The image of a Native American warrior, racing across the Western plains on horseback, is an iconic one. "A Song for the Horse Nation," at the National Museum of the American Indian, looks at the history behind the image.
According to curator Emil Her Many Horses, Native Americans can thank Europeans for introducing the animal.
“Forty million years ago there were horses here, and they die out about 10,000 years ago. The horses we know today that we always think have been here, actually were brought back by Columbus.”
That was in 1493. Other horses came with other Europeans. Within 300 years, they had changed every aspect of tribal life from trade to warfare, and especially, to travel.
“Before horses were introduced, the only domesticated animal that the native people had were dogs,” Her Many Horses says. “When horses were introduced they were able to move much quicker and other items became bigger.”
A nearly 5-meter-high muslin tipi from the Lakota people dominates the exhibit at the American Indian museum.
As the horse became more important, it began to appear in imagery, sometimes as pure decoration, often in depictions of specific events.
“If you had a comrade in battle, you would also honor the horse by depicting those battle scenes. Those scenes are depicted on warrior clothing, tipis, robes, women’s dresses to honor the accomplishments of their male relatives.”
Among the more than 100 objects on display in the exhibit are masks created for horses to wear in battle.
“You wanted your horse to look as fierce as possible. You also see some masks with buffalo horns or created from buffalo hide, because you wanted to embody on that horse the spirit and the strength of the buffalo.”
Scenes of battle and horse raiding decorate a muslin Lakota tipi from the late 19th or early 20th century.
Those masks gave way to ones decorated with porcupine quills or glass beads. They were used - along with beaded saddle bags and other tack - to dress a horse for special events. They are still being made and used today, especially by the Crow Nation.
“For some tribes, we no longer depend on horses for travel, for hunting, for warfare, but they are important to us,” says Her Many Horses.
The Nez Perce raise horses that are a cross between the Appaloosa and the Akhal Teke, originally from Turkmenistan. And rodeo competitions are a big part of Navajo culture.
Among the Great Plains tribes, the enduring impact of the horse is reflected in contemporary art, and in names like that of the exhibit's curator: Emil Her Many Horses.