How did Indians survive tornadoes

Indians - The people of the horses

In September 1874, the great equestrian empire of the Comanche in northern Texas came to a cruel end. It was the first sign of profound changes on the Great Plains, because the Comanche were among the first Indian tribes to adopt the horse from the Spanish conquistadors. On horseback, they had become skilled, cruel and domineering warriors: they rode to stop the expansion of white settlements, to stop the slaughter of the bison, to terrorize their Indian neighbors - and to challenge the American army. Then, on September 28, 1874, the largest remaining group of Comanche warriors and their families were captured in a place called Palo Duro Canyon.

The action was led by the 4th Cavalry under Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie. After his men took the Comanche by surprise and drove them out of their camp, they set all the tipis on fire and captured the more than a thousand horses left behind. With this rich booty, Mackenzie eventually led his troops back to the camp. There he gave the order the following morning to shoot all the horses.

"The infantry caught the wild horses with the lasso and led them to the firing squads," says S. C. Gwynne's book about the Comanche "Empire of the Summer Moon". "The result was a huge mountain of dead horses" - 1048, as the files note. The animals decompose on the spot, and their bones bleached for years in the sun - a terrible reminder of the downfall of the once powerful riding people of the Comanche. They were utterly defeated after their defeat in Palo Duro Canyon and surrendered for good shortly afterwards.

NG-Video: The people of the horses

Almost a century and a half later, the historian Towana Spivey, a Chickasaw man and expert on Comanche history, sits in the front yard of his house in Duncan, Oklahoma, telling me what happened then.

With the slaughter of the horses, he says, "the backbone of the resistance" was broken. The animals had served the Comanche as an important means of transport, as the basis for their nomadic life, as food and as the most important weapon in their warfare. "It was a devastating blow for the tribe," says Spivey. And it got worse.

Because, according to the historian, after this first killing operation, the army rounded up another 6,000 to 7,000 Comanche horses by June 1875. The animals were taken to a place called Mackenzie Hill to be shot. When this became too strenuous and too expensive because of the used ammunition, the army began to auction the Comanche horses to white bidders. After there were still more animals left, the shooting was resumed.

The two massacres of 1874 and 1875 broke the resistance of the Comanche. But it did not end the Native American horse story - it had only just begun.

By then, word had spread across the country how useful horses could be. With them, people were more successful than ever on the bison hunt, they could expand their radius of action and undertake devastating raids on other tribes. Horses freed women from arduous duties like hauling their belongings from camp to camp. Indian tribes who hunted on horseback had better cards than those who farmed. That is why all of the tribes suddenly wanted horses: from the south to the north, from the Jumano to the Apache to the Cheyenne - from now on they were all mounted.

And the new animals were soon so valued everywhere that they gradually took on a more abstract cultural role: as a status symbol. If a man was smart and ambitious, he could afford several horses and then sell, trade or give them away. The wealth of a man could be read from the number of horses he had.

With this first major innovation, another had come: firearms. The Indians could now buy rifles and revolvers from white dealers in exchange for bison skins or horses.

These were changes of great importance, bringing with them glorious climaxes and inglorious side effects, including bison overhunting - even before the arrival of commercial hunters. The art of horsemanship also led to more brutal warfare between the tribes, resistance to white settlers and the army, and later to sad events such as at Palo Duro Canyon. But these negative aspects of the horse revolution are history.

Today, horses are still of paramount importance to many Native American people. They are still considered a property of which Indians are particularly proud. And they stand for the ancient traditions and values ​​of their tribes: for glamorous appearances, for bravery and for a knowledge that has been passed on to the next generation for centuries - even and especially today.

The Pendleton Round-up is a top class rodeo that anyone can take part in. It takes place annually in September in Pendleton, Oregon, not far from the Umatilla Indian reservation. The events include - in addition to a war dance competition and several Indian relay races - an evening show: the history game "The Happy Canyon". It begins with an impressive parade through the city, during which Indians on horseback present themselves in large clothing. Then the local chiefs ride into the arena with beautifully clad young women in their entourage.

The official guardian of this ceremonial “Indian court” is Toni Minthorn, a woman around 50. She is currently sitting in a caravan at the back of the paddocks and mending the soft deerskin cover of a magnificent saddle. She explains to me how she understands her task: "My goal is to get princesses on horseback again."

Toni's mother was a “Happy Canyon” princess in 1955, Toni herself in 1978. She grew up a riding tomboy, drove sleds pulled by the family's horses, and fought on horseback with her brother and three sisters. Where did she get her riding skills from? "I was born with them." As a child, Toni lived with her family in a small town called Spring Hollow. There they had nothing: no modern comforts, no toys, little Toni didn't even have a doll. Her classmates pitied her: what? You don't have a doll? "I felt like the poorest child in the world." What are you doing all day? Asked the classmates.

We ride. Does your family have horses? Sure, she told them. 47 pieces. Do you have 47 horses? You must be rich! "And then I didn't feel poor anymore."

The Crow Fair is another important gathering: a festival held in mid-August in Crow Agency, Montana, attended by competitors from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Fort Hall, Idaho, and other locations. When I get there on a hot afternoon, the organizers are bustling back and forth and the numerous visitors are in a good mood. An announcer welcomes us with a baritone voice to this year's “Indian Rodeo” of the Crow and the associated camp, which is not without pride called the “Tipi Capital of the World”. The program includes races, bull riding, wild horse riding with saddle, lasso throwing in a team, calf catching for women and a fantastically wild discipline, the "Indian Relay". It is touted by the announcer as "the most exciting five minutes in Indian Country".

The "Indian Relay" is a team competition. Each group is composed of a rider, three horses and three courageous helpers who hold, catch and rein the two additional horses. Meanwhile, the rider switches from one animal to the other and does a single lap on each of them. None of the horses are saddled.


Since at least five teams take part in each round, whose riders try to change the bareback horses, stop the animals from full gallop and ride on others - and all on a crowded track - the "Indian Relay" can do a lot go chaotically. But if not, then it's just terrific. A skilled relay rider can suddenly stop a horse, slide down, run a few steps, swing onto the next horse, take the reins and gallop on. A team that manages two of these changes smoothly could win the relay by ten lengths, regardless of who has the fastest horses. But that's the ideal race - the one that I'm witnessing here at the “Crow Fair” runs differently.

On the first run, two riders collide at the end of the route and fall, one remains lying down and the announcer calls a paramedic. Then he says completely unmoved: “It's just getting down to business. Only the toughest guys are in demand here. If it were that easy, choirboys would do it too. "

I later speak to Thorton (he is called “Tee”) Big Hair, a stocky but meek young man who is the race steward for this year's “Crow Fair”. He's wearing a blue T-shirt, a straw cowboy hat and the belt buckle of the Indian Relay world champion, which he won in Sheridan, Wyoming. He boasted a little that he was responsible for catching the horses, and who knows how often he was run over by a galloping horse.

Horse races are “tea” big hair in the blood, I learn. His uncle Henry "Hank" Rides Horse, Jr., for example, trained racehorses all over the state. His uncle Byron Bad Bear bred red fox painthorse horses. And his father was a gifted rider.

Dennis Big Hair, "Tees" father, 71, the head of the family, wears his hair cut short under a white cowboy hat. His considerable waist size does not suggest that he was a gaunt racing rider himself at a young age. I'm sitting with him at the stables near the food stand that his wife runs. At 14, Dennis tells me, he won the Crow Indian Derby, one of the oldest traditional Crow races.

Around the same time, he also won a governor’s handicap. And yes, he also rode “Indian Relays”. His trick back then was to ride very close to the next horse, swing himself down, take two steps, jump from behind to the next - and off we went. Like in the cinema. Nobody does that today, he says with a touch of ungracious contempt. That no longer exists and there are also no attacks on other tribes in order to steal their horses - two beautiful old traditions that have simply disappeared.

The atmosphere at the “Crow Fair” is burdened by the history of the place: It is just three kilometers away from Little Bighorn. There, on a small hill just below Last Stand Hill, a memorial commemorates the great struggle of the Indians against the American army. There is a long list with the names of the fallen, several inscriptions and among them a nostalgic quote from Chief Sitting Bull: “When I was a boy, the world belonged to the Lakota. The sun rose and set in their country. You have sent 10,000 horsemen into battle. "

That somber memory of Little Bighorn may seem forgotten when the arena events begin. But there can still be dark moments. In the afternoon after my conversation with “Tee” Big Hair, a thoroughbred named “Ollie’s Offspring” broke his shin from sheer exertion - just 18 meters from victory in the last race. Collective groan of horror from the stands. The horse had to be shot in front of 5000 people and dragged away by a tractor.


When I spoke to “tea” again the following morning, he seemed very upset. “It hit me in the heart,” he says. After this incident, his father advised him to take the whole thing philosophically, just like a real Crow: In such a death, the horse dies instead of a human. Or someone in the family needs assistance, and the unfortunate horse's death brings that person the spiritual help they need. But it is very difficult for him to accept that, says "Tee". Because of his intense feelings for these animals and what they give him. He presses his fist firmly to his chest: “It is true love. That's it. You take care of your horse. "

The "Indian Relay" is not the only event where the daring riding skills of the Indian past are demonstrated. At the Omak Stampede, which takes place in Omak, Washington, near the Colville Indian reservation, the finale is a run of the famous (in some circles: notorious) "Suicide Race". It goes back to the old endurance races.

This insane equestrian event is open to anyone crazy enough to ride a horse down a 62-degree slope into the Okanogan River - you might as well jump the horse off a cliff. Some riders pray before the "Suicide Race" or decorate their horses with eagle feathers. Others just wear helmets and life jackets and hope for the best. More than a dozen horses land in the water at almost the same moment, swim across the river, climb up the other bank and gallop into the rodeo arena to the brightly lit finish line. The riders - at least the most capable and the most fortunate - are now wet to the skin, but still in the saddle.

The animal welfare organization Humane Society deeply disapproves of this spectacle because more than 20 horses have perished in the past decades. In the "Suicide Race" that I witness, a horse and a rider are injured, but nobody is killed. And the race's official vet, Dan DeWeert, explains his own view of things to me: "I think the race is great - when I have nothing to do."

The following afternoon, a conversation ensues with a gracious gray-haired woman named Matilda "Tillie" Timentwa Gorr. I meet her at her stand in the Indian camp, where she sells pearl jewelry. She tells me about her family who have kept horses for generations. Many of them used to be wild mustangs that were caught in the nearby mountains. When her father was a young man, "Tillie" remembers, Grandpa Louie sent him off with the announcement: Don't come home to me on the same horse! "And it never is," she says. Her father caught a horse with a lasso, blindfolded it, tied its legs and saddled it. Then he released the chains, jumped up, removed the blindfold, held on, and rode the Mustang home. His own horse found the way home alone.

But the riding skills were not limited to the male side of the family. "Tillie's" daughter, Kathy, took part in the "Suicide Race" that year when she turned 18 and no longer needed parental consent. Unfortunately, it was a bad race for the girl, explains "Tillie": She was pushed from behind, the horse fell, Kathy broke her leg and the animal had to be euthanized. Since then "Tillie" has never let her take part in the "Suicide Race" again.

Another guardian of cultural memory I met there in Washington was Mary Marchand, an energetic woman past 80. She was a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes elders with 211 descendants. One of her sons, Randy Lewis, a man with long braided hair and turquoise jewelry, had arrived from Seattle. The three of us sat very relaxed on folding chairs with a view over the "Suicide Race" slope and chatted about the old days. Meanwhile, Mary has passed away, mourned by many. But that day she was wide awake and lively. She wore a blue brocade blouse, a necklace made of glass beads and carved elk horn, and a lilac-colored sun hat with the words "Harvard" on it. She told of the endurance races of earlier times. At that time they walked over eight kilometers through the middle of the mountains. The riders had to jump over boulders and tree trunks, storm downhill, sometimes cross a river. The horses were still descended from Mustangs, Randy explained: born and trained to walk over rock without horseshoes. There was no prize money in these races. The winner was the first to choose from a barrel of salmon.

How far back these races went? I asked her. "Oh, man ..." she said, lost in time and memory for a moment.Randy replied: "Ever since there were horses."

Horses are traditionally important to the Indian tribes, but in some families there is also a very special passion for animals. “Tee” Big Hairs Clan is just one example. I meet another in the form of the young Blackfeet woman Johnna Laplant. She is a racing rider from Browning, Montana. I see her for the first time at the Pendleton RoundUp. She takes part in the "Ladies' Race" with a brown thoroughbred gelding. She rides hot-blooded, bareback - and wins.

But then there are problems. One of the riders who followed falls, the horse sped, several helpers chase after him with whirling lassos. This chaos makes it difficult for Johnna to bring her own animal to a stop after the finish line; it is confused, no longer obeys, and just keeps on running. Meanwhile, a chestnut-brown thoroughbred turns around with a petite young rider and gallops in the wrong direction on the track. We all see it coming, we all in the stands, we think no ... no ... until it happens. The chestnut brown runs head-on into Johnna's gelding. She flies through the air. Both horses and the other woman fall. The gelding gets up awkwardly. He doesn't put any weight on his right foreleg, it seems broken. Johnna is carried out.

I meet her many months later in Missoula, Montana, and she tells me the gelding survived. His leg wasn't broken, it was just a muscle injury that he's slowly recovering from. And what about yourself? Concussion and a laceration on the back of the head where a horse's hoof hit her. But now she is fine. She took part in races last summer. She has won the "Ladies' Race" in Pendleton again. And was on the relay team of her cousin Narsis Reevis.

Narsis, 30, also one of those lanky equestrians, plays an important role in Johnna's story. He was there when she fell in Pendleton, and he was one of the first to come to her aid. When he knew that she hadn't been seriously injured, he pushed the story aside and then won the Indian Relay himself. He's a master relay rider and taught Johnna all about horse riding. “Narsis was always there,” she says. "Without him I would know absolutely nothing about horses."

I'm visiting Narsis in Browning, a town on the reservation just east of Glacier National Park. He tells me about his grandfather, an old professional cowboy named Lloyd "Curly" Reevis, who took Narsis to the paddock when he was a toddler. "Curly" had already taken part in rodeos in his youth, especially lassoing. "I grew up with that, with good lasso horses," says Narsis. His uncles Steve and Tim Reevis, both excellent riders, also helped the little boy study. Steve later worked as a stuntman for the film "Dances with Wolves", Tim for nine years in a Wild West show at Disneyland Paris. But it was grandfather "Curly" who held everything together.

"Curly" Reevis is a dignified 79-year-old of stature. He has deep wrinkles and there is a flash of mischief in his eyes. He takes off his hat and leans forward. Then he tells me a little bit about his family history. First, the family tree is half French, half Southern Blackfeet. Second: horses. "We had horses everywhere," he says of his own childhood. Horses in the paddock, horses running around freely, horses everywhere. "That was life on the reservation."

It reminds me of what Toni Minthorn said in Pendleton about the poor little girl who didn't have a doll but had 47 horses. And it explains what "Curly's" great-granddaughter Johnna said: Just as Narsis taught her to ride and Narsis learned it from Uncle Tim and Uncle Steve, there was also someone there from whom "Curly" learned it, or at least he did it for him allowed to teach myself. Just as she, Johnna, is now teaching her young cousins. It may not be an eternally unbroken chain - but it is definitely precious:

You acquire skills and a passion that come from your ancestors. You learn the skills of the older ones and make their passion your own. First you become good, then masterful, then generous in your skills. Then you care for your animals wisely and lovingly. You pass this gift on to younger relatives. You make your family proud and keep them together.

This is the perfect "Indian Relay".

(NG, issue 6/2014, page (s) 108 to 131)