Published on August 18, 2014 by Amy
The Native American tribes of North America’s Great Plains numbered near 30. The most well-known of these tribes include the Arapaho, Blackfoot, Comanche, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Omaha, Osage, Pawnee and Sioux. Some Ojibwa and Apache groups also lived in the Great Plains. Although horses became extinct in North America when the majestic animals arrived back on the continent with Spanish settlers, they became incorporated into the Native American culture, changing hunting and fighting techniques and lifestyles.
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Approximately 25 million years ago, the North American continent was home to the prehistoric Mesohippus bairdi, an 80-pound ancestor of the modern horse. This small horse spread across North America and into Asia and Europe, via the Bering Strait. Mesohippus became extinct in North America possibly around the same time men arrived on the continent. The horse returned to North America when Spanish settlers brought herds with them. The domesticated horse quickly became a part of Native American culture through trade, capture and the taming of horses that escaped from the Europeans and bred in the wild.
The horse brought about changes in the Native Americans’ lifestyles. The use of horses in hunting buffalo gave Great Plains tribes greater speed and range. Keeping herds of horses required the Native Americans to live in locations that could support the horses’ grazing needs. Living in the open made the Native Americans more susceptible to attack, but the horse’s usefulness in battle helped offset the increased vulnerability. Horses changed some of the social patterns of the Native Americans by enabling them to maintain larger amounts of household goods than could have been transported prior to the horse’s arrival.
The term buffalo horse refers to a horse trained to race with its rider alongside a buffalo herd during a hunt. A good buffalo horse was such a prized possession that it was often allowed to sleep inside the lodge, according to O. Ned Eddins, author of “Mountains of Stone” and “Winds of Change.” Other buffalo horse owners chose to tether their horses right outside the lodge, and often tribes considered the capture of a tethered buffalo horse from an enemy village to be the greatest war prize.
The Spanish horses and their descendants, the wild mustangs, did not come from a single, cohesive breed of horse. The horses brought to the New World by the Spanish and adopted by the Native Americans came from the combination of several European breeds. The horses varied in size and color, but few fit the stereotypical film image of pinto horses. The multicolored pinto is a recessive color pattern and must be deliberately bred, according to Eddins. The Native Americans’ horses looked like the European horses from which they descended, with the exception of the multicolored Appaloosa bred by the Nez Perce and Cayuse Indians.