Jen Gerson: The Cult of the Horse
The story of the Ojibwe spirit horse is a clear example of the limits of oral history.
By: Jen Gerson
A BBC travel feature published several weeks ago had the hallmarks of a classic progressive narrative. It was the tale of the "endangered Ojibwe spirit horse; the breed, also known as the Lac La Croix Indian pony, is the only known indigenous horse breed in Canada."
The spirit horse was reduced to near extinction by European settlers who treat these magical creatures, deemed "guides and teachers," as a mere nuisance to be culled and eliminated in favour of more profitable animals like cattle, or so the telling goes. A native breed of a beloved animal struggling to survive in the face of voracious colonial settlers.
Someone call James Cameron.
Unless you know a little evolutionary history, that is. In which case, you will already be aware that this story is pure pseudoscientific hokum.
Look, no one likes to be disrespectful about sensitive matters where the legitimately oppressed and aggrieved claims of First Nations peoples are concerned. This is a nation that is struggling to come to terms with its own horrific colonial past. This process is taking on many forms: witness the applause granted to singer Jully Black, who recently amended the national anthem “our home on native land.” Or, perhaps, the calls by one NDP MP to combat residential school denialism by passing new laws on hate speech — which would make questioning certain narratives not only an act of heresy, but also a literal crime.
Listening to stories, and respecting lived experiences and oral histories Indigenous people at the core of Canadian history and identity has given a new credibility to the traditional knowledge of First Nations people in academia, media, and in society at large.
But the story of the Ojibwe spirit horse is a clear example of the limits of oral history.
The horses now roaming the plains of North America are not a native species. The horse did evolve on this continent before migrating to Asia and Europe. However, the North American breed is believed to have been extirpated about 10,000 years ago (or thereabouts) during a mass extinction event that wiped out almost all large land mammals.
There is some evidence that isolated pockets of a native horse breed may have survived in North America much later than this, but the horses roaming about today are descended from those that were brought from Europe after the 15th century.
Of course, science is always evolving, but the overwhelming bulk of genetic and archeological evidence to date supports this theory. The native North American horse is long, long gone. The bands of horses freely wandering the backcountry are not wild, but feral; they're the product of escaped or abandoned horse stock of distant European origin.
With the advent of mechanized farming, the economic utility of these horses declined. And as the cost of shelter and food has risen, these creatures have been abandoned or lost. Isolated pockets of horses now compete with cattle for valuable grazing land. Further, wild horses are not protected under any federal statute. As a result, jurisdictions home to feral horse populations will occasionally cull or capture the herds. Most of the animals are then sold for meat.
Canada is also one of the few countries that also breed horses for slaughter and consumption, mostly in Japan where the meat is served raw. Obviously, this practice is also contentious, with many animal lovers objecting to the treatment of the animals as they are flown, live, abroad.
When I was the Alberta reporter for the National Post, much of my job was feeding the nation popular stories about wild animals. The plight of wild horses was always a reliable click-getter. As such, the BBC Travel feature was not the first time I had heard claims of a native horse breed roaming the plains of North America.
Those who espoused this conspiracy theory tended to fall into one of two often-overlapping categories. They were either horse lovers who believed — probably correctly — that a native species would be spared the cull. These claims also sprang from the oral histories of elders in Indigenous communities home to rich horse cultures.
Given the romantic role that horses still play in the collective imagination of the rugged west, and the near holy relationship that some Indigenous communities have with the animals, the hard, scientific, facts of history are, understandably, hard to reconcile. That the very colonization that harmed and oppressed Indigenous people is the same one that brought these animals to North America is cold comfort.
For its piece on the spirit horse, the BBC relied on a roundly debunked dissertation by a post-doctoral researcher named Yvette Running Horse Collin. In it, she dismisses most of the evidence against the scientific consensus on horse origins to date by noting it's all a construct of "Western science."
"'History' has been written by Western academia to reflect a Eurocentric and colonial paradigm. The traditional knowledge (TK) of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and any information that is contrary to the accepted Western academic view, has been generally disregarded, purposefully excluded, or reconfigured to fit the accepted academic paradigm," she wrote.
Of course, this is absolutely true.
But it does not follow that every historian, archaeologist, or geneticist that has studied the issue is involved in a mass conspiracy to deny the horse's true origins. In fact, there have been some genetic studies conducted by Indigenous groups that posit a much more fascinating possibility.
For example, in 2014, a study prepared for the T'silhquot Nation in British Columbia suggested that horses travelled northward post contact. The T'silhquot Nation may have had access to horses as early as 1740. In other words, even though Europeans brought the horse to North America, some First Nations nations may have encountered horses decades before they had regular contact with Europeans.
This might go some way toward explaining the mismatch between the provable history provided by genetic testing and the oral histories of Indigenous peoples.
I would not want anybody reading this piece to slot me into a category of individuals that dismisses or denies the importance of traditional knowledge, however.
Oral history and lived experience form the bedrock of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a years-long project that documented the stories of Indigenous people removed from their families and sent to residential schools.
Oral histories of survivors have also been crucial in discovering the unmarked, lost, or abandoned gravesites at those schools, where thousands of children suffered, died, and were buried far from their homes.
These are histories that were painful for the victims to recount, and for a guilt-ridden nation to hear. And the process of collectively synthesizing that knowledge and history has been difficult and complex. This process of reconciliation is establishing an unspoken and, perhaps, unconscious civic religion in an otherwise secular liberal state.
In 2021, the federal government declared September 30 a statutory holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Elementary schools routinely hold orange shirt days, their chain link fences festooned with handmade crafts declaring "Every Child Matters" to commemorate the lives of residential school victims.
Major events, conferences, and meetings almost always now begin with a solemn, prayerful land recognition, acknowledging the traditional territories of the land on which they are held.
(Of course, those acknowledgements are never accompanied by any imminent plan to give the land back. Canadians should be regarded as Christmas-and-Easter Catholics in this regard; pious, but not necessarily devout.)
It's taboo to question whether calling this country a "genocidal state" is accurate or appropriate.
We hold vigils for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, in which trees and fences all over the country are hung with red dresses to commemorate those lives lost.
One of the chapters of the report into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is literally titled "Our Women and Girls are Sacred.
All of this may be necessary, but religion has its downsides. Stories and claims that don't fit with the established narrative quickly become heretical, and oral tradition becomes cant.
This makes it tough to challenge claims or traditions that are self-evidently bunk, pseudoscientific, self interested, or simply subject to the ordinary frailties of human memory.
Did the nuns at the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School really burn a baby alive, as was claimed in a CBC interview in 2008? Were children deliberately infected with tuberculosis via unpasteurized milk?
All history is disputed. But these aren't matters limited to academic debate.
Reconciliation with the past may be necessary, but it's not always possible to reconcile an irrational or dogmatic belief system with real and pressing issues. Could this country subject to international censure and investigation over allegations of genocide? Land claims over disputed territories have implications for sovereignty and governance; they affect competing interests over resources and energy rights.
It’s noble to note that Canada exists “on native land” but who is lining up to give the land back?
These debates even color questions about whether or not we should cull wild horses to make way for cattle ranching.
Oral history is powerful and important, but it can also be emotionally manipulative and impossible to falsify. How do you compete with the heart-felt suasion of a claim like "my ancestors' oral history tells me that this spirit horse has been with us since time immemorial" when your only evidence to the contrary is some DNA in a tube?
I fear there is no easy answer to that question.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: email@example.com