A lot of history and culture rides on the backs of the Lac La Croix Ponies at Grey Raven Ranch in Ontario on the border near Minnesota. For generations, these sturdy small horses with a prehistoric lineage have supported Ojibwe communities and carried valued necessities across rugged, challenging landscapes and seasons.
Justin Whitecrow takes a spin on the Lac La Croix stallion Babaminijikawad (He Chases Them Around). Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
Grey Raven Ranch, operated on an all-volunteer basis by Kim Campbell and Darcy Whitecrow, was formed in 2014 on the lands of Seine River First Nation as a home for this rare indigenous horse.
The Lac La Croix Ponies are considered one of only a handful Indigenous breeds in North America and the only such breed in Canada. It’s estimated that fewer than 200 descendants of Lac La Croix horses that still exist, and the ranch has 10.5 — counting a foal anticipated soon from a pregnant mare.
The horse, named for the Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario — the last place that these horses were found in modern times — even earned an entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia, which describes them as “a small, semi-feral horse that once lived in the wild and worked as a service animal – but is also considered a spirit animal – for the Ojibwe people of northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota.”
Four Lac La Croix ponies come in for a visit. All the small horses born at Grey Raven Ranch have Ojibwe names. From left are Adaji (Shy), Makade (Black) Nigiigoons (Little Otter) and Mindimooyenh (Old Woman). Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
Classified as a pony because its breed standard is less than 14 hands high (a hand being 4 inches), Campbell said “they’re actually small horses.”
Physically, they are adapted to the northern climate and lifestyle. “They have incredibly hard hooves,” Campbell said. “Some of them have an extra nose flap to protect them from the cold and their ears are incredibly hairy. They look like bears in the winter time.”
The Lac La Croix horse Naabesim (Stud Colt) show how well this rare breed fits into it northern climate. The Grey Raven Ranch on the Seine River First Nation in Ontario is helping to preserve the small Indigenous horses. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
Other traits also make this breed of pony a special treasure due to their friendliness toward people.
“First of all it has personality,” said Campbell. “These guys are very people-oriented, they like people. They walk right up to people.” Campbell recalls one child jumping right up on a mare that had never before been ridden. “He rode her around, and we’d never even trained her.”
Their easy-going disposition makes them especially suited to the two main missions of the Grey Raven Ranch: To preserve the breed and to help the young people “develop confidence and leadership skills by entrusting them with the future of the Ojibwe horse.”
Kim Campbell and Darcy Whitecrow with on of the Lac La Croix ponies at Quetico Provincial Park, located among the boundary waters between the United States and Canada. They bring the Lac La Croix ponies to a campground at the park each year to educate about this rare Indigenous breed of horse. Courtesy Ontario Parks
Whitecrow, who works at the Resolute Forest Products mill in Sapawe, has an extended history of working with youth that reaches back long before he became involved with the horses. A native speaker of Ojibwemowin who did not learn English until he was 10, Whitecrow has worked as a researcher for to the National Aboriginal Role Model program, as housing manager for the Seine First Nation, as a human rights officer in several school districts to consult about preserving Ojibwa heritage and with the Motivate Canada program, inspiring young people through sports and recreation.
Several of Whitecrow’s own children have had stellar achievements in organized sports through provincial football – one son was the first Aboriginal quarterback for Team Ontario and another played for the Toronto Argonauts. But, said Whitecrow, “not every kid takes to football or takes to basketball. … We had to try to create another option.”
The horses offer that alternative. “They’re easy to work with, they’re not as intimidating as a big horse,” Whitecrow said during a recent phone interview, adding with amusement, “One is in my backyard, running around with the dog right now.”
Children from the Seine River First Nation learn up close about the rare Lac La Croix ponies on the Grey Raven Ranch on the Seine River First Nation in Ontario. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
A little girl gives treats to the gentle stallion Babaminijikawad (He Chases Them Around), one of the Lac La Croix ponies being reared on the Grey Raven Ranch on the Seine River First Nation in Ontario. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
There is no paid staff at the ranch, and caring for the horses has become the volunteer focus of local youngsters alongside Whitecrow and Campbell.
“We are reconnecting youth with their culture and reconnecting youth with their environment and their land,” said Whitecrow. “In an age of technology, we’ve disconnected ourselves from nature.” The horses help youngsters plug into the natural world.
Even the nervousness of some children at being around the horses for the first time can teach broader lessons. Whitecrow tells them “relax and breathe deep and just pat the horse. Once you learn to understand them, you don’t fear them anymore. It’s like racism (where misunderstanding generates fear).”
Caring for the horses encourages responsibility, he added. “It also teaches you a lot about compassion; the kids are more balanced. … And once they are on that horse, you should see some of these youth. You’re so confident, it just becomes part of you.”
From left, Bekki Wilson and Christine Head from Motivate Canada with the Lac La Croix stallion Babaminijikawad (He Chases Them Around). Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
Brandon Whitecrow and Naabesim (Stud Colt) in the hay shack at the Seine River First Nation. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
The horses themselves teach about self-reliance and tenacity. “These horses will eat anything,” Campbell said. “They used to feed them dried fish and they’ll eat the bark of trees. They’re very self sufficient in the landscape and we try to teach all the kids that stuff.”
The horses educate non-Native people about the Ojibwe culture, too. Each year in August, Whitecrow and Campbell bring the horses to a campsite in Quetico Provincial Park on the border. The park has partnership ties with the Lac La Croix First Nation, cooperatively making and executing management plans.
“Every year, it’s our biggest educational program at the campground with the highest attendances,” said park Superintendent Trevor Gibb, adding of the horses, “They’re beautiful, they’re just so calm. … The thing that I find most interesting is just the historic link to the region.”
Quetico Provincial Park Superintendent Trevor Gibb hangs with Darcy Whitecrow and one of the rare Lac La Croix Ponies that Whitecrow is helping to raise on the Grey Raven Ranch on the Seine River First Nation in Ontario. Whitecrow and Kim Campbell, the other major volunteer on the ranch, bring some of the small horses to the park each year to educate about the Indigenous breed. Courtesy Ontario Parks
Whitecrow delights in educating everyone about that link because the Lac La Croix horses had been described as hybrids from European imports, perhaps the mating of a Spanish mustang and a Québec breed with French roots.
“Our elders kind of laugh at that,” Whitecrow said. Elders instead had stories of a long history with the horses. “The horses would actually pull sleighs for trapping purposes,” Whitehorse said. They hauled harvested logs and there were so many that they were “all over the bush like a herd of deer.”
Darcy Whitecrow and Joyce Johnson, a Seine River First Nation elder who recently passed, visit with Makade (Black) at the Grey Raven Ranch dedicated to preserving the rare Lac La Croix horses. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
Even the records of the first-arriving European explorers to the Great Lakes described thousands of the horses, Campbell said, and DNA testing has proven the Ojibwa elders were right.
“Emerging evidence … indicates that the Lac La Croix pony may predate the arrival of the Spanish mustang,” according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Fossilized bones and DNA research suggest that small pockets of wild horses may have survived the ice age, just as deer,moose and elk did. This supports what some Indigenous elders and memory keepers have said all along: horses were a vital part of their life before first contact with Europeans.”
“Now you’re using science as a means of backing up your story,” Whitecrow teaches about the horses.
The near extinction of the bred, like the communities it served, has a dark side, now being researched. Missionaries may have killed many of the horses and encouraged their extermination. “There are a few stories that back up the idea that the way to deal with the ‘Indian problem’ was to take away their mobility,” Whitecrow said.
Darcy Whitecrow in a gentle moment with the Lac La Croix stallion Babaminijikawad (He Chases Them Around) on the Grey Raven Ranch located on the Seine River First Nation in Ontario. Babaminijikawad is one of less than 200 the Indigenous breed of small horses that are thought to remain in existence. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
Ted Atatise of the Lac La Croix First Nation with Darcy Whitecrow and Gwiingwiishii (Grey Jay). Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
“They almost went extinct in the 1970s when the Canadian government was going to destroy the last ones as nuisance animals,” Campbell noted, “but they were saved by being smuggled across the border by local farmers and Bois Forte Ojibwe band members (on the U.S. side). They are also a U.S. horse, but went extinct much earlier in the US.
In reviving this breed and, through them, in teaching Native youth, Whitecrow sees hope for the future of the Ojibwa culture.
Mindimooyenh (Old Woman) and her foal Bibiizigindibe (Curly) enjoying the summer grass in Ontario near the Seine River First Naiton where the Grey Raven Ranch helps to preserve rare Lac La Croix breed of Indigenous horses. Photo Courtesy Grey Raven Ranch
“For every horse that we breed, there is a line that’s being created to save the herd. You have created a legacy – a legacy that’s going to go on long after you’re gone. You’re giving back your ancestors’ horse. With this horse, it is something so incredible, because we are actually rewriting history at our own level.”