The horse and the Native American culture

Unknown Artist

While canoeing the Mississippi in 1682 Robert Cavelier de La Salle noted and reported in his journal that the Apaches of the lower Missouri in Kansas had many horses.

More than three decades later, French explorer Claude-Charles du Tisné wrote of having counted three hundred horses in 1719 in a village of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma on the banks of the Verdigris River, named after the vert-de-gris (green grey) color of its waters. It is manifest that the Native Americans of the Great Plains had quite a large amount of horses in their possession at the beginning of the 18th century. But where did these horses come from, which were called “big dogs” by the Natives, and what was their cultural influence?

When the Spanish left the Southwest in 1680 following the Pueblo revolt, they abandoned a large number of horses to the wild. This created a free enrichment opportunity for all tribes of the region to adopt them in replacement of the (real) dogs they used for transport. The horses were a much better means of transportation. Moreover, they could with greater ease be bartered between tribes. Horses with different colored ears, named “medicine hats”, were highly valued by the indigenous people because, according to popular beliefs, they possessed supernatural powers.

More importantly, the arrival of the horse had a considerable impact on the culture of the Native Americans who relied heavily on the buffalo to survive. With the horse, they improved their ability to hunt to the point of being able to generate surplus of buffalo skins to transact with the French speaking traders at rendez-vous points across the Great Plains. This allowed them to acquire goods that would otherwise not have been available to them.