaŋ, full of energy with the potential for destruction and to give life. When the Lakĥóta say Wakáŋ, it means something with energy, energy with good and negative potential. Taken altogether, Šhuŋka Wakáŋ means Beautiful Pure Innocence With-Energy.

...Šhuŋg nağí kičhí okižhu, which translates as “Becoming one with the spirit of the horse.”

Jon described traditional horsemanship with the Lakĥóta phrase Šhuŋg nağí kičhí okižhu, which translates as “Becoming one with the spirit of the horse.” The Lakĥóta people say it’s a way of life, and breaking a horse or having dominion has no part in building a relationship with people, nations and creation. Jon notes that with a natural spiritual relationship with horses, the horses put people in a place of honor, čhatkú, a middle place between the natural authority of the mares and the sires. It’s a place that is earned by trust, which is not so different from how one earns friends and holds them in esteem.

Before I felt it, morning became noon, and before we left Jon’s horses he related one more story with me, a story that came to him from Mr. Albert Foote Sr. who heard from his Lala (grandfather) the origins of the horse:

A long time ago, Thuŋkášhila [Grandfather, in reference to a higher power] had an omníčiye [a gathering] of all the nations in one place. There, Thuŋkášhila told them there would one day appear a two-legged, that’s coming. “They’re going to be uŋšíka [pitiful]. They’re not going to be able to see as good as you. They’re not going to be able to hear as good as you. They’re not going to be as strong as you. And they’re not going to be as fast as you are. So, who amongst you is willing to help them?” said Thuŋkášhila. After this question was posed, one of the šung wakaŋ took off running. Thuŋkášhila then sent Waŋbli [the Eagle] after, “Talk to him. And ask him if he’ll help the two-legged.” The eagle caught up to the horse, “Why are you running?” The horse replied, “They’re going to be a burden to me. They’re going to ride me and they’re going to want me to carry their things.” The eagle alighted on the horse’s rump and said, “This is how much of a burden they’re going to be.” But the horse kicked that eagle off of him. Eagle went back to the gathering and told Thuŋkášhila what transpired. Thuŋkášhila said, “No. You must go back and convince him.” Eagle returned to the horse, but by then it had started to rain and horse had been running for a long time and was sweating profusely. Again, eagle said, “Let me show you how much of a burden they’re going to be,” and again alighted onto horse’s back, and shook himself, and as eagle shook himself, his center plume came out and came to rest on horse’s back. Horse began to protest with wild bucks back and forth, but because he was sweaty from running and wet from the rainfall, horse could dislodge the feather. Eventually, horse relented and said, “I’ll be the one. I’ll be the one to carry their burdens.”

The sun shone true and fair upon us, a few clouds hung high in the azure sky and rambled slowly eastward. I carry no watch, and I didn’t see one on Jon’s wrist either, only the growl in my stomach let me know it was about midday. The horses had wandered across Long Soldier Creek to graze on the fresh dark green grass there. Jon had finished his coffee long ago and sat patiently on the gate of his pickup and gently tapped his empty paper cup against the palm of his hand.

There are no roads either, only the tell-tale ruts of the travois...

For a moment I imagine Jon in another time, sitting on the back end of a travois, tapping the rim of a hand-drum about to break into song. There are no roads either, only the tell-tale ruts of the travois that show how we arrived here. The lofty clouds are the same that floated here three hundred years ago, in a sky the same blue, above a quiet wandering creek just as hauntingly quiet then as now. The same breeze grazes me and cools me.  

I am brought out of this reverie the moment we step into Jon’s pick-up. We barrel up an incline back onto the lonely dirt road that brought us here. It’s my turn to open the barbed wire fence gate. The dirt road gave way to gravel, then blacktop. We drove back into town and into the twenty-first century. The efforts of traditional Lakĥóta people carried the tradition of the horse culture into a new age.

Jon Eagle Sr. is Húnkpapĥa Lakĥota and Isáŋti Dakĥota, his wife Martina is Sihásapa Lakĥota and Ihaŋktĥuwaŋna Dakĥota.  Together, they have seven children and two grandchildren, two cats, two dogs and twelve horses. They enjoy traveling to celebrations all over Indian Country and enjoy a rich and beautiful life.

Visit Šhuŋg Nağí Kičhí Okižhu, Becoming One With The Spirit Of The Horse for more information.


  1. I love this article and your writing and the awesome horseman Jon. I can relate so strongly to the discovery of relationship with a horse, especially the part about breathing the spirit. Thanks for writing and publishing this. Oh also, the horses and photos and art are gorgeous. I want to share on facebook, but can't find the little f.

    1. Copy the url link to this article into your next post on FaceBook.