A horse’s four legs symbolize the four directions of North, South, East, and West; its ears reach up to the Great Spirit; its tail points down to Mother Earth; and the seventh direction lies in its unity with a rider.
If you ask John Spence, who was born on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, the Gros Ventre and Sioux tribes-affiliated horseman and founder of Native American Therapeutic Horsemanship, he will say a sacred connection between horses and humans begins in the Native Seven Directions.
The lives and wellbeing of both two- and four-leggeds are as interwoven as the tail hair fetishes and “sacred bundles” (medicine bags) worn by those seeking to keep such spiritual power close to them. Respect for that interplay is central to the Native American approach of healing through horses.
At the EQUUS INTERNATIONAL Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, in September 2016, John was joined by Diana Webster, attorney and founder of the Native America Humane Society (nativeamericahumane.org) and Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, PhD, director of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Studies at North Dakota State University, on a panel about the sacred horse–human connection and why the power of the horse spirit or xaawaaruxti (Arikara for “sacred dog”) is vital to both those in search of emotional and/or physical recovery and to the future of tribal youth.
Also lifting her voice at EIFF was JoRee LaFrance, 21, whose Crow name, Iichiinmaachileesh, means “Fortunate With Horses.” Her collaborative efforts with Dartmouth College and the Running Strong for American Indian Youth Foundation to use the arts to preserve traditional Apsàalooke knowledge and Indigenous identity in Native American youth made her one of ten 2016 Running Strong Dreamstarter Grant recipients.
“Horses have a spiritual, emotional, physical and social attachment to the Crow people,” says JoRee. “Contemporarily, horses are used for many purposes, such as ranching, farming, rodeo, Indian relay, parading, recreation, giveaways, and wealth. The Crow people and horses have an unbreakable bond.”
Diana, an Oneida Tribe descendant and member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe (Anishinaabe), also says such bonds run deep. “As a child, my Anishinaabe grandmother would tell stories of how animals are our caretakers and we are all related. If we watch and listen, they teach us how to live better lives, keep us safe, and remind us how we are connected to each other. If you have ever connected to a horse, or any animal, you have likely felt the deep emotional stability they will share once they trust you. We can talk to animals without fear of judgment or criticism. They have an unlimited capacity to love, whereas humans guard love so we don’t get hurt.”
She continues, “Tribal law scholars Sarah Deer and Liz Murphy wrote an amazing article on the link between animal abuse and domestic violence in tribal communities: Animals May Take Pity on Us. Meaning that humans, who position ourselves as having dominion over all creatures, are the ones with unfulfilling lives because we refuse to treat each other (and the animals, nature, planet, etc.) with respect and compassion, even though we have the intellectual and spiritual capacity to do so.”
Michael, who grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota that is home to the federally recognized Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (the Three Affiliated Tribes), echoes that sentiment. “Indigenous culture traditionally has a profound relationship with our living environment but, as humans, we face the challenge of calming our mind, being conscious of our body and living in a state of mindfulness.”
For over two decades Michael has served as a socialwork professor, faculty member, and/or director of Indigenous Nations Studies at University of British Columbia, University of Kansas (American Studies), Arizona State and Humboldt University. He is currently an appointed professor at NDSU in Anthropology and Sociology and directing Indigenous and Tribal Studies. He has incorporated neuroscience research into his work on mindfulness to understand how the brain responds to different experiences and what happens to the brain during meditation: “Neuroscience research and brain imaging offer an opportunity to understand how our mind and brain develop and translate our experiences. In turn, our experiences shape the way our brain becomes structured and functions, known as neuroplasticity.”