Posted by on Feb 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

Missouri River Mythos

By: Dakotah Goodhouse

The Missouri River has a fixed place in the history and mythology of the Plains Indians. For the Lakota Sioux, the Missouri River and many of its tributaries serve as boundaries for ancestral territories, territories which were considered by many tribes over the course of centuries as in dispute or contested. Sometimes a great event occurred that transcended cultural boundaries, from catastrophic floods and deadly blizzards to fiery aurora and torrential star falls. Another one of these great events is the arrival of the horse on the Missouri River.

Dakotah GoodhouseThe Dakota-Lakota people have many story variations of the horse and its arrival on the Northern Plains. All of the stories relate the respect for the mystery of creation and all its unrevealed sacred gifts for humanity. That respect for the horse and the connection that the Lakota felt for it is reflected in the names for this first encounter, such as: Elk-Dog, Holy Dog, Spirit Dog, or Mysterious Dog. In Dakota or Lakota, the word for dog is simply Sunka (to be a dog; pronounced shoon-KAH).

Previously, the Dakota-Lakota had no word for horse, and at first sight, probably said something like Le anpetu kin sunka wan lila wakan ca wawayanke welo, meaning, “This day, a dog was very powerful and I saw it.” The dog was domesticated and commonplace, the horse wasn’t just big but powerful- and it could help them.

Mary Louise Defender-Wilson, Wagmuhawin (Gourd Woman), a traditional story-teller of the Ihanktowana Dakota (Yanktonai), and enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, shares the story of the horse and its arrival on the Makoche album “My Relatives Say: Traditional Dakotah Stories as Told by Mary Louise Defender-Wilson.”

According to Defender-Wilson, a long time ago, there were two men who went out hunting along the Mnisose (Missouri River). They called the river Mnisose, pronounced Mih-NEE shoh-shay; Mni meaning “Water,” sose meaning “Roiling,” “A-stir,” or “Swirling.” Think of stirring a cup of coffee after you’ve added cream or sugar.

These two hunters followed the course of Mnisose and noticed that a great swirl began to appear in the river. As they stood transfixed watching the swirl grow, a violent thunderstorm suddenly manifested itself about them. The two hunters kept as much out of the way of the storm as anyone caught in the rain could, but they trained their eyes on the swirl in the river. As they stood watching the churning water, a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck it.

From the middle of the swirl appeared what looked like a head with a long face. As this head with a long face followed the swirl about in circles, a long neck was revealed as the head and face were lifted out of the water, then a great body, like that of an elk. This creature fought the current of the swirl, broke free, and swam for the shore where the hunters stood watching.

The creature ascended the bank of the Mnisose, shook itself, and walked into the grasses where it began to graze. The hunters knew then it was similar to the bison, elk, and deer. Curious about the creature, the hunters watched it for a while and then decided to approach it, but as they neared it, it ran away. As close as hunters were able to get to the creature, they noticed that it had a little one with it, which was just as skittish as the mother.

The hunters thought that the creature and its little one were somewhat like the other four-leggeds, wild and wary of people, but also unlike deer, elk, moose, and bison. The hunters and the creatures knew there was a connection between the other.

The hunters went back to their people and told them of the grace and strength of this new creature and its awareness of the connection to them. They talked amongst themselves about the nature of the creatures seeming domesticated nature and its purpose in the natural world. The people eventually came to the conclusion that the creature was sent to help the people in hunting, travelling, and moving.

The people met amongst themselves some more about how best to approach and appropriate this new creature in village life. They finally involved the village singers to compose a song of invitation to the creature and its little one, because they didn’t want to capture them and force them into a new life.

The people believed this new creature was sent to them to ease their burdens, like the sunka. In those long ago days, the “dog days” as the elders call them, dogs helped the women haul things like firewood or personal belongings on a sun’onk unpa (a dog-drag, or dog travois; pronounced shoon OHNK oon-PAH) alongside the men or women as they also hauled their belongings on wanjiksila (a one-person travois; pronounced wahn-ZEEK-shee-LAH). The dogs served as guard dogs, especially as watchdogs over children, for in those days enemy tribes used to steal children, even as the Teton used to take children from the enemy.

The singers composed and sang the first horse songs, to tame them, and brought them into village life. As the horse adjusted to life among the people, it came to help them. The people learned to fashion saddles, bridles, and sunun’k’onpa (a pony-drag, or travois; pronounced shoon-OON’k’ohn-pah).

The dog days ended. The days of the Plains Indian horse culture began. Defender-Wilson tells the story with the lesson of respect for all of the gifts of the creator.

The John K. Bear Wintercount, an Ihanktowana (Yanktonai) pictographic record of the history of that tribe, tells us when the horse arrived. Waniyetu ehani, Sung noni ota kin, translated to mean, “There were many wild horses this year.” Counting back from key entries which are correlated to major events like smallpox, war, or astronomical events, this particular reference to horses is the earliest date at 1692.

In 1692, the Ihanktowana Dakota were living in earthlodge villages, not unlike the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan Indians, along the Cansansan Wakpa (Whitewood River; pronounced chahn-SAHn-sahn wahk-PAH), known today as the James River. Where the Cansansan Wakpa and Mnisose converge was a favorite wintering site of the Ihanktowana. It is this author’s conjecture that the Ihanktowana were arriving to this site in the fall, camping there over the winter, or leaving there in the spring, when they encountered the horse.

It may be that as some hunters crested a hill along the banks of the Missouri River, as a thunderstorm was approaching, horses were coming out of the river from the swirls they created themselves as they swam.

In an entirely different circumstance, but no less respectful in the telling, the Mandan Indian oral history recounts their first encounter when the Cheyenne Indians came to trade with them in the fall.

The Mandan were living in earthlodge villages along the Missouri River for a thousand years, and at about the time of the horses’ arrival they were living in the vicinity of the Heart River. The Cheyenne were living in an earthlodge village of their own at present-day Fort Yates, where “The Hill That Stands Alone” is located.

According to the Mandan, the Cheyenne arrived to trade, bringing with them the horse. The Mandan were amazed at the horse and quite taken with its equine beauty. They sought to trade for it, but the Cheyenne resisted their offers. When it came time for the Cheyenne to return to their village, the horse refused to leave the village because she was heavy with a colt. The Cheyenne elected an elderly woman to stay behind with the horse in the Mandan village to assist with the labor.

The colt arrived safely and both mare and colt, along with their caretaker, were welcomed by the Mandan. In fact, Mandan Indians from all the other villages were said to have walked to the host village to see the horses for themselves.

When spring came, the Cheyenne returned to the Mandan for their grandmother and the horses. The colt had by that time come to know the Mandan village as home. The Cheyenne finally relented to a trade and allowed the Mandan to keep the horse.

The horse enabled an entire village to travel tens of miles. The horse enabled hunters to ride alongside bison and bring them down, whereas before it took a great concerted effort to stampede a gang of bison over a buffalo jump. War parties travelled further than before to secure territory, and mounted war parties made it easier to defend those expanded boundaries. There became a race to control the horse trade, much like controlling nuclear weapons, because the people with horses had the edge over those who did not.

The earliest record of horse-stealing on the Northern Plains is that recorded in the Brown Hat Wintercount. According to this wintercount, in 1706, the Dahkotah stole horses from the Hewaktokah, the old Dahkotah word for the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa at that time were living along the Knife River near present-day Stanton, ND.

Of course, the horse was here in North America thousands of years ago, up until the last ice age. It may be that as the environment changed they were unable to adapt or that the Paleo-Indians hunted them to extinction. The essence of the American mustang had already run these grounds, the free spirit of the horse in North America was only to be rediscovered when the Spanish brought horses with him.

All these first encounters with the horse and these earliest native records relate to it all originating along the Missouri River. For many of the First Nations living today in North Dakota, the Missouri River is where the American Indian horse culture began. The arrival of the horse changed everything from trade and travel to warfare. For natives living along the river on the Upper Missouri, their sense of place embraced a larger view of the Northern Plains. They and the horses they rode belong here.