People of the Horse

Horses forever changed life on the Great Plains. They allowed tribes to hunt more buffalo than ever before. They tipped the balance of power in favor of mounted warriors. And they became prized as wealth. For Native Americans today, horses endure as an emblem of tradition and a source of pride, pageantry, and healing.

This story appears in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In September 1874, in the panhandle of Texas, the great Comanche equestrian empire came to an ugly and sorrowful end. This event boded deep changes on the Great Plains, because the Comanche had been among the first tribes, and the most successful, to adopt the horse after its arrival with Spanish conquistadores. They had become proficient, expert, ferocious, and even lordly as horseback warriors, terrorizing their Indian neighbors, making wrathful assaults to stem the trend of white settlement and buffalo slaughter, and eventually bedeviling the U.S. Army. And then, on September 28, 1874, the largest remaining body of Comanche fighters (along with a number of Kiowa and Cheyenne allies) was caught, amid their tepees, with their families, in an undefended bivouac at a place called Palo Duro Canyon.

The attack was executed by the Fourth Cavalry under Col. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, serving out of Fort Concho, in West Texas. Having surprised the Comanche and others and driven them from their encampment, Mackenzie’s men burned the tepees, destroyed the stockpiled food and blankets, and regrouped on the canyon rim with more than a thousand captured horses. The Indians had fled on foot. Mackenzie marched his troops back to their camp, 20 miles away, and there on the following morning he ordered all the horses, except a few hundred spared for use, shot. “The infantry roped the crazed horses and led them into firing squads,” according to S. C. Gwynne’s book on the Comanche, Empire of the Summer Moon. “The result was a massive pile of dead horses”—1,048, the records say. They rotted there, and their bones bleached for years, “a grotesque monument marking the end of the horse tribes’ dominion on the plains.” Some remnant of the Comanche, led by their great war chief Quanah Parker, walked 200 miles east to Fort Sill, in what was then Indian Territory, and surrendered.

Almost a century and a half later, a historian of the Comanche named Towana Spivey, himself of Chickasaw lineage, sat in the front yard of his home in Duncan, Oklahoma, and recounted these events to me. With the slaughter of the horse, he said, “the backbone of the resistance” was shattered. All their buffalo robes, all their food, their tools of survival, their means of transport and war fighting and nomadic mobility—gone. Quanah himself in custody. “It was a dramatic blow for the Comanches.”

That’s the famously grim story of Palo Duro, but the reality, Spivey explained, was worse. “We hear about that huge kill-off and the impact it had in Palo Duro Canyon,” Spivey said. What we don’t hear, he added, is that by June 1875, the Army had gathered another 6,000 to 7,000 Comanche horses back at Fort Sill. Colonel Mackenzie was now the commander there, and following guidance from Gen. Philip Sheridan, on the logic that these animals were too expensive to feed and too valuable to release, he ordered them also killed. His men took the horses to a place called Mackenzie Hill and began shooting them, using single-shot Springfield rifles, Sharps rifles, and seven-shot Spencer repeaters. “Shooting horse after horse became a major problem,” Spivey said. It was wasteful, clumsy, absurd. Finally, to save labor and ammunition, an auction was held. Comanche ponies went to white bidders. When that didn’t entirely clear the corrals, the shooting resumed.

These two slaughters of 1874 and 1875, crushing the Comanche resistance, did not finish the story of horses among Native American people. They were only the end of the beginning. Other tribes had mounted up. From the southern plains, this new animal, this new technology, this new way of hunting and fighting and traveling, had spread northward, from the Comanche and the Jumano and the Apache and the Navajo to the Pawnee, the Cheyenne, the Lakota, the Crow, and more. Not every tribe embraced it fully. The Mandan traded horses through their agricultural villages on the upper Missouri but never took to the equestrian life themselves. Is that one reason the Mandan were virtually wiped out by smallpox, a disease more devastating to sedentary communities than to nomads? Some historians think so.

Horses had opened new possibilities. They allowed men to hunt buffalo more productively than ever before, to range farther, to make devastating raids against other tribes. They relieved women of some onerous duties, such as lugging possessions from camp to camp. They tipped the balance, in population growth and territorial expansion, between hunting tribes and farming tribes, favoring the former. They also replaced the only previously domesticated animal in North America, the dog, which was much smaller and weaker and had to be fed meat. A horse could live off the land, eating what people and dogs didn’t want: grass. When drought or winter snows made grass unavailable, it could even survive on cottonwood bark.

The new animals were so prized that they began to fill a more abstract cultural role: as accrued wealth. If a man was savvy, ambitious, and lucky, he could amass a large herd; his excess horses could then be sold or traded or given away (in exchange for heightened prestige) or, if he let his guard down, stolen. Accrued wealth ushered in social stratification, and for the first time on the Plains there were rich Indians and poor Indians. Along with that novelty had come another: the acquisition of firearms from white traders, often in barter for beaver pelts, buffalo robes, or horses. These were momentous changes, bringing glorious highs and inglorious side effects, including the overharvest of buffalo even before market hunters arrived. Horsemanship also led to new severities of intertribal warfare as well as to resistance against white settlers and the Army, and eventually toward the sad endings at sites such as Palo Duro Canyon, the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana (where Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce were attacked as they tried to escape to Canada), and Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

The negative aspects of the horse revolution have passed into history, but horses remain vastly important to many Native Americans, especially the Plains tribes, as objects of pride, as tokens of tradition, and for the ancient values they help channel into a difficult present: pageantry, discipline, prowess, concern for other living creatures, and the passing of skills across generations.

The Pendleton Round-Up is a big-league, all-comers rodeo held each September in Pendleton, Oregon, not far from the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It includes a war dance competition and several Indian relay race events, as well as a nightly show called the Happy Canyon pageant. It begins with a grand parade through town presenting Indian riders in full regalia, and a ride-in to the arena led by local chiefs, followed by the resplendently attired young girls of the Indian court. In a trailer back by the corrals, a 50-ish woman named Toni Minthorn, official chaperone to the court, stitched repairs on the soft buckskin cover of a ceremonial saddle while describing to me her sense of mission. “My goal is to get princesses back on horses,” she said.

Toni’s mother had been a Happy Canyon princess in 1955, then Toni herself in 1978. Before that, she had grown up as a sort of equestrian tomboy, skijoring on sleds behind the family horses, jousting with hemlock spears, roughhousing on horseback with her brother and three sisters. Where did she get her riding skills? “I was born with ’em.”

Toni continued multitasking as she spoke, sewing the saddle, giving style and makeup advice to this girl or that, issuing further instructions through her Bluetooth. Her family home during childhood, in a little place called Spring Hollow, hadn’t included modern comforts or toys for the kids, although there was plenty of venison and elk. Little Toni didn’t have a doll. When her classmates at school heard that, they pitied her corrosively. You don’t have a doll? “I felt like I was the poorest kid who ever walked the Earth.” What do you do? they asked. We ride. Your family has horses? Yeah, she told them, 47 head. You have 47 horses? You must be rich! “And I didn’t feel poor anymore.”

Another important conclave is Crow Fair, held during mid-August in Crow Agency, Montana, attracting competitors from Pine Ridge in South Dakota, Fort Hall in Idaho, and elsewhere. On the hot afternoon I arrived, the organizers were bustling, the crowd was large and merry. A baritone announcer welcomed us to this year’s installment of the Crow Nation’s “all-Indian rodeo” and its attendant encampment, proudly styled as the “Teepee Capital of the World.” The program would include track races at five furlongs, sprint races, bull riding, saddle bronc, team roping, ladies’ breakaway (women’s calf roping), and one magnificently wild enterprise, the Indian Relay, touted as “the most exciting five minutes in Indian Country.” On a given day those five minutes might only be three, not counting time spent catching runaway horses and collecting fallen contestants out of the dirt.

The Indian Relay is a team competition, each team comprising one rider, three horses, and three courageous comrades to hold, catch, and control the two extra horses as the rider leaps from one to another, making a single circuit of the track on each. None of the horses is saddled. With at least five teams in each heat working to execute these bareback transfers, stopping horses from full gallop and starting others, all within a crowded stretch of track, the Indian Relay can get messy. But when it’s not messy, it’s sublime.

An adroit relay rider can pull one horse up short, slide off, take a few running strides, swing up onto the next horse, grab the reins, and gallop away. A team that makes two such transfers smoothly might win the relay by ten lengths, no matter who has the fastest horses. But that’s the ideal race. In the first heat I saw at Crow Fair, two riders bumped on the back stretch and fell, one remained down, and the announcer called for an ambulance to go out. “This is a tough business,” he said, his emollient voice sounding unapologetic. “Only the toughest Indians are involved. If it were easy, choirboys would do it.”

Later I talked with Thorton (they call him “Tee”) Big Hair, a burly but gentle-spirited young man who was serving as racing commissioner for that year’s Crow Fair. He wore a blue T-shirt, a straw cowboy hat, and a world champion belt buckle for Indian Relay, won in Sheridan, Wyoming. Too big to be a rider, Tee was the current “world champion catcher,” he bragged mildly, and had been knocked down by the arriving horse, aw, who knows how many times. Right now he was jubilantly energized (and, I suspect, relieved) by how well the day’s races had gone, and he assured me that the two fallen riders were OK. Horse racing ran strongly in Tee Big Hair’s blood, I learned from conversations with him and his family over the course of a couple days. His uncle Henry “Hank” Rides Horse, Jr., for instance, trained horses all over the state for racing. His uncle Byron Bad Bear raised sorrel paints.

Dennis Big Hair, Tee’s father, a 71-year-old patriarch, wore his hair short-cropped beneath his white Resistol, his sizable belly belying his own early history as a skinny young racer. I sat with him in the stables area, near the biscuits-and-gravy stand run by his wife. At age 14, Dennis told me, he’d won the Crow Indian Derby, among the oldest of traditional Crow races. He won a Governor’s Handicap around the same time, and yes, he also rode Indian Relay. Weighed about 99 pounds then, Dennis recalled wistfully, compared to about 250 now, and his trick was to ride right up close to the next horse, bounce off, take two strides, hop onto the next from behind, and be off. Like in the movies. It was fast. Nobody does that nowadays, he said with a touch of curmudgeonly disdain. That and raiding (surreptitiously stealing horses from other tribes) were two fine old traditions, fallen away.

Part of the somber context of Crow Fair is that it’s held just two miles from the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where a memorial to Indian warriors in that battle graces a knob just below Last Stand Hill. At the Indian memorial there are paintings, a roster of the fallen, and inscriptions, including a nostalgic quote from Sitting Bull: “When I was a boy the Lakota owned the world. The sun rose and set on their lands. They sent 10,000 horsemen to battle.” Before the program begins down at the rodeo grounds, or during a lull, you can sneak up and see the spot where the brash Colonel Custer got himself killed.

The dark memory of Little Bighorn seems forgotten once events in the arena begin. But there still can be somber moments. On the afternoon following my chat with Tee Big Hair, a Thoroughbred named Ollie’s Offspring broke its leg at the shin, from sheer effort, just 20 yards short of winning the last race, and a collective groan of dismay went up from the grandstand. The horse had to be shot, before 5,000 people, and dragged away by tractor.

When I spoke again with Tee the next morning, he seemed shaken. “It hurt my heart,” he said. His dad had advised him to view it philosophically, in the Crow way: When a death like that happens, the unlucky horse is taking some person’s place. Someone in the family needs help, and the horse’s death moves that person closer toward finding what’s needed. But that’s hard to accept, Tee told me, because of his feelings for these animals and what they do. He clasped a fist to his chest. “It’s true love, that’s it. You take care of your horse.”

Indian Relay isn’t the only event that echoes the rough-and-tumble horse skills of the Native American past. At the Omak Stampede, held in Omak, Washington, adjacent to the Colville Indian Reservation, the finale each night is a heat of the famous (in some circles, infamous) Suicide Race. Dreamed up by a white publicist in 1935, the Suicide Race has its roots in old endurance races. This equestrian melee is open to anyone crazy enough to ride a horse over a steep plunge—down a 62-degree slope, which for a horse might as well be a cliff—into the Okanogan River.

Some riders pray in a sweat lodge before the Suicide Race or decorate their horses with eagle feathers. Others just wear helmets and life jackets and hope for the best. More than a dozen horses hit the water at nearly the same instant, swim the depths, clamber up the far bank, and gallop into the rodeo arena toward a finish line under the lights, by which point their riders—at least the most skilled and the luckiest—are drenched but still aboard. The Humane Society deplores this spectacle because in the past several decades more than 20 horses have died. Horses die in conventional races too, as I saw at Crow Fair. On the night I watched the Suicide Race, one horse and one rider were injured, but there were no fatalities.

The official race veterinarian, Dan DeWeert, had his own perspective: “This is a great race, when I don’t have to do anything.”

The next afternoon I fell into conversation with an amiable, gray-haired woman named Matilda “Tillie” Timentwa Gorr at her beads-and-weaving booth in the Indian encampment. With the drumming of the powwow throbbing in our ears, she told me a bit about her family. They were horse people, going back at least to her grandfather, Chief Louie Timentwa, a breeder and dealer who’d kept 300 head. Many of those horses had been gathered as mustangs from the mountains round about. When her father was a young man, Tillie recollected, her Grandpa Louie would send him out with this instruction: Don’t come home on the same horse. “And he never did,” she said. Her dad would lasso a mustang, blindfold it, hobble it, and get a saddle on. Then he’d free the hobble, jump aboard, pull off the blindfold, hang tight through the bucking, and eventually ride that mustang home. His own horse would follow on its own.

But horse skills weren’t confined to the male side of the family. Tillie’s daughter Kathy rode the Suicide Race the year she turned 18, no longer needing parental consent. She had a bad ride, Tillie explained: Got hit from behind, the horse tumbled, Kathy broke her leg, and the horse had to be put down. Tillie never let her ride the race again.

Another keeper of cultural memory was Mary Marchand, a forceful octogenarian matriarch with 211 descendants, and an elder of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Mary and one of her sons, an urbane man named Randy Lewis, visiting from Seattle in braids and turquoise, relaxed with me in folding chairs overlooking the Suicide Race chute as we talked of the old days. Mary has since died, mourned by many, but that day she was keen and lively, wearing a blue brocade blouse, a necklace of beads and carved elk horn, and a visor in lavender reading “Harvard.” By her recollection, the old endurance races would cover maybe five miles through the mountains, with riders jumping their horses over boulders and logs, charging downhill, sometimes swimming a river. Those were “flint hoof” horses, Randy said, descended from mustangs, born and conditioned to run unshod across rock. There was no prize money for such a race, Mary explained. The winner got first pick from a barrel of salmon.

How far back, I asked, do those races go?

“Oh, boy...,” she said, momentarily adrift in time and memory.

So Randy spoke up: “Since horses.”

The customs may be tribal, but there’s an extra passion for these animals that seems to flow like lifeblood through certain families. Tee Big Hair’s extended clan is one instance. Another came to my attention by way of a young Blackfeet woman named Johnna Laplant. She’s a racer from Browning, Montana, tall and graceful enough to star in basketball. My first glimpse of her was at the Pendleton Round-Up. She wore blue colors and rode a dark brown Thoroughbred gelding in the Ladies’ Race, which is a bareback and Indian-dominated event. She rode fiercely and won.

Then came the trouble. A fallen rider, a riderless horse, outriders chasing it down, lariats whirling—all of which made it difficult for her and several others to stop their horses after the finish. With outriders pursuing, Johnna’s horse got confused and just kept racing. Meanwhile another young woman, small, aboard a bay Thoroughbred, let her horse get turned backward and start galloping the wrong way around the track. Worse still, she was on the rail, not on the outside where a reversed horse should be. We could all see what was coming, thousands of us in the stands, thinking, no … no … no … until it happened. The bay dodged one oncoming horse and ran head-on into Johnna’s gelding. She flew through the air. Both horses, and the other woman, also went down. Johnna stayed down. The gelding scrambled up, but clumsily, putting no weight on its right front leg, which seemed to be broken. They took Johnna off on a stretcher.

Many months afterward, I met Johnna in Missoula, Montana, and she told me that the brown gelding had survived. His leg hadn’t been broken after all; it was just a muscle injury, from which he slowly recovered. As for her: a concussion and a cut scalp, under her hair in the back where a horse stepped on her head, and lots of blood. But now she was fine and had been racing over the recent summer. She had won the Ladies’ Race again at Pendleton. And she’d been serving as a holder on the relay team of her cousin, a fellow named Narsis Reevis.

Narsis, 30, another lanky equestrian athlete, was a key part of Johnna’s whole story. He had been there when she fell at Pendleton, one of the first to reach her. He had shaken that off, when he knew she wasn’t badly injured, and ridden to victory in the Indian Relay himself. He was a masterful relay rider, whose height allowed him to use the same technique as old Dennis Big Hair: leaping onto the new mount over its behind. Johnna had grown up in the same household as Narsis, and more like a big brother than a cousin, he had taught her to ride. “Narsis was always around,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t know a thing about horses.”

I visited Narsis up in Browning, a reservation town just east of Glacier National Park. He told me about his grandfather, an old working cowboy named Lloyd “Curly” Reevis, who had welcomed Narsis around the corral when he was a tot. Curly had done rodeo in his day, especially as a roper. “That’s all I grew up on, was good rope horses,” Narsis said. “A lot of speed, and good rein on them.” His uncles Steve and Tim Reevis had also been there, fine riders, helping the little kid learn. Steve later did stunt riding in the movie Dances With Wolves, and Tim worked for nine years in a Wild West Show at Euro Disney. But it was Curly, the grandfather, who held this eclectic mix of influences together.

Curly Reevis was a dignified 79-year-old of sturdy physique the day I met him, wearing a black cowboy hat and a black jacket, with deep wrinkles and long ears and a flash of sly wit in his eyes. He took off the hat, leaned forward over his elbows on a cluttered desk, and told me a bit about Reevis family history. First thing to know: The lineage is half French (maybe “Riveaux”) and half Southern Blackfeet. Second thing to know: horses. “We had horses all over,” he said of his own childhood. Horses in the corral, horses running wild; go up on a hill, look around, and you saw horses. Curly’s granddad owned a passel. His father and uncles purveyed bucking horses to the local rodeos—simple events, you showed up on Sunday and tried to ride the broncs. “On the reservation, that was our life,” he said.

That was their life: family and horses. It echoed what Toni Minthorn had said, at Pendleton, about the poor little girl with no doll but 47 horses. And it gave context to—it placed in time—something that Curly’s great-granddaughter Johnna told me. Just as Narsis had taught Johnna to ride, and Uncles Tim and Steve had taught Narsis, and someone had taught Curly, or at least allowed him to teach himself, so Johnna was now teaching her young cousins. Reservation girls of six and eight, older boys, showing new confidence and blossoming talent on horseback, with tutelage from a homegrown hero, the tall girl-cousin who has won twice at Pendleton. It may not be an eternal chain of connectedness, but it’s a precious one.

You embrace skills and a passion that have come down from your ancestors; you learn the skills from your elders and make the passion your own; you become proficient, then expert, then generous with your expertise; you care for your animals smartly and lovingly; you pass the favor along to younger kin. You make your family proud and whole. That’s the ultimate Indian relay.