Yvette Running Horse Collin’s recent dissertation may have rewritten every natural history book on the shelf. A Lakota/Nakota/Cheyenne scholar, Collin worked within the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Indigenous Studies program to synthesize fossil evidence, historical documents and oral history to present a compelling new story of the horse in the Americas.
The horse was here well before the settlers.
“We have calmly known we've always had the horse, way before the settlers came. The Spanish never came through our area, so there's no way they could have introduced them to us," reads one quote from a Blackfoot (Nitsitapi) study participant in Collin’s doctoral study.
Columbus didn't introduce them
The original theory accepted by the Western World was that there were no horses in the Americas prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492. The Western World concluded that all horses of Native American peoples were, therefore, descendants of horses brought from overseas.
This theory was forced to change, however, after paleontology pioneer Joseph Leidy discovered horse skeletons embedded in American soil in the 1830s. They were dated to be the oldest of any found in the world. According to Collin’s dissertation, the American scientific community was outraged and questioned his findings. Ultimately, they were forced to accept the evidence he provided.
At this point, the narrative shifted to say that horses originated in the Americas, but were later completely extinguished due to the last Ice Age period (roughly 13,000 to 11,000 years ago). Thus, the Spanish were still believed at that time to have “reintroduced” the horse to the Americas in the late 1400s.
Collins' work disproves Spanish introduction of the horse to Native people
But on account of Collin’s work, the theory is being beckoned to change once again to say that Native Americans always had a sustained relationship with the horse. In the dissertation, Collin compiles a list of fossil and DNA evidence which dates after this supposed “extinction” period.
“The wonderful thing is that we now have Western technology that can provide very accurate dates,” said Collin in a recent interview. “Many studies show that these horses were present after the very same Ice Age that supposedly wiped out them all out. So, the most compelling data to support the Native narrative is actually from a lot of the western scientific measurements that are coming out.”
Collin didn’t stop there, however. She also drew from recorded observations in the diaries and maps created by explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, Sebastian Cabot, and other early Spanish conquistadors. Collin points to the first recorded sighting of horses with Native Peoples in the Carolinas:
“Columbus brought the first Spanish horse to the Caribbean in 1493,” remarks Collin. “The first documented arrival of horses on the mainland, near what we now call Mexico City, was in 1519. The Spanish took meticulous records of every mare and stallion. The first recorded sighting of Native people with horses, however, was in 1521 and that was in the Carolinas. No Spanish horses were recorded as ‘missing’ during this period. There’s no way Spanish horses could have made it through the dense forest and swampland to the Carolinas and repopulated in just two years.”
Collin also drew from interviews with American Indian study participants from seven different Nations. Every indigenous community that was interviewed reported having horses prior to European arrival, and each community had a traditional creation story explaining the sacred place of the horse within their societies.
“I didn't expect that,” says Collin. “If you lay out a map, these Nations are all over the place. These communities do not speak the same language, share the same culture or the same geographical areas. Yet, their oral histories were all completely aligned. They each shared when the horse was gifted to them by the Creator, that the acquisition was spiritual in nature, and that they did not receive the horse from the Europeans.”
Horse history was purposely distorted
The dissertation posits that the discrepancy between the Spanish “reintroduction” theory and the story reflected by current evidence has to do with a cultural bias that is still present within Western academia. Collin theorizes that because horses were a symbol of status and civilization in Spain during that time, and because conquerors needed to illustrate the Native people as savage and uncivilized to justify their conquest to the Queen of Spain, the truth about the relationship between Native peoples and the horse was purposefully distorted.
“When Columbus came, the Spanish had just finished an 800-year war with Muslims,” Collin cited. “Queen Isabella gathered every horse in the vicinity and those horses became part of her army. With that horse power, she was able to conquer the Muslims. So, the horse was incredibly valuable. You'll find paintings of her on these beautiful palominos. The horse was very much connected with nobility, power, and the concept of ‘civilization’ for these people.”
For this reason, she posits in through an “intercultural translation” lens that the history of the relationship between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and their horses was covered up and rewritten.
In a recent interview, Collin gave greater insight into the political and cultural nature of science. In April 2017, mastodon bones with designs carved by human hands were dated in San Diego showing human presence in the area as long as 130,000 years ago. This scientific dating is drastically different than the dates previously given by Western academia regarding how long Indigenous Peoples have existed in the Americas. Such dates only went as far back as 10,000 to 15,000 years at most, explained Collin. Again, many Western scientists expressed initial disbelief and even outrage with this new evidence. Collin finds a parallel between the reaction to these new Western findings and that of the fossil evidence showing horses were always in the Americas.
“What they are trying to do is shorten the length of time that we were here to make us not as critical to this place. They say, ‘Native people came over the land bridge.’ Why? Why are they making us as having been from somewhere else? Why couldn’t we have been here? That’s number one. Number two is that Europeans are still credited for bringing the horses and introducing them to Native people. What does that mean? They are telling us over and over again that anything that they consider to be of value in our cultures is still ‘derivative’ of theirs.”
The Sacred Way Sanctuary
Collin currently takes care of over 100 horses she claims to be descendants of the ancient horse of the Americas. Some have manes that grow down to the ground. Some have stripes on their legs. Some have spots all over. Some are much smaller than most horses. Some have curly hair.
Her hope is to find more caretakers for these horses and create a movement of Indigenous horse culture revitalization. Collin says, according to her ancestor’s ways, she refuses to sell her horses but gifts them to people who are interested in them for ceremonial or healing purposes and are willing to care for them according to her cultural traditions.
Collin seeks to inspire more research to illuminate the truth behind what the government has labeled as “feral” so that wild horses can be protected by the Indigenous Species Act. Currently, they are being run down and mass slaughtered if they are in the way of certain commercial projects.
“You have whole horse populations that are so run ragged, so stressed out by the helicopters, and the constant running from the government,” states Collin. “Then if you take a closer look, this land that the horses are on is the same land from which corporations are trying to extract resources or water. So, they’re just moving them around, taking away their homeland and their ability to have any habitat that’s at all livable. Nobody can be healthy when you run them that hard and make no place for them. They’re going to get sick, right?”
Ultimately, Collin’s dissertation is a groundbreaking piece of comprehensive research, employing a blend of both Western and Indigenous research methodologies, that will lay a firm foundation for further research.
Collin’s horse programs, ways to visit her museum on the Indigenous horse and the dissertation itself can be found at her website: www.SacredWaySanctuary.org.