Native Horse Culture

Photo: Alamy

Even at first glance the dramatic Indian relay races staged across the American west are a fantastic and awe-inducing sight. Mounted riders thunder across the track on painted horses. The riders stay close and connected to their horses through every stride, and the distinct shadows they cast are indiscernible as they race by at breakneck speed. Aunties, grandmas, and children cheer heartily from the grandstands and happily chat amongst each other, and when the races are done for the day they share laughter and good humor and tell tales until long after the sun goes down. It’s an amazing spectacle, but its beauty only grows stronger when you realize that horses introduced by settlers to this continent were intended to destroy the Indigenous people.

Having imported horses as weapons of war, the Spanish conquistadors had reaped great rewards with their strong cavalry in previous conquests. After all, horseback riders could quickly decimate their opponents on the ground using encirclement tactics. What the Spanish and subsequent European military powers didn’t anticipate was how rapidly Native Americans would adopt horse culture as their own. The spread of horse culture can be attributed to the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When the Natives rebelled against Spanish control and ultimately decimated the invaders, the people weren’t sure what to do with the horses as they were an agrarian society with no need for such animals. So the horses were released and a new era had begun.

I-ah-to-tonah, or Little Woman Mountain, and son A-last-Sauked, or Looking-away-off, Nez Perce, ca. 1909 | Photo: Library of Congress

A tool of destruction

Horses fulfilled a need for nomadic tribes, enabling them to move and trade and provide food for their people while also dramatically increasing their warring capabilities. Before long the U.S. military came to fear the mounted Indian warriors, who could steer the animals with just their knees and shoot arrows and bullets with fierce accuracy. Horse nations quickly grew in power and influence across their regions. In 1854, the United States suffered a devastating military defeat after attempting to exact vengeance upon a Lakota man who had unknowingly seized a settler’s stray cow. The U.S. government quickly realized that it would be impossible to enforce American laws and norms around private property with the power of the nomadic Lakota people in the Plains. This was true in the South, as well, with the Comanche and their vast trading and raiding horse network.

Since using the horse as a military aid was no longer successful, the United States changed tactics by instead utilizing the horse to exacerbate intertribal conflicts and create a scarcity of resources. Horses increased the power of nomadic nations which, in turn, altered their relationships with more agrarian and sedentary societies. In the south, the Apache and Comanche began having small intertribal conflicts, and in the North, the Lakota’s ability to traverse the plains like never before put them into increasing contact with further nations. The conflicts didn’t really escalate until competition grew for increasingly scarce resources.

Realizing that the most efficient way to destroy a people is to destroy their food supply, the United States paid buffalo hunters to slaughter the animals to near extinction. Initially, nomadic societies were not overly burdened by the reduction in buffalo numbers because horses enabled them to travel further than before in pursuit of sustenance. However, they found themselves increasingly in conflict with surrounding nations as they entered new territory in search of food. The Lakota were fighting on multiple fronts with the Crows over the Powder River area in Wyoming and the Pawnees to the east. Once they were involved in multiple military engagements at the same time the Lakota became more vulnerable. The U.S. military took full advantage of the situation, launching the Great Sioux War against the Lakota. Following long, exhausting winter military campaigns, the conflict officially ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, forcing the Natives to accept a life confined to reservations. 

Apaches. Before the storm- Four Apache on horseback on horseback under storm clouds. photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1906 | Photo: Shutterstock

In the South, the Comanche/Apache conflict intensified because the scarcity of buffalo was exacerbated by the decreased forage available due to overgrazing of the land by horses. Indeed, the Southern Plains lost about two-thirds of its available forage. The fundamentally different needs of the Comanche and Apache eventually made their survival strategies ecologically incompatible, and the two societies were pitted against one another in an epic struggle.  

In 1867, the Comanche and Apache, as well as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho, signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge and agreed to reservation life in exchange for the government calling off the buffalo hunters. The presence of horses had ultimately led to the destruction of a way of life, but horse culture survived and remains strong today. In fact, horses have served as a positive force that is helping to restore tribal relations and reverse the course of ecological devastation that began 500 years ago. The Indian Relays are a big part of that.

While the introduction of horses was intended to destroy American Indians in the past, it serves today as a positive reminder of their resilience and ability to persevere against all odds. The horsemen may have brought fear and trauma in previous generations but today they symbolize the strength of Native communities. The laughter of the aunties, and the excitement that surrounds the Indian relays, remind us that the deep connection between Native people and their horses is a testament to the power and strength of indigenous people who are still here, living in harmony with the very tool that was meant to destroy them. 

“The horsemen… symbolize the strength of Native communities.”


Oil, Money, Murder.

Photo: Public domain via slcc.edu.

Throughout history, settler rampage across the American West has largely been driven by one thing – money. Or in the case of Oklahoma, oil. In a series of particularly egregious cases, about two dozen violent and suspicious deaths among Osage Indians occurred in the 1920s, most of which were never investigated nor solved. Scholars and others who have investigated these cases more recently believe the actual number may be in the hundreds.

The Osage reservation was soaked in blood because it was awash in oil. Driven from their lands in Kansas, the Osage had acquired a swath of northeast Oklahoma in the early 1870s. The rocky, barren reservation promised to yield little until the discovery below the surface of one of the largest oil deposits in the United States. The Osage had retained the rights to any mineral discoveries, and oil barons paid large sums for leases at auction. Each member of the Tribe received large royalty payments.

The federal government stepped in to assign so-called ‘guardians,’ who were supposed to help the Osage manage their money. Instead, they transformed the arrangement into a widespread fraud scheme designed to steal the royalties. For some, this ill-gotten gain was not enough, and some hatched a cold-blooded plot to swindle the inheritance rights by marrying individual Indians before killing them. No such case was more chilling than that of William K. Hale, the self-proclaimed ‘King of the Osage Hills.’

Image: New York Times

The FBI’s first big case

An affluent rancher with banking and business interests, Hale was perhaps Osage County’s most powerful figure. He was also the mastermind of a plot to acquire Osage wealth through murder. Hale encouraged his nephew Ernest Burkhart to marry Mollie Kyle, a full-blood Osage. Her mother, Lizzie, resided with Mollie and Ernest. Lizzie died of a suspected poisoning in July 1921, two months after her daughter Anna Brown was shot to death. Henry Roan, Lizzie’s nephew, met a similar fate in January 1923. On March 10, 1923, Lizzie’s daughter Rita Smith, Rita’s husband William E. “Bill” Smith, and their housekeeper Nettie Brookshire died when their home was destroyed by an explosion. With Rita’s death, Mollie and Ernest Burkhart inherited a fortune from her mother and sister. 

It wasn’t just Mollie’s family that was being methodically killed on the Osage Reservation in the early 1920s. More than two dozen members of the Tribe had been shot, stabbed, beaten and bombed in one of the bloodiest crime sprees in American history. Investigators who probed the case too deeply also turned up dead. One attorney with information on the case was thrown off a speeding train, while the body of Barney McBride, a wealthy white oilman who agreed to go to Washington, D.C., to ask federal authorities to investigate the murders, was found in a culvert, having been stripped, beaten and stabbed more than 20 times.

“The Osage Nation was soaked in blood because it was awash in oil.”

As the body count rose, the Osage saw no action from local and state law enforcement personnel. The Tribe appealed to the new Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation), for help. Newly appointed director J. Edgar Hoover sent investigators to Oklahoma. Their focus was on the Roan murder, which had occurred on restricted Indian land, giving federal authorities jurisdiction in the case. The officers met regularly to compare observations and noted the reoccurring names of William K. Hale, Ernest Burkhart, and John Ramsey. Under interrogation Ernest Burkhart tied Ramsey to the Roan murder, and Ramsey, a local farmer-cowboy, admitted that Hale had hired him to kill Roan. Ramsey also confessed his involvement in the Smith murders and implicated Hale as the ringleader in that crime, too. Federal agents, assisted by state officers, took Hale, Burkhart, and Ramsey into custody in January 1926 and soon charged others, as well. 

Between 1926 and 1929 the defendants were tried in state and federal courts. The trials, with their deadlocked juries, appeals, and overturned verdicts, drew national attention. Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty and received a life sentence in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for the murder of William E. Smith. Turning state’s evidence, Burkhart testified against Hale and Ramsey, who were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, for the murder of Henry Roan. A petty criminal, Kelsie Morrison admitted he had killed Anna Brown at Hale’s request. 

In perhaps the cruelest irony of all, when the case was concluded Hoover’s Bureau sent the Osage a bill for $20,000 for its services! Despite Osage protests Hale, Ramsey, and Ernest Burkhart, were eventually paroled, and Burkhart received a full pardon in 1965 from Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon.


We’re Still Here

Photo: Alamy


For more than 500 years the American Indian people have endured untold destruction and violence wrought by European settlers who came to this continent and claimed it as their own. The result for Indian people has been devastating in so many ways, and the impact of generational trauma, intense poverty and structural racism is very real. But we’re still here. And we aren’t going away. We are resilient. We are strong. And we are committed. As a result, Indian people have made tremendous progress in preserving our culture, educating our people, recovering our land and laying the groundwork for a brighter future. And that is a story worth telling.



Photo: John Ratzloff

1961 – Today

In a message to Congress in 1970, President Richard Nixon said, “the Federal government should begin to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people” on American Indian self-determination, focusing on efforts to return policy development and policy implementation to tribes and tribal leaders. Nixon strongly advocated for an end to the policy of termination. From a Native perspective, Nixon’s assertion that tribal governments should assume a greater role in making and administering federal Indian policy was an important step forward in the process of self-determination. The Self-determination and Education Act of 1975 was a turning point for relations between the U.S. government and Native nations. The legislation offered tribes many more opportunities for self-governance and decision making, including police services, education, social services, medical care and natural resource management. In the years that followed, Congress passed a series of laws intended to improve the lives of Native people and increase the amount of tribal input into the policy-making process.



Photo: Leonard McCombe, LIFE Images Collection/Shutterstock

1928 – 1945

In 1928, the Meriam Report (The Problem of Indian Administration) cited a long list of challenges facing Indigenous people as a result of the 1887 General Allotment Act and subsequent amendments and policies. Tribal nations had been left with little capacity for economic development on reservations, with much of the allotted land unsuitable for living or making a living. The report also addressed education for tribal youth. At the time, young people were forcefully removed from their families to attend far-away residential schools, which sought to “Americanize” them through Christian education, gender-role development, and acceptable social practices. The Meriam Report told of overcrowded conditions and serious deficiencies in nutrition and medical care. The economic collapse of 1929 led to the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran on a platform addressing many of the issues in Meriam’s report. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act which ended allotment as official federal policy while allowing some tribal nations to regroup, draft constitutions, and promote some forms of cultural revitalization. It would be another 40 years before most residential schools closed.


Allotment & Assimilation

Image: Library of Congress


As the United States expanded westward, the flood of settlers and introduction of railways caused political leaders to believe that Indian reservations were too large and disproportionate to the needs of tribal nations. Popular opinion said that tribal nations should be “civilized” and their communal existence terminated through promotion of individual property rights. Toward that end, Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887 to divide reservation lands into 40-160 acre allotments for heads of family and individuals. Because Indigenous peoples were deemed “incompetent,” the federal government held these allotments in trust for 25 years until the Natives became more “civilized” through assimilation. “Surplus” reservation land was then sold to non-Indians. In 1906, Congress amended the 1887 Act with the Forced Fee Patenting Act (Burke Act) which enabled the Secretary of the Interior to judge an individual allottee competent, granting them U.S. citizenship and full ownership of the allotment. which opened the land for taxation. From 1887 to 1934, Indian people lost two-thirds of their post-treaty landholdings, leaving tribal nations with 48 million acres, much of it of little economic value.


European contact and ‘discovery’

Image: Shutterstock


Although European contact with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas dates back to Norse explorations in the 10th Century, the colonization of North America didn’t officially begin until Christopher Columbus met the Taino in the Caribbean in 1492. That “discovery” spawned a series of European voyages across the Atlantic as representatives of England, France, Portugal, Spain, and others met with Indigenous peoples upon their arrival, forming nation-to-nation treaties with tribal nations to ensure peaceful relationships and alliances, to gain access to land and other natural resources, and to establish fur-trading partnerships. As European populations and settlements in North America expanded, the pressure grew to claim more land. After winning its fight for independence in the Revolutionary War, the fledgling American nation negotiated new treaties with tribal nations as settlement expanded westward. To further secure its claims, the United States Supreme Court, in 1823, decided that the federal government has sole authority to negotiate with tribal nations, leaving Indigenous people with only the right to live on the land for which legal ownership belongs entirely to the United States.



Photo: Library of Congress.


Facing new financial challenges resulting from the U.S. involvement in World War II, Congress began making plans to cut the domestic budget. Tasking former President Herbert Hoover and a team of researchers with studying the administrative duties of the presidency, President Harry Truman received the recommendation from the Hoover Commission in 1948 that all services provided to tribal nations by the United States should be sent to the states, thereby eliminating its role as trustee. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the federal government dismantled a wide array of services provided, under both treaty and legislation, to tribal nations. In some instances, this included full termination of tribal nations as a distinct group of people. In supporting its right to do so, the Supreme Court affirmed an earlier court decision in 1955 that Congress has complete authority over tribal nations. Throughout the termination process, an additional million acres of Indigenous land was lost.


Removal & Relocation

Photo: James George Wharton (1903) via Wikimedia Commons

1828 – 1887

In 1828, candidate Andrew Jackson ran on a distinctly anti-Indian platform – the resettlement of tribal nations out of the Southeastern U.S. After winning in a landslide, President Jackson lobbied Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which gave the President authority to negotiate relocation with Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole communities and tribal nations. In 1831 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee were a dependent domestic nation, making them essentially a ward of the U.S. government. The following year the Court reinforced its 1823 decision that only the United States had the right to deal with tribal nations. By this time, almost every treaty made between the U.S. and tribal nations included land cessions, removal and relocation, or both. Treaties promoting peaceful relations and economic partnerships were largely a relic of the past. The U.S. seized the opportunity to step up the pace of westward expansion by forcefully resettling tribal nations and communities, including the infamous Trail of Tears from 1830 to 1850. In 1871, Congress ended nation-to-nation treaty making and no longer considered tribal nations to be independent.


Dam the Indians

Photo: AP Worldwide

The stated intent was to control the flow of the Missouri River, prevent the flooding of valuable farmland downstream and produce cheap electricity, and the project certainly did that. But the true impact of the Garrison Dam project in North Dakota was to rip the heart out of a community and set off a health crisis that continues some 70 years later on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Before the Garrison Dam was built in the 1950s, there wasn’t a single known case of diabetes on the Reservation, and obesity was almost unheard of. But the project forced the relocation of hundreds of families, decimated their food sources, and subjected the people to a life of poverty. Today, the population suffers diabetes at a rate more than double the national average, and there are extremely high rates of obesity, hypertension and other adverse health conditions related to poor diet. It’s clear that the dam project has had the most dramatic impact on Fort Berthold since the smallpox epidemic of the 1800s nearly wiped out the entire population.

From Prosperity to Despair

In 1803, the United States purchased the rights to govern the Louisiana Territory, an area which spread from the Mississippi River west to the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Lewis and Clark expedition set out to find the headwaters of the Missouri, make contact with the Indians in the region, and report on the economic potential for the new territory. Soon after, the Missouri became the highway for fur traders, explorers, miners, and settlers.

Tribes that had settled in the Missouri River basin grew plentiful crops and hunted bison for sustenance, a healthy way of life that began to change in 1944 when the U.S. Congress approved the Pick-Sloan Plan for flood control on the Missouri. The Plan called for the construction of four dams that would impact 23 Indian reservations and result in the forced relocation of nearly 1,000 families. The destruction of Indian land, rather than that of the settlers, was no accident.

In carrying out the plan, the Army Corps of Engineers negotiated “settlements” with the Indians, ignoring tribal sovereignty, federal law, and treaty rights in the process. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) made no objections to the project while it was debated in Congress and none of the tribes were consulted. When the Corps arrived at Fort Berthold in 1946 to begin construction of the Garrison Dam, the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Reservation – the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – had no idea they were coming let alone the devastation that would follow.

Image: AP Worldwide

Construction of the dam would flood every piece of productive land on the Reservation – 156,000 acres of tribal territory in all – and force the relocation of nearly 90 percent of the population. On May 20, 1948, the Three Affiliated Tribes reluctantly signed an agreement that had been forced upon them, one that led to the destruction of the tribal headquarters and medical clinic and destroyed an entire way of life. Even the Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug conceded that, “This contract does not cover what these people have lost and further action is needed.”

The agreement had ignored tribal sovereignty and negotiated treaties while violating the Supreme Court’s ruling on tribal water rights. Looking back on the impact of the dam project, Philleo Nash, Commissioner of BIA during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said the Pick-Sloan program had “caused more damage to Indian land than any other public works project in America.”

The loss of agriculturally-rich lands decimated the Indian economy”

The amount of money offered to Indian landowners was well below market value and significantly less than that provided to non-Indians. Today, the Garrison Dam holds back the water of Lake Sakakawea, the second-largest man-made lake in the United States. Turbines there generate more than $40 million worth of hydroelectric power every year.

No longer able to farm, the residents were forced to either leave the area, take on low-paying menial jobs or go on welfare. The loss of agriculturally-rich lands decimated the Indian economy. Drinking water was now sourced from wells that yielded high-alkaline water, which has led to significant long-term health effects. Natural food sources were replaced with unhealthy processed foods. The construction project had triggered long-term unemployment, intense poverty and a decades-long descent into obesity, hypertension, diabetes, alcoholism and drug abuse, all in the name of settler prosperity.

As for the medical clinic that was wiped out, the federal government vowed when the agreement was signed that it would be replaced. The new clinic finally opened in 2012, 60 years after it was promised. The impact of that delay has been devastating and life on the reservation bears the scars of the invasive wound ripped open by the dam project.

Photo: AP Worldwide