A couple of weeks ago I took a horse ride with some family. A beautiful winter day, 20 degrees or so, the unseasonably warm weather makes you want to have the horses, or maybe take a ride in that one horse open sleigh.
There I was, deep into the woods. I enjoyed the ride out, appreciating the beauty and in awe of my horse, Waasu, an appaloosa from Lakota Territory. Noopeming, deep in the woods. I dismounted to make my prayers.
That’s when my horse took off. I know, “keep the reins.” But no, I held the lead rope. The lead rope doesn’t do you a lot of good in the deep snow. Back he went, ran all the way back to the horse trailer and the grandchildren. Dumb.
I know I am not the first cowgirl to lose her horse in the woods, but it is a humbling lesson on horsepower.
This is what I know. Riding into the woods on a 1,300-pound animal is cool as heck. Think about it: You get to ride on an animal. Now that’s a pretty rare gift between the relatives — or between the species.
Magical in fact. Trudging back out of the woods, without your horse is not so fun.
Horses changed the world. In North America, horses lived on Turtle Island long ago. However, the horses we know today came to the Americas first with the Spanish conquistadors. The conquistadors didn’t really do much for Native people: lots of beheadings, torture, Bibles and theft of land and gold. However, they brought the horse. That was the best thing. The word is Cortez arrived in Mexico with 10 stallions and six mares. The horse was quickly adopted, stolen from conquistadors, particularly during the 1680 Pueblo revolt against Onate.
From there, the horse herds grew. In 1787 in northern Canada, the Blackfeet had 250 horses at one trade. By 1805, the Hidatsa, just before the smallpox epidemic, traded 500 horses to Cree and Ojibwe people on the banks of the Missouri River.
Explosive growth in horses and transformation.
Horses transformed the world from human power to animal power. Sunka is the name for dog, Sunka Wakan, horse in Lakota. Before horses, Native families moved by dogs, dog sleds and travois. A horse represented seven dogs in labor, and that’s their name in Sarci, some Athabascan speakers of the far north. For the Ojibwe, one word, a Red Lake word is mishtadim, horse (a Cree word for dog is atim), inday, my horse, my dog. Blackfeet word for horse: Elk Dog.
Truth be told, horses don’t work for everyone, but if you live in the Great Plains they create a new world. Loved, the animals became a sacred and beloved relative.
Horses transformed economies, from the buffalo hunt to the ability to travel, trade and defense. Really. Native horses were well-suited to the land and prized. Horses bred by Indigenous people, like the Nez Perce, were superior to the horses upon which the cavalry was mounted, they had adapted to the terrain. That’s why they were killed.
With the end of the Nez Perce War, hundreds of horses were confiscated or killed by the military, a brutal retaliation for Chief Joseph and his people, who had eluded the military for 1,400 miles on horseback into the Canadian north. The fate of the people and the horses were the same: Shackled, starved, killed and sent to prison. The Nez Perce survived, to return to their Wallowa and Palouse valleys, today a strong nation again. They have a new breed of Nez Perce horse.
Horses are also the foundation of labor. It’s quite a bit different to be powered by a horse versus a human. Farming with horses is a huge labor boost, and as well I learned their value out there in the woods.
Horsepower became a unit of measurement. Horsepower is a foot-pound-second unit of power, equivalent to 550 foot-pounds per second, or 745.7 watts. Teamsters used to drive horse teams; that’s where the word comes from. My friend Dick Schauer at Working Horse in Park Rapids, Minn., talks about his father being a Teamster. Today, the Teamsters uUnion represents 1.4 million workers and is one of the largest labor unions in the world. That’s horsepower.
The fine age of the horses ended in the American economy, but the idea of how one thing can so transform societies remains the same. Cast aside, millions were sent to slaughter. They continue to be slaughtered today.
In this day and age, the transformational power of something like a horse is called a disruptive technology; technology that changes the world. The internet is one of those technologies. So is electricity and broadcasting technology. I used to watch “Star Trek” on TV, and Captain James T. Kirk would say, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Now, we zoom up!
We’ve an explosion of the electric engine — that’s the engine that’s 65% efficient, as opposed to 16% efficient like a combustion engine. Like the horse, it’s returned. And, from what I have heard a Tesla can go 60 miles an hour in 4.5 seconds, if you wanted to.
That’s a lot of horsepower.
Things change, but I have a horse and, this round, I am going to try and stay in my saddle. My relative and my friend, the horse.
Winona LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation. She is also owner of Winona's Hemp and a regular contributor to Forum News Service.