native americans and the introduction of horses -- 12/15/15

Today's selection -- from American Colossus by H.W. Brands. Horses were introduced to American Indians by Europeans in the early 1500s. As ownership of horses spread, it created great disruption among Native American tribes; first by causing them to change more nomadic societies, and second because the increased need for grazing lands caused an increase in wars among tribes:

"In 1865 the Sioux nation was somewhat more than a century into its own economic and social revolution, one triggered by the arrival of the horse. The western Sioux had split off from their eastern cousins, who occupied the forests of Minnesota, some­time before the beginning of the eighteenth century, largely in response to pressure from the neighboring Ojibwa, who in turn felt pressure from their own eastern neighbors and from whites. The western Sioux, also called Lakota, were a pedestrian people when they emerged onto the plains of the upper Missouri River. They traveled on foot and hunted on foot, devising elaborate strategies for killing the largest animal species they encountered, the bison, or buffalo. A favorite strategy entailed setting fire to the grassland behind a herd and then channeling the resulting stampede toward a cliff. Most of the herd would stop short, but a few beasts would fall or be pushed over the edge by those behind. Some of these would break their legs, and the Sioux hunters would dispatch them with arrows and spears.

Sioux Chiefs

"The Sioux encountered the horse about the time they reached the plains. The Spanish had reintroduced the horse to the Ameri­cas in the early sixteenth century (equines had roamed the Ameri­cas before the last Ice Age). Some escaped or were stolen; the descendants of these made their way north in the company of var­ious Indians and on their own. The initial impact of the horse on the Sioux was modest. The horse increased their semi-nomadic range, but not till the mid-eighteenth century did they become an equestrian people.

"The slow adoption of the horse resulted in part from the friction that attends any cultural transformation. Besides acquiring the animals, the Sioux had to learn how to train them, breed them, and care for them. All this took time. But the long lag probably also reflected an understanding that, in adopting horses, the Sioux were giving up other things. The Cheyennes told a story about their own adoption of horses, from the Comanches, and though the myth was peculiar to them, the lesson must have applied more broadly. According to this story, the Cheyennes' god spoke to them through the oldest priest of the tribe:

If you have horses, everything will be changed for you for­ever. You will have to move around a lot to find pasture for your horses. You will have to give up gardening and live by hunting and gathering, like the Comanches. And you will have to come out of your earth houses and live in tents .... You will have to have fights with other tribes, who will want your pasture land or the places where you hunt. You will have to have real soldiers, who can protect the people. Think, before you decide.

"Almost certainly the Cheyenne story showed the wisdom of hindsight, which may or may not have helped the Sioux appreci­ate what they were getting into. In any case the Sioux were riding seriously by the 1750s, when their own census records counted horse-borne warriors among their men of military age.

"At that point the Sioux might have become full nomads, fol­lowing the buffalo herds for most of the year. But something else slowed the transition."


H.W. Brands


American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2010 by H.W. Brands


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