Plains People: Indians and Horses
There is no doubt that the Plains Indians were masters of horsemanship. Consider the Cheyenne, who were forced onto the plains in the late 18th century by traditional enemies who had acquired firearms. The Cheyenne quickly adapted to the equine lifestyle of the plains, immediately abandoning agriculture and becoming nomadic hunters, a change that ran counter to anthropological theory that assumed a steady progression from hunter-gatherer to agriculture to become civilized.
It was the horse that gave the Cheyenne and other nomadic tribes of the Great Plains the ability to excel in this often hostile environment. And it was the Spaniards who, even unwittingly, gave the horse to the indigenous peoples. Realizing the value of the horse as a weapon of war, the Spanish had forbidden giving the horse to Native Americans or even allowing them to ride, but they learned anyway.
Hernan Cortez unloaded sixteen horses (eleven stallions and five mares) at Vera Cruz in 1519, en route to the eventual conquest of the Aztec Empire. Some of the descendants of these horses, along with others brought from Europe, escaped and multiplied in the vast herds of mustangs that roamed the prairies. As George Catlin describes in his painting of some Comanches catching mustangs, the Plains Indians did not need horses; they could catch their own.
Recently, my daughter forwarded me an article she had seen on the internet called “Native Horse of the Americas” which is about the Ph.D. thesis of Yvette Running Horse Collin, who is of Lakota/Nakota/Cheyenne origin. In his dissertation, from the Native Studies program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Collin asserts that Native Americans did not obtain horses from Europeans but always had them. Collin cites fossil evidence, historical records, and oral history to support his claim.
I haven’t seen her thesis, but the article I read suggests that she believes the discovery that horses originated in North America is fairly recent. In fact, scientists have known for over a century that the horse evolved here and then spread to Asia and Europe. The earliest known horse, the Eohippus (dawn horse), dates back to the Eocene era, a time that spanned 55 to 33.9 million years ago. This first horse had four toes on the front legs and three on the hind legs, and was twelve inches tall, about the size of a fox. Eohippus was the first of a dozen or more primitive horse species, and all of the family that gave us the tapir and the rhinoceros.
Because I haven’t seen his thesis, I don’t know what fossil evidence supports his claim, and I don’t know of any historical records that would either. I know the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company documented the year the various tribes they dealt with each acquired the horse. Obviously, none of them had had horses before.
For oral history, it apparently relies on stories passed down from various tribes. Indigenous peoples around the world have traditional stories about the creation of the earth and the animals found there, including themselves. But these stories, while interesting from an anthropological perspective, are obviously no more scientifically accurate than the fact that the earth, and everything in it, was created in six days. So just because the story of the creation of a particular Plains tribe says they always had horses doesn’t mean that’s literally true.
The scientific reaction to Collin’s claim was predictably negative, and I also think she is wrong, but many long-held beliefs are often upended by new findings. Just a month ago, the Smithsonian Magazine reported that woolly mammoths, wild horses and steppe bison did not suddenly die out thirteen thousand years ago, as previously believed, but still existed eight thousand years later.
So I’m not going to overtly mock Collin’s theory, but it will take a lot more hard evidence (emphasis on hard evidence) to shake my belief that the American Indians acquired the horse from the Spaniards . – Dr. Jim Hoy is the author of the book “My Flint Hills: Observations and Reminiscences from America’s Last Tallgras Prairie”. Hoy is Professor Emeritus of English at Emporia State University and Director Emeritus of the Center for Great Plains Studies.