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The Complications of Horses


A week ago I confessed to being an unabashed academic, and I’ll tell you what’s more: I work in the academic area known sometimes as “the liberal arts” (a term so difficult to explain in the current social climate that I’m going to skip it for the moment) and otherwise known as “the humanities” (also a term fraught with misunderstanding, but one I will go with for now).


I spend a lot of time thinking about agriculture, but in a way different than that of most scholars. Academics, well, you know, they figure they know a lot of stuff, and so they can explain anything. In my field, historians often examine events and people of the past and then proceed to tell them what they were about--like we can educate Omar Bradley about military strategy, or--going back again to things I talked about a week ago--tell Maxidiwiac, the memory voice of Hidatsa agriculture, things she ought to know about farming.


I do think that I can look back on the past and see patterns that may not have been evident to people at the time, or have been forgotten in the meantime, but here’s what it means, for me, to look through the lens of the humanities: I am willing to learn from those people in the past, not just about them. I pick up a copy of Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, and I am prepared to learn valuable things about farming from an Hidatsa traditionalist.


So often the best history here on the prairies succeeds by rediscovering what people of our past, including our indigenous past, already knew well. Then we have to lay aside the assumptions and categories we have nurtured and embedded in our given history. Such as, for instance, the category given us by anthropologists, “Plains Indians.”


Plains Indians, we may think, were the opposite of the farming Indians, like Maxidiwiac. They disdained agriculture and spent their time hunting buffalo and waging war, or, as we chroniclers from the settler society have imagined, lounging around thinking about hunting buffalo and waging war.


Taken on their own terms, however, it is plain why to an Oglala a sunka wakan was, indeed, wakan--because horses were central to life as they knew and loved it. You horsey people out there, think how obsessed you are with your horses. They occupy your thoughts, possess your affections, and drain your bank accounts. 


There are two white-guy historians who, over the past generation, have re-examined the construction of Plains Indians in humanistic fashion and given us the basis for better understanding: Elliott West, in his history of the Cheyenne, The Contested Plains, and Pekka Hamalainen, in his history of the Comanche, The Comanche Empire. Horses, and the human relationship with them, are the key to understanding.


Thinking this through for a commissioned essay I just completed, I quoted West as to how horses took over native life: their needs were “complicated,” they had nutritional and care needs that Indians “had to meet if they hoped to reap the benefits. . . . An owner [although I question that term, “owner”] had to learn, understand, and respect an animal’s complicated needs if his breathing, eating tools were to do what was asked of them.”


Thinking about horses, pretty much all the time--this sounds like a definition of animal husbandry, which is agriculture, and a sophisticated form thereof, too. That the obsession with horses caused an exhaustion of resources in key environments of the plains--well, that’s something for us to learn from. And perhaps we come to recognize that the history of agriculture among plains folk, so often taken as a divider, might instead be the basis for common wisdom.


-Tom Isern

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