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An Indigenous Re-Write of the Narrative on the Spread of Horses Across North America

Updated: Mar 7

History is not always written by victors.

A Spoiled Victory

The Pueblo Revolt is noted by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to be, “the only successful Native uprising against a colonizer power in North America.” In 1680, The Pueblo people of modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, fought to protect their homelands, language, religion, and other cultural traditions from Spanish colonial threat. And they won.

They won riding on the backs of horses descending from the genus Equus. Those riders were skilled riders capable of crossing great distances from the American southwest into the Great Plains.

Over 150 years before the Pueblo victory, these riders with their horses interacted with other Indigenous communities, including the Lakota people of the Great Sioux collective, through a sophisticated network of communication and trade.

But later descendants of those Spanish colonizers of the late 15th century would go on to tell a different story; a Euro-centric story of how their ancestors spread horses throughout North America beginning in the 15th century.

Researcher William Timothy Treal Taylor from the University of Colorado Boulder, Mila Hunska Tasunke Icu (Chief Joseph American Horse) and others, in collaboration with members of the Lakota and Comanche nations, have recently published research in Science that provides a different story that follows the journey of horses North to the Upper Mississippi Valley from the Pueblo region.

Redressing a Genealogy

To rewrite this story on the fate of Equus, and ultimately the fate of Indigenous cultures across North America, the researchers analyzed chemical compounds, DNA, and horse remains.

Prior to European colonization, the Lakota were an agricultural people who lived across the Upper Mississippi River region, from Indiana to Iowa. They were known for their ability to hunt, particularly buffalo.

The Lakota traded their goods with other Indigenous communities including their Great Sioux neighbors, the Assiniboine and Dakota, as well as the Cheyenne and Comanche, of the Southern Great Plains.

It is theorized that the Comanche people introduced the Lakota to the “Horse Nation” and the ways of caring for these new partners, Šungwakaŋ (or šuŋkawakaŋ), which greatly enhanced their ability to hunt buffalo.

The research group's findings support this theory, dating horse remains in the Great Plains region, specifically from Wyoming and Kansas where the Comanche are known to have resided, as far back as 1519. Other remains were found as far north as Idaho. These remains were dated to be at least two decades older than the Pueblo Revolt event.

In fact, this evidence conflicts with another standing theory that suggests the Lakota were pushed out of the Upper Mississippi region because of conflict due to fur trade. They found themselves in the Great Plains where they interacted with the Pueblo people. The Pueblo themselves were pushed out of New Mexico due to Spanish pressures that ultimately led to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. Pueblo conflict with Spanish colonizers began as early as 1540, which is two decades following the date of the oldest remains.

In those two decades the horses developed a sophisticated relationship with members of the Lakota people. And these horses carried with them beyond death the marks of this relationship: bridle markings in teeth in old horses and healed head injuries in young horses.

This relationship provides a window into the exponential growth of trade networks that facilitated the proliferation of horses across North America. The nature and sophistication of these trade networks, however, remains an open question for the research team and the Lakota people more broadly.

Interrogating this relationship, and other interspecies relationships, the authors say, is vital to conserving biological and cultural diversity.

Dr. Antonia Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook, one of the lead researchers, points out,

No matter how our horses may have transformed, or where they are around the world, we will always call to them. Together we are home.

To read the entirety of this research, please refer to this link.



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