How did horses become integrated into Navajo mythology?

  • I've been reading a lot of Native American mythology, and I've noticed that horses play a prominent role in several stories. For example:

    Looking around, she saw a great white horse with black eyes. He had a long white mane, and he pranced above the ground, not on the earth itself. She saw that the bridle was white too, and that the saddle was white. And there was a young man sitting on the horse. The young man's moccasins and leggings and clothing were all white.

    (Diné Bahaneʼ. This isn't the only example of horses in Navajo or other Native American mythology.)

    What surprised me is that horses are not native to North America, but were brought over by Europeans:

    The disappearance of the horse from the Western Hemisphere for 10,000 years supports the position that today's American wild horses should not be considered "native." American wild horses are descended from domestic horses, some of which were brought over by European explorers in the late 15th and 16th centuries, plus others that were released or escaped captivity in modern times. Over this 500-year period, these horses (and burros) have adapted successfully to the Western range.

    (Bureau of Land Management)

    If horses are not native to America, how and why did they become integrated in Navajo (and other Native American) mythology? And why aren't other European artefacts, like guns, integrated the same way? I can't find any stories where non-Europeans use guns, but horses seem to have been absorbed into the culture so much that it features prominently in the Navajo creation myth.

  • They Sang for Horses first published in 1966 is devoted pretty much exclusively to this topic.

    The Navajos first obtained horses in the early 1600s, and the Navajo nations didn't become part of the United States till 1848 so that gave them around 250 years in which to establish their own mythology around horses. Navajo was an unwritten language prior to the middle of the 19th century so that's a number of generations where stories passed solely by oral tradition.

    The book describes how

    mythological elements were developed in such a way that the horse became a “gift of the gods,” useful not only in daily mundane life, but also in curing and other supernatural areas.

    and in the end

    I was struck by how completely this historical incident (that horses had originally been obtained by raiding them from the Spanish) had been erased from Navajo consciousness and replaced by a mythological version.

    This is pretty cool. Two follow-up questions: (1) is this something just limited to the Navajo or is it also seen in other Native American cultures? and (2) could you summarise the books explanation for why only horses were incorporated in this way?

    It's similar for the Apache, the book covers them too. The Navajo and Apache are both fairly close to Mexico, so they would have obtained horses earlier than other groups. The book is about horses, I don't think it tries to cover other topics - you could always buy it ;-).

  • One important thing to note here is that many (most?) American Indians did not first get horses directly from the European traders or settlers. According to Jared Diamond what happened was that the Spanish brought horses with them, some escaped and went feral, and the plains tribes (many of whom had never encountered a European) tamed those feral horses. So from their perspective, these useful creatures just appeared one day. That's the kind of thing that could use a good explanation.

    Goods like guns they did not have the capability of producing themselves, and indeed had to get directly from European traders. So it was pretty obvious to American Indian people where guns came from.

    This is spoiled a bit in the case of the Navajo, in that due to their location they encountered the Spanish fairly early (1540 at the earliest).

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM