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The Arrival of Horses

Roger Echo-Hawk
April 2009

It isn’t known exactly when the Pawnees first heard about horses and encountered them. They could have heard rumor of horses from their neighbors as early as the 1520s, and certainly by the 1540s some Pawnees had viewed horses firsthand with Coronado’s visit to Quivira and perhaps with the Hernando de Soto expedition. Drawing from oral traditions reported by Pawnee historian Garland Blaine in the 1960s, Martha Blaine presents several traditions about early Pawnee encounters with the Spanish:

The Pawnee tell of their first sight of the Spanish, or Tsustarus, Hairy Noses. Warriors, who were out hunting and watching for signs of buffalo, saw a distant cloud of rising dust. Observing it as it came closer, they noticed that it was made not by a herd of bison, but by the strangest sight they had ever seen: strange manbeasts with sunglittering clothing, and four legs with long hair tails. Having never seen horses before, they ran back to their camp to tell of the astounding sight....
There is also a Pawnee Pitahawirata band story of an early encounter in which a party of warriors met a group of Spanish, again mounted on horses. They communicated by gestures, and the chief’s son, fascinated by the Spanish equipage, approached and laid his hand on the leader’s clothing, whereupon he was struck by a sword and knocked to the ground. This audacity immediately brought Pawnee retaliation and several of the Spanish were killed. After this, the Pawnee claim they cut up the chain mail worn by the dead, and in derogation hung it by thongs around their dogs’ necks.... Curiously, in some Quiviran sites in Kansas, small pieces of chain mail have been found.... (Blaine 1982:114; the first tradition is also reported in Blaine 1990:50).

Martha Blaine observes that the Pawnees encountered the Spanish “more than once but when or where remains unknown”; and she notes that the chain mail incident could have occurred in 1593, when a Spanish expedition was “decimated in Kansas.” During the two centuries following the appearance of Coronado, the Pawnees came into contact with the Spanish under a variety of circumstances, especially after Juan de Oñate colonized New Mexico in 1598. The Pawnees fought battles with several Spanish military expeditions, and warparties traveled on foot against colonists in New Mexico. A European traveler visited the Pawnees in 1823 and reported that a Skidi priest showed him “old Spanish weapons of the sixteenth century, which according to his declaration, had been captured a long time ago in a war which the Pawnees had fought with the Spaniards in the mountains to the west” (Wilhelm 1973:395). Martha Blaine also has published an excellent discussion on the significance of horses to the Pawnees (1990:49-65).
Mildred Wedel presents several quotes from the writings of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, which reveal that by the early 1680s horses were common among the Pawnees and their neighbors: “...there being many [horses] at the villages of the Indians called pana, pancassa, manrhout, gatea, panimaha, and posose...” (Wedel 1988:57; also see Weddle 1987:64). Speaking of the Wichita, La Salle asserted that they obtained horses in trade from neighboring tribes “who sell them horses that they steal apparently from the Spanish of New Mexico.” La Salle observed that horses had been integrated into lifeways on the Plains by 1683:

These Indians use them for war, the hunt, and in the transport of all things; are not accustomed to shoe them, let them sleep outdoors, even in the snow, and give them no nourishment except to let them pasture. Horses of this kind ought to have great working strength and be very strong, because they say that they carry the meat of two buffaloes.... (Wedel 1988:57)

Some Pawnee traditions explicitly refer to Pawnee lifeways as they existed before the arrival of the horse (Weltfish 1965:141; Densmore 1929:57-58; Dorsey/Murie 1906:95-102), and all such “pre-horse” traditions must come down from well before 1700. Pawnee oral traditions about “first encounters” with horses probably refer to events that took place during the century or more after Coronado. By the final decades of the 17th century, the Pawnees had become thoroughly acquainted with horses, and by the end of the century had integrated them into Pawnee lifeways (Blaine 1990:49; Holder 1970:111-112). A Pitahawirata tradition related by Effie Blaine in 1919 or 1920 recalls early Pawnee impressions of the horse:

When the Pawnee first saw a horse they were frightened. Some ran away and others said, “I wonder what he is dragging behind him” (referring to his tail). A great crowd of people was looking at the horse. At last someone said, “Why are you afraid of this animal. He is very useful. He can carry you and your packs. You can get on him and he will take you from place to place so that you can kill game.” Ever since that time the Pawnee have owned horses, and found that horses could work for them. (Densmore 1929:108, also see accompanying song p. 109 “You Need Not Fear the Horse,” sung by Effie Blaine.)

This brief tradition may refer to an incident that is described in greater detail in a story told by Effie Blaine’s husband, Wichita Blaine (Overtakes The Enemy), who was also a Pitahawirata. This story was recorded by James R. Murie in 1911:

Before the Pawnees had any horses, a fine black horse ran into their camp. The Indians were horrified. The old men filled their pipes with tobacco and offered the smoke to the horse, believing it to be a god. After the horse had gone around the village, it ran over the hills and disappeared. The next day a young man went in the direction the horse went. After he had gone some distance he saw the horse, which was coming toward him. The man stopped. The horse came to him and stopped. Then the man took a buffalo-hair rope, walked up to the horse and said, “Now, father, have pity on me.” The man began to pass his hands over the horse. He finally put the rope on the horse and led it to a high hill. The man sat down, filled his pipe, and offered smoke to the horse and again prayed to it. When he emptied the ashes from the pipe, he took some of the ashes from the pipe bowl and began to pass his hands upon the horse. The man sat on the hill all day holding the buffalo-hair rope. He did not know what to do with the horse, for it was something new.
At night the man, after tying the rope to his wrist, lay down. In his sleep he had a dream. He saw himself riding the horse, and woke up. In the morning he got up and put a loop around the horse’s jaws, then he got upon its back. The horse then trotted toward the south, the man giving way to the horse, the horse neighing as it went along. As they reached the top of a hill the horse began to neigh louder. As the horse went down the hill it began to lope and neigh. The man looked; in the bottom along a stream of water, he saw horses, some sitting, others standing. As they neared the horses his horse moved its ears. It rounded up the others, biting them, and drove them toward the north. There was one other horse that he did not bother, for wherever this horse with the man on went, it followed. It was a sorrel horse. The horses were driven into the camp. There was much excitement. People crowded around the horses and wondered what they could be. The people also wondered at the man riding the horse. The man on horseback was invited into the chief’s lodge. He was questioned by the chief about the horses; he told the chief that he had gone where the horse went and that he had found the other horses. The chief then wanted to take all the horses, but the man told him that he, the chief, could have all except the black and sorrel ones. The chief was glad of this. The man took the black and sorrel horses.
In later years this man became noted because of the sorrel horse, and through his dreams became a doctor. When the sorrel horse died the man took the hide and had it tanned. In one of their medicine dances this man danced the Reckless Horse Dance, wearing the horse rope upon his body. This horse rope was kept by a man who had learned the secrets from the old man, and when this last man died he was wrapped up with the horse rope and buried. The feathers, mane, and tail, are still (1911) kept by White Horse, a descendant of the old man. Overtakes The Enemy bought...two songs from White Horse and, therefore, has a right to sing them. (Murie 1981:305-306)

Alfred Sorenson, a Nebraska newspaperman, reported during the 1880s on Pawnee oral traditions which seemingly link the first Pawnee encounter with horses to other ancient historical events. Sorenson probably obtained his information on Pawnee traditions from two American brothers, Frank and Luther North, who led the Pawnee Scouts during the 1860s and 1870s.
The Sorenson account offers a very distorted portrayal of Pawnee history primarily because it attempts to compress various events described in Pawnee oral traditions into the span of a single century: “It is an undisputed fact, based on their own statements, that the Pawnees came from the southern part of Old Mexico, not over a hundred years ago” (Sorenson undated manuscript, circa 1885:29). According to this version of Pawnee history, the Pawnees moved northward into Oklahoma, and from there into Kansas “near the Smoky Hill river, in the vicinity of Fort Ellsworth” (p. 30) where the scouts discovered a camp of unknown folk. The Pawnees then attacked these people – identified by Sorenson as Sioux and Cheyenne – and captured “several hundred horses, with complete equipments of saddles and bridles.” This version of Pawnee oral tradition refers to an actual event in Skidi Pawnee history: Skidi residency in the Southern Plains during the late 1770s.
Sorenson gives several comments which bear some similarity to Effie Blaine’s tradition: “They had never had any horses, and hardly knew what they were used for. They did not know how to handle them, but they soon learned the art of horsemanship, and then became aware of the great value of the capture they had made.” The Pawnees then settled on the Republican River “somewhere near the mouth of Prairie Dog creek, and there built them a village, and in that vicinity they remained for thirty or forty years...” (p. 31). It appears that Sorenson attempted to thread together a coherent version of Pawnee history based on a few details reported to him by the North brothers, whose knowledge of Pawnee oral traditions may also have been somewhat fragmentary. George Bird Grinnell later drew from Sorenson’s manuscript for his account of the first Pawnee encounter with horses (Grinnell 1961:265-266).
“The Poor Boy and the Mud Ponies” is a Pitahawirata Pawnee tradition, told by Little Chief, which associates the origins of the Chief’s Society with the first horses. This South Band Pawnee society of leaders apparently traced its founding to a time (presumably during the late 17th century) when horses became important among the Pawnees, and it continued until the 1880s (Dorsey/Murie 1906:123-124). Dorsey and Murie described the story as “a variant of a well-known Plains tale....” It is presented below in full:

A long time ago there were no horses. Dogs were the only animals that helped the people carry their burdens from one place to another. In those times there was a very poor boy in the village. He went from one tipi to another trying to get something to eat. Sometimes he was chased out, but at other times he was taken in and fed.
Once in a great while he would go into the lodge of the chief, and when the chief would see him he would feel sorry for him and sometimes he would give him moccasins; at other times he would give him leggings. Some people would speak against the boy and try to keep the chief from giving him any presents, but the chief would say: “Tirawa knows that this boy is living. As he is growing up he will watch over him and the boy may some day rule over us.” But the people laughed at the chief for saying this.
The boy had a dream about ponies. He thought that two ponies were dropped down from the heavens and that they were for him. He so plainly saw the ponies in his dream that he knew their shape, and how their tails and manes looked. Often when the people broke camp and traveled along he would stay behind and would take mud and make ponies. Then he would place the ponies in his robe and follow the people. Before he would arrive at the village he would place the two mud ponies outside of the village. He would go into the village and go from tipi to tipi trying to get something to eat. Wherever he got a chance to stay over night, he would lie down in the tipi. Early in the morning he would go to where his mud ponies were. Then he would take the mud ponies down to the creek and pretend that they were drinking. He did this for many months, until the people had returned to their permanent village. Then he took the mud ponies down from where they stood, carried them a long way from the village, and stood them by a pond. He would go away and stay for a while and then return and make believe the ponies needed water. Then he would take them to where there was good grass and place them there.
One night the boy entered the lodge of the chief. The chief gave him something to eat and also a place to sleep. That night the boy had a dream. He thought that Tirawa had opened the sky and dropped two ponies for him. Then he thought in his dream that he heard Tirawa singing and he remembered well the song, for when he awoke he went out from the lodge and went up on a high hill, and there he sang the song. The people heard him singing and they wondered what the song meant. While the boy was singing, a mysterious voice said: “This song was given to you by Tirawa. Tirawa has given you a certain kind of a dance. You should become a chief. Go this night to where your mud ponies are and there you will find two live ponies.” The boy went back into the village, to the lodge of the chief, and borrowed a lariat rope. He then ran to the place where his mud ponies were. When he arrived there he saw two ponies. The two ponies came to the boy and he caught both of them. The boy took the ponies to the village and tied them just outside of the village. He went into the lodge of the chief and told him that Tirawa had given him two ponies. Others, when they heard, said that the boy made the ponies out of mud, and that Tirawa had given them to him. The people went out to see the ponies and almost worshipped them, for they were the first that they had ever seen.
The boy finally became the chief’s son-in-law. He then went on the warpath alone upon one of his ponies. In a few days he brought back many other ponies. Then he sat down and sang the song that they had heard him singing on the first night. The young men came from everywhere in the village to listen and be near him, for they knew that he was making up his mind to go again on the war-path. The young man led out a big war party and brought back many ponies. It was not long until he became a chief. He then started a society known as the Chief’s Society and he was at the head of it. The songs which he introduced were the songs which he heard while on the hill. The songs and the dance were kept up by the Chaui and Pitahauirat. This dance became extinct in 1887 when Chief-Sun died. He was the keeper of the songs and dance. (Dorsey/Murie 1906:123-124, 488, also see p. 480, 526.)

This oral tradition is similar to a Brule Sioux story told during the 1930s by Small Waisted Bear to Madge Hardin Walters (Walters undated manuscript). This story is set in a time “before any white people came to this world” when “there were only two horses in it.” A leading chief wished to have these horses and offered his daughter in marriage to any man who could catch them. A young man finally did manage to catch the horses and he then married the daughter, becoming a chief. Small Waisted Bear’s wife, Pretty Woman, owned a dress with designs and figures on it that had come down in the family for seven generations, and the story went along with this dress. This dress was collected by Walters and ended up at the Denver Art Museum (Catalog # 1936.120, original number BS-63-P).
First encounters with horses by other communities in western North America have also been described in traditions reported among the Navajo (Marriot/Rachlin 1968:133-137), Ponca (Fletcher/La Flesche 1911:78-80), Omaha (Fletcher/La Flesche 1911:80), Piegan (Clark 1966:276-281), Crow (Clark 1966:312-314; Medicine Crow 1992:100-101), Cheyenne (Seger 1928:269; Stands In Timber/Liberty 1967:116-117; Moore 1987:117), and Arapaho (Toll 1962:35).


References Cited

An earlier version of this article appeared in Roger Echo-Hawk, “At the Edge of the Desert of Multicolored Turtles: Skidi Pawnee History on the Loup River,” Chapter 2 in The Stabaco Site: A Mid-Eighteenth Century Skidi Pawnee Town on the Loup River, edited by Steven R. Holen and John K. Peterson, 1995, University of Nebraska State Museum, Nebraska Archaeological Survey, Technical Report 95-01, p. 14-49.

Martha Royce Blaine, “The Pawnee-Wichita Visitation Cycle: Historic Manifestations of an Ancient Friendship.” Pathways to Plains Prehistory: Anthropological Perspectives of Plains Natives and Their Pasts, D. Wyckoff and J. Hofman, editors, 1982, Oklahoma Anthropological Society.

Martha Royce Blaine, Pawnee Passage: 1870-1875, 1990, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Ella E. Clark, Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies, 1966, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Frances Densmore, Pawnee Music, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 93, 1929, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

George A. Dorsey [and James R. Murie], The Pawnee Mythology, 1906, Washington: Carnegie Institution.

Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, The Omaha Tribe, 1911, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

George Bird Grinnell, Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales, 1961 [originally published 1889], Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Preston Holder, The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians, 1970, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Alice Marriott and Carol K. Rachlin, American Indian Mythology, 1968, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Joseph Medicine Crow, From the Heart of the Crow Country: The Crow Indians’ Own Stories, 1992, New York: Orion Books.

John H. Moore, The Cheyenne Nation: A Social and Demographic History, 1987, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

James R. Murie, Ceremonies of the Pawnee, 2 volumes, Douglas R. Parks, editor, Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, # 27, 1981, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

John H. Seger, “Tradition of the Cheyenne Indians,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, volume 6, # 3, September 1928:260-270.

Alfred Sorenson, A Quarter of a Century on the Frontier or the Adventures of Major Frank North, the “White Chief of the Pawnees”; undated manuscript [circa 1885], MS448, Frank J. North Collection, Nebraska State Historical Society.

John Stands In Timber and Margot Liberty, Cheyenne Memories, 1967, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Oliver W. Toll, Arapaho Names and Trails: A Report of a 1914 Pack Trip, 1962, privately printed.

Madge Hardin Walters, undated manuscript [circa 1930s], Madge Hardin Walters Papers, Denver Art Museum, Native Arts Department, Blackfeet Papers, File: “Walters Notes.”

Robert S. Weddle, editor, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents, 1987, College Station: Texas A & M University Press.

Mildred Mott Wedel, The Wichita Indians 1541-1750, Ethnohistorical Essays, Reprints in Anthropology, volume 38, 1988, Lincoln: J & L Reprint Company.

Gene Weltfish, The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture, 1965, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Paul Wilhelm, Travels in North America, 1822-1824, Savoie Lottinville, editor; W. Robert Nitske, translator, 1973, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.