28. The Spiritual Power of Horses in Old Oregon

To recap: the extensive Indigenous slave trade with the Spanish in the Southwest, and a fight for new technology (the horse), drove Indigenous cultural change on the western edges of New France and the eastern edges of New Spain.

After being traded back and forth, they were eventually sold to the United States as Louisiana, in 1803

But leave that imperial map in its European context, and let us look again.

In 1680, the Pueblo Indians rose up against their masters. They resented the brutal treatment, the forced labor, and, above all, the strict laws against their ancient religious ceremonies. A deposed medicine man, Pope, organized a widespread revolt, and on the appointed day the Pueblos attacked at many points in northern New Mexico, killing over 400 Spanish in the first attack. The 2,500 survivors withdrew to El Paso to wait for reinforcements from Mexico; but they had lost their homes, their farms, and all their herds to the Indians

(see “Revolt in the Pueblos,” by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., in the June, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE ).

Pueblos? Yes, the Spanish transformed the ancient farming cultures of the upper Rio Grande into stock farms.

That’s 11 occupied pueblos and another 11 in ruins.

The people had been moved to the river by the Spanish and either housed in new pueblos or ones expanded under Spanish colonial direction. Taos, for example.

Taos. Not exactly a horse barn.

Every cattleman needed 15 horses, and had to have someone to look after them all. The pueblo revolt yielded a couple thousand horses. They were valuable, for sure, but also a problem for an urban farming culture attempting to recreate itself.

The Pueblo Indians found the horse herds an embarrassment of riches. They were hard to manage on the range, and they ate the grass needed for sheep. Moreover, the Pueblos had no use for as many horses as the Spanish had abandoned. They were willing to trade large numbers of them to the Plains tribes to the northeast, and to the Navahos and Utes to the northwest. The Pueblos also lacked the organization to patrol the ranges as the Spanish had done, and lost more horses to enemy raiders.

Everyone wanted a horse, it seems. That’s the geopolitical perspective. Locally, they were a drain on pueblo resources, especially in human labour and exposure to attack. The whole point of a pueblo was to not be exposed. The solution was to transform horses, a powerful but troublesome colonial addition, into something that was beneficial to traditional culture.

All through the Plains regions each band had friendly trade relations with two or three of its neighbors. A farming village would customarily trade with a hunting band to the south and another to the north. Each of these hunting bands in turn would trade with another farming village, the hunters in each case offering dried meat and buffalo robes for corn and squash. This helps to explain the rapid spread of horses to all the Plains tribes. The result was a basic pattern of horse culture, borrowed from the Spanish and common to all the western tribes using horses.

Spanish imperial technology had become Indigenous. Here’s how the horses arrived in our grasslands, among the cousins of the Cayuse.

Typically, this trading pattern would provide each tribe at first with a few older, gentler horses. Nez Percé tradition, handed down by word of mouth to early white frontiersmen, gives an account of such an event. According to this story they got their first animal, a gentle white mare, from the Shoshone in the Boise Valley. Day after day the curious Nez Percés gathered from all around to watch the mare crop grass near the village. They learned how a horse acted: how it fed, how it exercised, how it rested. In a few weeks the mare dropped a foal, and the crowds increased. Soon other villages sent south for horses of their own, to be treasured as curiosities and pets. At The Dalles, Oregon, some two hundred miles down river from the Nez Percé, the first few horses were led around at festivals and were shown at the big dances. Later they were used as pack animals, and finally as riding horses.

So, here’s the where of that:

The Pueblo Revolt took place west and south of Ute (and Paiute) Territory

Note how territories overlap due to kinship ties, often created by alliance-slavery. War would have created hard boundaries. Nez Percé (Nimiipuu) and Cayuse territory are marked in white.

But that’s not the whole story. Kinship ties (marked in white below) put the territories very close, only separated by the Utes.

The reach of the new technology was long. At the time the Americans arrived in the Walla Walla Valley (1835, the Cayuse had already transformed early mastery of the horse into an instrument of imperial power.

This hunting and gathering nation used its early acquisition and mastery of the horse to transform traditional slave raids into a system of tribute stretching from the Great Plains to the Willamette Valley (Below). Others did their gathering and manufacturing for them now. They had replaced the Spanish. Who had never been that far north!

The Cayuse Empire stretched almost to the Pacific and took in the wealth of the Lower Columbia. Their Empire stretched down into California and touched on the Great Plains as well, both factors that would feed into Pandosy’s history and ultimately that of the Canadian Okanagan.

Herds of 3,000 horses were not uncommon. That is tremendous wealth. Have a look:

What Was a Horse Worth?

In the early 1800s, on Native trade routes, the going rates for horses were:

  • 1 ordinary riding horse = 8 buffalo robes
  • 1 fine racing horse = 10 guns
  • 1 fine hunting horse = several pack animals
    • OR 1 gun and 100 loads of ammunition
    • OR 3 pounds of tobacco
    • OR 15 eagle feathers
    • OR 10 weasel skins
    • OR 5 tipi poles
    • OR 1 buffalo-hide tipi cover
    • OR 1 skin shirt and leggings, decorated with human hair and quills


You could then trade that stuff to American or Hudson’s Bay Company traders and up your profit. The horses the Hudson’s Bay Company used for its semi-annual pack trains up the Okanagan to the far north came from the Nimíipu’u. Effectively, the HBC was a handy substitute for Cayuse aggression. Let them do the heavy lifting! As for how the Cayuse tribute was negotiated, only the ones who were there know, and as for them they’re dead and can’t talk, but, wait, what’s this?

Horse: Hey, who’re you calling dead?

Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you there, what with the lightning painted across your head and all.

Horse: (Turning this way and that to display himself.) Pretty nice, huh. That’s Blackfoot work.

Right. You can’t expect these horses to just be Spanish, you know, or European. These were Indigenous horses, which mean that their spiritual power was a major part of their power. You didn’t actually have to get violent in order to demand tribute. You could just show your spiritual ties.

Note the mask this horse is wearing.

Not Cayuse?

Horse: Well, yeah, Cayuse. Good ideas travel. The world is about travel. And grass. Travel and grass, really. Everyone knows that.

Not war?

Horse: Oh, you noticed the scalps hanging from my mane. You have a good eye. I killed those dogs with my hoofs. Blackfoot.

Ugh. So, travel and grass and war. Anything else? Slavery maybe?

Horse: Well, I am a war horse, sheesh.

Horses Were a Kind of Shaman

That is: powerful creatures able to move between the world of water an the world of the sky, symbolized by water and lightning.

Note the similarity to pueblo design:

Hopi Lightning Kachina


Here, look again:

The Eyes Flashed Lightning. It could kill you at a distance.

More powerful than a rifle!

This shamanic tradition was one the Cayuse picked up during raids on the Blackfeet on the Great Plains. Even the Nimíipu’u, even the Yakama, and even the Syilx of the Okanagan and the Okanogan went on those. They were dangerous trips. The Blackfoot were formidable and fiercely protective of their territory. The chances of being killed or taken as a slave were never slight. So, with that in mind, back to where we were:

No, I mean, aren’t you a slave? Isn’t that how you were first ridden?

Horse: Well, they starved and beat me. (Eyes the book suspiciously.) Look, what are you getting at?

Well, how else did you get to be an instrument of Imperial power? Weren’t you one of the horses from stock captured in a Shoshone slaughter of a Spanish slave raid in Apache Territory?

Horse: PffffffBBbbbb. Señor, do you have any idea of how slowly those slave caravans moved? A couple hundred children tied together with ropes around their necks through the desert without food or water or grass. It was misery. That’s no way to treat a slave.

That’s no way to treat a horse.

Horse: Exactly!

Or men. Didn’t you lead the Cayuse astray? After you joined them, didn’t they make slave raids, just like the Sioux did in the Pays d’en la Haut, to exact tribute from an empire stretching from the Willamette Valley of Coastal Oregon to the Snake River Basin of Central Idaho and into the Great Basin of California?

Horse: There’s a lot of good grass in that country!

But slaves? Isn’t that cruel?

Horse: Look, are we done? I see some fine mares across the valley at the mouth of the Touchet there, so… (watching the mares frolic.)

Just one more thing.

Horse: (Whinnies.) Hurry up, man!

Well, I can see that slaves filled the ranks of Cayuse villages, performed whatever labour demands were not already fulfilled by tribute exacted from other tribes, and were an important currency in a culture of honour.

Horse: Yeah, yeah, yeah, get on with it.

Right. What about roots and fish and baskets and stuff? Weren’t those often given instead of children?

No laughing matter. The people of the Klickitat and the Southern Yakama highland …

Slo-om’s Camp

That’s Pahto in the background. With ties down in the Klickitat to the Columbia, where the Cayuse were the Imperial masters, Slo-om was never a fan of Chief Kamiakin, with his ties to the Cayuse.

…gathered salmon, dried it in the wind, pounded it into powder, and packed that into bentwood boxes for storage. It was remarkably efficient, and terribly heavy at the same time. The pounding was woman’s work. All industrial production was: one reason men took multiple wives, one way of caring for women set adrift when their husbands were killed on hunts or raids, and one reason there aren’t photos or drawings of this practice. The photographers were men. Aggressive behaviour on a horse was more in their style. The tenderness wasn’t absent from the Cayuse world, though:

Lightning, yes.

This Cayuse horse mask also portrays the products of women’s gathering, flowing out of the water world. After all, 80% of food came from women digging up roots and bulbs and picking wild fruits. A good thing to remind your man when he’s off to fight the Blackfeet.

As for the horses, these poor slaves, these technicians of the sacred bound to human will, had to drag it all around. Whew. I promise. Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Horse: Heavy bloody stuff. I had to pack that, too, you know, and not a bale of hay in the lot.

Was that something you picked up from the Spanish, too?

Horse: Are you kidding, Monsieur? That was French. (Neighs.)

So, your masters were both French and Spanish at the same time?

Horse: No, Cayuse. Oh, I see what you mean. Yeah, it’s the same thing. Plus the lightning. That’s Blackfoot.

Of course.

And that all goes to show that by the time the horse arrived in the Walla Walla, it was firmly embedded in world of work, slavery, war and tribute. Horse were horses, though, and that’s how settler saw them: as stock. To the people of the plateau, they were spirits and power.

Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn, Earth Left by the Setting Sun

As a teenager during the Flight of the Nez Perce in 1877, he was in charge of the horses. After his return from exile in Canada, he became a champion rider in the Pendleton and Happy Valley Rodeo, under his American name, Jackson Sundown.

That’s perhaps him below, to our right of his uncle Chief Joseph, before the battles began.

Joseph and His Family Standing between the Spirits of the Earth and the Spirits of the Sky

A horse could help you negotiate that. Any Europeans who traded for horses were actually trading in and out of the spirit world. They just didn’t know it.

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