Did Native Americans have domesticated horses?

Yvette on the Move Collin’s latest dissertation has the potential to rewrite every natural history book on the market. A Lakota/Nakota/Cheyenne scholar, Collin worked within the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Indigenous Studies program to synthesize fossil evidence, historical documents and oral history to present a compelling new story of the horse in the Americas.

The horse was here well before the settlers.

“We have peacefully known we’ve always had the horse, far before the settlers arrived. The Spanish never came through our area, so there’s no way they could have introduced them to us,” reads one quote from a Blackfoot (Nitsitapi) study participant in Collin’s doctoral study.

Columbus didn’t introduce them

The original theory accepted by the Western World was that there were no horses in the Americas prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492. As a result, the Western World assumed that all Native American horses were descended from horses imported from elsewhere.

Nevertheless, once paleontology pioneer Joseph Leidy found horse bones imbedded in American soil in the 1830s, this hypothesis was forced to modify. They were discovered to be the oldest in the world. Collin’s dissertation claims that the American scientific establishment was furious and questioned his conclusions. They were eventually obliged to accept the evidence he supplied.

Clay horse figure pre-Columbian AD 1500 (Columbus Museum)

At this point, the narrative shifted to say that horses originated in the Americas, but were later completely extinguished due to the last Ice Age period (roughly 13,000 to 11,000 years ago). As a result, the Spanish were still thought to have “reintroduced” the horse to the Americas in the late 1400s.

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Collins’ research refutes the Spanish introduction of the horse to Native Americans.

But on account of Collin’s work, the theory is being beckoned to change once again to say that Native Americans always had a sustained relationship with the horse. Collin collects a list of fossil and Genomic evidence dating after this putative “extinction” era in his dissertation.

Split-twig figure from Stanton's cave (Arizona Museum)

“What’s amazing is that we now have Western technology that can produce really exact dates,” Collin stated recently. “Several investigations reveal that these horses survived the same Ice Period that purportedly killed them off. Thus, the most convincing facts to support the Native story is really coming from a lot of western scientific measures.”

Collin, on the other hand, did not stop there. She also drew from recorded observations in the diaries and maps created by explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, Sebastian Cabot, and other early Spanish conquistadors. Collin cites the earliest documented sighting of horses with Native Americans in the Carolinas:

Horseman petroglyph at Alto de Pitis, Peru

“In 1493, Columbus brought the first Spanish horse to the Caribbean,” says Collin. “The first reported arrival of horses on the mainland, in what is now known as Mexico City, occurred in 1519. The Spaniards meticulously recorded every mare and stallion. The first recorded sighting of Native people with horses, however, was in 1521 and that was in the Carolinas. At this time, no Spanish horses were reported lost. There’s no way Spanish horses could have made it across the deep woodland and swampland to the Carolinas in two years and repopulated.”

Representation of a horse in a Mayan temple

Collin also relies on conversations with seven different American Indian research participants. Every indigenous community that was interviewed reported having horses prior to European arrival, and each community had a traditional creation story explaining the sacred place of the horse within their societies.

“I didn’t anticipate that,” Collin admits. “If you look at a map, you’ll see that these Countries are all over the place. These communities do not speak the same language, share the same culture or the same geographical areas. Despite this, their oral narratives were all perfectly consistent. They each said that the horse was given to them by the Creator, that the acquisition was spiritual, and that they did not obtain the horse from the Europeans.”

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Horse history was purposely distorted

The dissertation contends that the gap between the Spanish “reintroduction” idea and the account indicated by contemporary data is due to a cultural prejudice that persists in Western academia. Collin theorizes that because horses were a symbol of status and civilization in Spain during that time, and because conquerors needed to illustrate the Native people as savage and uncivilized to justify their conquest to the Queen of Spain, the truth about the relationship between Native peoples and the horse was purposefully distorted.

“When Columbus arrived, the Spaniards had just concluded an 800-year conflict with the Islam,” Collin said. “Queen Isabella collected every horse in the area, and those horses formed part of her army. She was able to vanquish the Muslims because to her horse might. As a result, the horse was very valued. Her artwork may be seen on these lovely palominos. For these people, the horse represented aristocracy, power, and the notion of ‘civilization.'”

As a result, she contends that the history of the connection between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and their horses was hushed up and reinterpreted via a “intercultural translation” viewpoint.

Sacred Way Sanctuary Founder, Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin.

Collin provided further insight on the political and cultural aspects of science in a recent interview. Mastodon bones with human-carved motifs were dated in April 2017 near San Diego, indicating human involvement in the region as long as 130,000 years ago. This scientific dating differs significantly from earlier Western academic estimates of how long Indigenous Peoples have lived in the Americas. Collin indicated that such dates could only go back 10,000 to 15,000 years. Many Western scientists were first skeptical, if not outraged, by this new findings. Collin sees a similarity between the response to these new Western discoveries and the reaction to the fossil evidence indicating horses were always present in the Americas.

“What they are trying to do is shorten the length of time that we were here to make us not as critical to this place. ‘Indian people crossed the land bridge,’ they claim. Why? Why are they portraying us as being from someplace else? Why couldn’t we be there? It is the first. The second reason is because Europeans are still credited with bringing horses and introducing them to Native Americans. What does this imply? They are telling us over and over again that anything that they consider to be of value in our cultures is still ‘derivative’ of theirs.”

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The Sacred Way Sanctuary

Collin presently cares for over 100 horses that she believes are descended from the old horse of the Americas. Some horses have manes that grow all the way to the ground. Some of them have striped legs. Some have patches all over their bodies. Some are much smaller than most horses. Some people have curly hair.

“Storm” is from South Dakota. He has stripped legs, a dorsal stripe, and long hair.
Curly-line Lakota horse at Sacred Way Sanctuary.

Curly-line Lakota horse at Sacred Way Sanctuary.

Her objective is to locate additional caregivers for these horses and to start a movement to revitalize Indigenous horse culture. Collin says, according to her ancestor’s ways, she refuses to sell her horses but gifts them to people who are interested in them for ceremonial or healing purposes and are willing to care for them according to her cultural traditions.

Spotted Appaloosa Curly-line foal and her Mother at Sacred Way Sanctuary.

In Sacred Way Sanctuary, I saw an Appaloosa Curly-line foal and her mother.

Collin seeks to inspire more research to illuminate the truth behind what the government has labeled as “feral” so that wild horses can be protected by the Indigenous Species Act. They are now being driven down and murdered in large numbers if they get in the path of certain business developments.

“You have entire horse populations who are so frightened out by the helicopters and the continual fleeing from the authorities,” Collin says. “Then if you take a closer look, this land that the horses are on is the same land from which corporations are trying to extract resources or water. So they’re basically transferring them around, robbing them of their homeland and their capacity to live in any ecosystem at all. Nobody can be healthy when they are pushed so hard that there is no room for them. “Aren’t they going to get sick?”

Finally, Collin’s dissertation is a ground-breaking piece of thorough study that employs a hybrid of Western and Indigenous research approaches, laying a solid platform for future research.

Collin’s horse programs, how to visit her Indigenous horse museum, and the dissertation itself may all be accessed on her website, www.SacredWaySanctuary.org.

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