This is the fourth part of the story about the roots of the Nokota horse. We will now find out how the Spanish Colonial horse was adopted by the American Indian and shared two hundred years, for better or worse.
How the American Indian got on horseback
The Spanish Conquistador Juan de Onate set out north on an expedition from Mexico in 1598 and founded a settlement in New Mexico, bringing a large number of mares and stallions. The agricultural Pueblo Indians, (probably the Taos tribe) learned to handle horses as they worked for the Spanish ranchers, occasionally some of them got away with some horses or maybe some horses were lost out on the range. The word spread among the tribes and by time herds of horses were bred. In 1659 it was recorded that Navajo Indians in northwestern New Mexico made raids to steal horses from the Spanish settlements.
In the 1680 Pueblo Revolt the Indians forced the Spanish colonists to retreat and they captured thousands of horses. Soon the horse culture among the American Indians was established among the tribes of the southern plains and in 1690 horses were common among the tribes all over Texas.
The American Indian on the northern plains
We now choose to follow the Sioux people, since their history is interconnected with the Nokota horse. The Sioux is short for the French word Nadouessioux, which is a French spelling of the word Natowessiw (rattlesnake), used by the Ojibwa as a rude joint word for the Dakota/Lakota tribes. The Sioux consists of three groups with similar dialects:
Santee (Isáŋyathi, means “Knife”, from the name of a lake in Minnesota) Also denoted the Eastern Dakota.
Yankton (Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, means “Village-at-the-end”, living by the Minnesota River) Also denoted Western Dakota. Has wrongly been classified as “Nakota”.
Teton (Thíthuŋwaŋ, means “Dwellers on the Prairie” the westernmost Sioux) Teton is old-fashioned since long ago and the correct name is Lakota (Lakhóta) Later they were divided into seven separate sub-tribes; Sicaŋgu (Brulé, Burned Thighs), Oglala (Scatters Their Own), Itazipco (Sans Arc, Without Bows), Huŋkpapa (Camps at the End of the Camp Circle), Mnikoju (Planters by the Water), Sihasapa (Blackfoot Sioux), Oóhenuŋpa (Two Kettles)
By the end of the 17th century the Lakota people lived by the Great Lakes. The dog was their companion and helper. To move their camps and belongings, two sticks were crossed to form a travois and tied to a dog. A dog could drag maybe 40 pounds for 5 miles per day and they fed on meat. Dogs were also helpful when hunting deer and small game, but without horses hunting buffalos was hard and dangerous. As the Spanish Colonial horse spread from the south the Native Americans soon learned to appreciate the friendship of the horse. The Shoshone tribes in Wyoming were known to have horses at the turn of the century. Around 1730, the Lakota people got in contact with the horse by their neighbors and allies the Cheyenne and that changed their way of life in a profound way.
The horse could carry five times more load than a dog, travel five times longer in a day and the horse only needed grass to feed on. They called the horse šuŋkawakaŋ,”dog of miracle”. The horse became a precious family member to every Lakota Indian. One reason why the Indian horsemanship was so successful was their attitude to the whole environment including the animals. Because they literally saw the horse as a brother or sister, not as a subordinate animal to be controlled, they managed to quickly gain the horse’s absolute trust.
The Plains Indians hunted both elk and antelope but the buffalo, or the bison, was their specialty. Before the time of the horse the hunt for buffalo was hard. A technique they used was to herd the buffalo through a mile long narrowing drove way that ended up in a corral or confined rock formation, where the buffalo could be killed. Another way was for a brave hunter to hide under a buffalo hide, imitate the call of the buffalo and then make a kill from short range. As the Lakota got horses they had the speed to run alongside a stampeding herd of buffaloes and shot arrows from horseback, an ultimate test of skill and guts. The bow and arrows were superior to the early rifles, because rifles were too heavy and much to slow to reload.
The Indians were hunters and gatherers and life was tough for humans as well as their horses. Their camps were moved along with the seasons, everyone had its share of work so even children and young horses must carry heavy loads.
East of the Sioux were the hunting grounds of the Ojibwa, Cree and the Hohe Nakota (called Assiniboines by the French). The French traded furs for guns to the Ojibwa and promised the Ojibwa not to sell guns to the Sioux. That was bad for the Sioux because the Ojibwa invaded Sioux hunting grounds. Then the French also began trading guns to the Cree and Assiniboines so the Sioux reacted 1736 by attacking the French trading post Fort St Charles on an island in the lake Lac des Bois killing twenty Frenchmen. The Ojibwa then went to war against the Sioux and forced them to withdraw westwards out on the prairie to face the tribes of the plains.
In about 1740 the Sioux lived at the present border between South Dakota and Nebraska near a place that now is called Yankton. In the north between White Earth River and Mouse River the Assiniboines were settled near the Hudson Bay Company trading post. But the path to the Missouri River was blocked by the Sioux-speaking Hidatsa and Mandan tribes, and also by the Arikara related to the Pawnee. Not until the smallpox epidemic around 1782 the Missouri tribes were weakened enough so the Sioux could push through to the Missouri River.
The Sioux expanded westwards for new hunting grounds and conflicts with other tribes were inevitable. The Crow were defeated and had to leave the northern Black Hills. Even the numerous Arikara were also driven north. Around 1840 there were hard fights between Sioux and Assiniboines over the northern plains between Yellowstone River and White Earth River. By 1845 the Lakota had total control over an area from the Yellowstone River in the North and the Niobrara River in the south, and from the Missouri River in the east and the Black Hills in the west. All victories also meant that the Sioux gained control over all horses in all of the northern plains and they could choose the horses of their liking, which is one of the reasons the Sioux even to this day has a widespread reputation as the number one horse culture the world has ever seen.
In Minnesota the Santee and Yankton were surrounded by American settlers and more came along the Oregon Trail and the buffalo became rare, so the Sioux, Arapaho and others had to steal cattle which led to incidents and some settlers were killed. In 1845 troops were sent to Fort Laramie to protect immigrants on the Oregon Trail. After a year Pawnee and Crow appeared in the area as the buffalo had diminished on their usual hunting grounds and the Sioux were on the move for buffalos and trespassed on Shoshone land but were forced back. The following year the Sioux attacked settlers known to cooperate with the Pawnee and 216 settlers were killed. Between 1849 and 1851 the gold rush increased the crowding on the Oregon Trail and in 1854 the buffalo was entirely gone east of Black Hills.
In the same year near Fort Laramie, a lame cow belonging to a Mormon traveling along the Oregon Trail strayed into a camp of 4000 Lakota, mainly Oglala, Sicangu and Miniconjou. The cow was of course slaughtered. The Mormon reported it and the newly graduated second lieutenant John Grattan was ordered to set off with 28 soldiers to get the suspect to a hearing at Fort Laramie. The inexperienced Lt. Grattan barged into the camp, acting rude and obstinately against the Sicangu chief Mato Wayuhi. Lt. Grattan’s more experienced subordinates became nervous and made their guns ready. When Wayuhi gave up the discussion and got up to walk away, a nervous soldier shot him in the back. In the following gunfight Lt. Grattan and his 28 men were killed. This incident became known as the Grattan massacre by the press and became the starting point of a row of attacks and massacres on the Sioux, like the “Battle” at Ash Hollow where 26 American soldiers, but also 86 Brule’ Sioux men, women and small children were brutally killed.
Then followed ten years of peace and the Sioux avoided contact with the Americans that poured into Sioux territory. 1866 there was a meeting in the Powder River area, where the Sioux and other tribes lived, the Americans wanted to set up forts to protect the trail that passed through the area. Red Cloud, Standing Elk and Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horses declared that the Sioux was not willing to give up their hunting grounds because of a road for the white men, and that not as much as a horse shoe would be left if the soldiers invaded their land. Fort Reno, Fort Kearny and Fort Smith was already being built, and soon the “Red Cloud war” was at hand in which the Sioux was very successful.
The Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes surrounded and held Fort Kearny under pressure for two full years. Finally peace negotiators came from Washington and for the first time in American military history the only demand was peace. The forts were abandoned and burnt down to the ground. In the peace treaty 1868 it said something like; “No white man shall be allowed to settle in this land (the Black hills) or pass through the area without permission from the Indians”.
Four years later Black hills were invaded by gold diggers. One thousand soldiers under the command of General Custer marched into the forbidden mountains and years of war and broken promises followed. In 1876 General Custer and his soldiers were defeated to the last man at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The war escalated and the Indians split up. Sitting Bull and his Lakota people escaped north to the Yellowstone River area. The rest stayed and eventually had to give up.
At a peace negotiation at Fort Laramie “The great Sioux Reservation” was presented for the Lakota Sioux. It included the West River area, the western parts of South Dakota that later became Boyd County in Nebraska. At the next negotiation the reservation became much smaller and the Black Hills was overtaken by the United States.
In the springtime 1877 Sitting Bull was tired of running and his three thousand Lakota moved to find refuge in Saskatchewan, Canada. Life was hard, buffalo scarce and there was no help from the Canadian authorities. In the harsh winter of 1880 a large number of horses froze to death and many Lakota gave up.
To meet half ways is a peaceful and wise way to reach justice, but if you meet half ways more than once, you’ll soon end up with nothing. At some point you must make a stand. Sitting Bull always knew this was true.
July 19th 1881 Sitting Bull and his 186 remaining Lakota surrendered at Fort Buford in North Dakota and their horses were confiscated as a last humiliation.
Those horses were the last survivors of the finest horses that had ever walked the northern plains. At this point in history the paths of the Lakota people and the horses which were to become the Nokota horses went in different directions.
When different cultures meet, problems are inevitable but they are also soluble, if we listen to the horse inside us and not the predator.
In the next part of this story we will find out about the ranchers in south west North Dakota that saved Sitting Bulls horses from a worse destiny.