Photograph by Erika Larsen
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A paint horse named Cikala, which means "Little" in Lakota.
Photograph by Erika Larsen

Erika Larsen: In Search of a Horse

From 2011 to 2013 Erika Larsen travelled to many locations in the western U.S. to learn about the significance of the horse in Native American culture. Many people shared their stories and experiences about this connection with her, as well as the word for “horse” in their respective languages. Larsen’s photographs documenting this bond are featured in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic.

I arrived to Lapwai on the Nez Perce land where I met a woman named Rosa. She told me that I was looking for Sikem, and that the young Nez Perce generation could help me find him. So I asked a young Numipu named Olivia if she knew Sikem and she said yes. She said she had known him since she was seven and that she was free when she was with him and she felt like she could do whatever she wanted. He was her therapy. She had a portrait of Sikem on her shoulder saying ‘Live to Ride.’

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Katie Harris is photographed with her Appaloosa. Harris made most of the horse trappings as well as her own traditional outfits herself, including the bead work. Some of the trappings are passed down from older generations but the girls like to make their own to continue the tradition.

Continuing west to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla I met Katie. She told me she knew of Sikem too. She said she couldn’t imagine her life without him because he gave her a personal tie to her family’s history and culture. She told me a person could learn a lot from Sikem and in time he will become your best friend; you could even go on adventures together. She said Sikem is a part of her family. She had sewn by hand all of his regalia.

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Patricia Heemsah, of the Yakama Nation in Washington State, holds a beaded bag she uses in ceremonial dances and as regalia for her horse in parades.

Not too far away in the Yakama Nation I met Patricia. She told me I was looking for Kusi, her treasured friend. She said don’t let him fool you, he is a gentle giant, that has the tendency to be wild yet gentle and tame. She showed me a bag that her mother had beaded with Kusi on it.

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Benson Ramone accompanies his 17-year-old daughter, Tashina, who’s competing in the Fort Hall Rodeo on the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes reservation in Idaho. Riding horses is “in our blood,” Benson says. “You’re born with it.” He grew up in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, where, he says, “you could ride far—there were no fences then.”

I traveled further south and met Benson on the Navajo Nation. He told me I was searching for łįį’. He said he hoped that I could pronounce it or that he might be hard to find. He told me when his time on earth was over łįį’ would be his ride to the spirit world.

I met Clayson here as well. Clayson told me if I breathe on łįį’, and if he breathes back onto me, a bond has been created for life. Clayson had made a crown piece in silver for łįį with a half moon shape and some turquoise.

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Phillip Whiteman sages his horse Sioux Boy before a day of working together.

On my way north, I stopped in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Nation where I met a man named Phillip. He told me Mo en ha, was who I must be looking for, The Beautiful, Holy Spirit. He told me, “Our Language comes from the creator, when we speak, it creates thought and a thought never leaves its source, Mo en ha reminds us that we are all connected and we are all beautiful holy spirits.” He told me I had come to the right place and that he helped children and adults alike find Mo en ha. Once they find him, they find themselves.

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On the Crow Reservation in southern Montana, Michelle Walking Bear braids her 11-year-old son’s hair to keep it out of his face when he rides. His given name is Dallas White Clay, but he goes by “Spur.” A rodeo rider, he’s so good in the saddle that other kids often ask him to break in their horses.

Across the way, in Crow Agency, I heard the name, Iichiili, and so I inquired about him. I met a family that lived with Iichiili and they said if I looked far into the distance and as close as front door I could see Iichiili everywhere; that he had always been there.

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A paint horse named Cikala, which means “Little” in Lakota.

Finally, on my travels east I met a woman from the Lakota nation named Sung Agli Win-She Brings Back the Horses. She told me I was looking for Sunka Wakan. Her father had told her when the spirits brought them the gift of the Sunka Wakan, they found that it was four-legged and with a coat like wolves and dogs, but with special powers. It was hard to translate but maybe it was like “large four-legged being with spiritual powers.” She said that I would find Sunka Wakan living harmoniously in spirit like all of nature and that our connection with him was a gift from Creator, for which we are grateful. She said we are tied together, us and Sunka Wakan. Like the buffalo, they reflect us and link us back into the sacred rhythm and balance of nature. Any given child or person spending time with Sunka Wakan may find the effect hard to describe because they are being touched at a deeper level.

View more of Erika Larsen’s work on her website.