I wake this morning to the bugling elk. They are gathered out beyond the horses, hooves opening the smell of mint, wild catnip, and dried grasses in crisp autumn air. Morning sun filters through the trees, touching both the antlers of the elk and branches of trees behind them, antlers of the forest.
The Pueblo Christmas dances are how my family celebrates the holidays. Last Christmas Eve, from out of a kiva at one of the Pueblos, six beautiful white elk danced into the world from the dark, from smoke and sparks—then three buffalo, deer, the bird women with eagle feathers, and the antelope children. Burning stacks of wood heated my face in the cold night as I stood by the fire watching the dancers all in step, the singers and drummers all wrapped in brightly colored blankets. Some of the older men walked around with evergreen sprigs, handing them to people to remind them of the change of light, season, the forest. The firelight on the great antlers, the outlines of the animals dancing, was all a weave of magic, an enchantment that took every human in.
Ceremony and Stories Build Connection
Both the bugling elk and the dancing of the people are ancient events. The dancers know the antlered ones, their stories, the deep mythologies of their relationships, and where and how they dwell together.
Something universal is held within our indigenous ceremonies, a relationship built on far-reaching, old knowledge.
At the deer dance, I notice that the men wear white buckskin clothing painted with a horned, winged serpent. The serpent is the same one other tribal nations paint, etch, or carve. It is also a part of our world and sky, those of us from the Southeastern tribes. It is a creature within the indigenous astromythology. It travels between the worlds, moving through the night sky toward the horizon, then dropping beneath the edge, falling into an underworld.
A few years ago, on another continent where many snakes live in trees, as we lay on our bunks at a marine biology research station on an island off Brisbane, Australia, my friend Polly read aloud a story written by an Aboriginal woman about her husband’s clan animal, a carpet snake. She was of a different clan than her husband, and she was concerned about the presence of a large python in the house with her children. Because these snakes reach an enormous size, and since she had young children, her worries would be understandable to an outsider.
One day after the birth of a new infant she found the large reptile near the crib. She told her husband the snake must leave, but he said it was his clan animal; it would be difficult to send it away. She returned to check her newly born child and found the snake coiled at the head of the crib, watching the child and, not wanting to leave the side of the infant, it was crying. The woman’s heart changed toward the snake. She saw that it was a protector and accepted it into her home.
Years later, after a long illness, her husband passed from this world. After he was gone, she searched the house for the gentle reptile who had watched over their growing family, but never again saw it. The snake was gone, and the woman and grown children grieved the loss of both. The snake had become a relative.
I am not from that continent, and it is not my story, although I love it.
Our Histories Are Intertwined
Those of us from the Southeastern tribes of this North American continent are among the most unknown indigenous peoples. Like other tribal peoples, our traditionalists had special relationships with animals from as far back as archaeologists have found our bones and intricate artwork, our pyramids and mounds, including the Great Serpent Mound and other animal-shaped earthworks that remain in the thousands.
Our oldest artwork was of animals, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, now extinct, the wood duck, frog, the alligator that once filled the Mississippi River from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico, and most prevalent, the winged serpent that was incised into shell, created of clay, carved of stone. We also had copper antlers of deer worn in ceremonies.
Later, we Chicaza, or Chickasaw, had a breed of pony that was special to us. It did not, as some think, come from our initial contact with de Soto, but originated with a smaller breed, the Spanish Barb, which probably came up through Mexico.
The horse was the only item the invaders introduced that was special enough to enter the myth systems of peoples across the continent. The Aztecs laid down red cloth for horses to walk upon. We called them Holy Elk, Sacred Dog, Holy Wolf. Most nations had horse songs and special accoutrement for their horses.
We had a close relationship with our ponies, and they were plentiful but also in demand. There was a time when all the horses in the South were simply called Chickasaws, as they were sent by flatboats and over land, up and down the Mississippi. They were a trade item for us. We traded our beloved ponies for the weapons we needed to protect ourselves, for copper and galena, and for medicinal plants from other regions.
We unwillingly left our homelands in Mississippi and Tennessee 200 years later, in 1837. We brought hundreds of these horses with us on the Trail of Removal to Indian Territory, as well as our dogs, kittens, and other animals. As we traveled, thieves followed alongside us, and the small horses vanished into their hands, one at a time, day by day, night by night. We walked through cholera, smallpox, without the food or water we had paid in advance to have delivered. We lost our wisdom-keepers, our elders, and even children killed by soldiers for slowing the journey. We walked from one history into more difficult times, and by the time we reached Indian Territory, Oklahoma, none of our ponies remained.
Today it is thought that our short, muscular breed of pony was bred out of existence into the larger “American” quarter horse, but some obviously escaped into the wilderness.
Perhaps that history is why the wild mustang entered my life. She was at the farm where I kept my other rescued horse. I noticed the odd-colored little pony, pregnant with a foal too large for her to birth, and I came to think that her ancestors walked with mine through history. I call her a Chicaza. Short, sturdy-legged, muscular, this pony changes color through the seasons, shedding out overnight. Short in stature, different in conformation than the horses most desire, she had no one to care for her, no shelter from cold weather except a piece of cloth thrown over the fence.
I began to walk her, to bring her carrots and apples, and when it was time for her to give birth, I felt it and packed my truck with everything I needed to camp for the night. My friend, Lori, and I made a foaling bed for Chicaza, and we placed straw in a corner for ourselves. After a night of the horse’s terrible suffering, the vet returned for a second time, and said she had to be trailered to the hospital. I was sent for a whip to force her to stand and walk into the trailer, but I could not do it. Instead I stood before her and with my arms, I motioned for her to stand. Miraculously, she rose immediately and went into the horse trailer and was hurried to the hospital.
The dead infant was beautiful, too large, and removed by terrible means, and yes, it was black as the owners wanted. Yet no one could pay the bill. No one had even paid the board, and so the vet said he would have to “put her down.” I had little at the time, but I paid her bill with a Mastercard, which, as I look back on it today, is humorous. The most expensive purchase of a mustang ever known.
These wild horses are considered a problem. It is believed their lives have so interfered with the big business of ranching that they are being rounded up, slaughtered, and even shot for practice.
This Chicaza and I have lived together for many years, and we speak without words. She runs to meet me and we run together. She knows where I am in the house. I feel her where she is in the field. I tell others that her ancestors knew mine, but the relationship is more than that. We have a bond of love, a communication, as if we have become the same animal.
Each Animal Supports Many Other Lives
In our language, one term for animal is Nan okcha, which means, “all alive.” We have songs for the animals, even a tick dance song. It is understood by traditional peoples that each kind of animal has its own expansive intelligence, each its own ways, own mind. The mind of the horse is not the same as the snake or crow.
I recall the morning I was lectured by a crow with an entire paragraph and not one word repeated. I listened carefully but was not intelligent enough to understand. The horse has never lectured me, but I do remember one man telling me he respected crows most of all birds for their desire to live. This was after one bit me hard enough for a bruise to appear, leaving more damage than any of the long-beaked, clawed raptors I worked with.
All around us are radiant species. The prairie dogs call the rain, it is said. They are integral to our aquifers and are a keystone species supporting many other lives. They know us well, have a language, and yet most humans have not bothered to open a current of understanding between us and them. Instead, they are poisoned and shot because they are thought to be in the way of development or because it is believed that their tunnels trip cattle and horses.
The animals are leaving us and will not return. The mustang, rounded up, sold for food to other countries. Alligators poisoned by agricultural toxins and other environmental changes. Prairie dogs, lost to development.
We face even more losses than we can count as temperatures change. Those changes affect ocean, land, ice, not to mention the indigenous peoples who are losing food sources and places of history, stories, and memories. Their lives are being uprooted as their lands are covered with water, as melting glaciers in Tibet rush down from the mountains picking up sewage, chemicals, and agricultural runoff along the way. Rain abandons the deforested rainforests and falls elsewhere. Rivers dry out and give off poison gas.
A Culture of Compassion for Animals, Including Humans
I live in country with regions of deforested, ruined land, where chemicals used to grow non-native species of grasses for grazing enter the creeks and aquifer. Trees are bulldozed, the cattle given steroids, antibiotics, and growth-enhancers, their urine also entering water.
Without forest, land no longer attracts or holds water. Now we have drought. Cedar trees appear in fields to shade and cool the earth, a natural process. They also preserve the water, but many ranchers believe they use too much, so they are poisoned, continuing the new cycle. I remember a woman once saying that when a cougar kills a deer it is god, but when we do this to the animals, land, and water, it is “Not god.”
The traditional relationship between indigenous peoples and their environments is well documented, but this relationship is more complex than realized by Western thinkers. It is neither simple, nor is it primitive. It is a science maintained by more than 20,000 years of observation.
Navajo elders, with a long knowledge of plants in their region, have more known categories or classifications for each plant than do Western-trained botanists. Indigenous peoples have knowledge systems derived from a language of place, plants, and animals—the whole that is now called an ecosystem. Some know the changes in river flows and currents along the Mississippi, or the numbers of migratory birds that pass through their regions each year.
Traditionalist and activist Dennis Martinez, tells of a nation of indigenous people in South America who make the sounds of each species that is gone in order to keep a place within the ecosystem for that bird or animal to return. This is how significant we take each species to be.
The compassion we offer to animals is the same measure of love we are capable of offering other human beings. The suffering and pain of one is universal. When there is a wound in our world, we must do our best to heal it, and yet we live in a culture of wounding that could just as easily become one of healing for animals and humans.
We Can Restore Ourselves to this Land
Our truths come from tenure on this land. The animals known by ancestors meet us still in some way, despite the passing of histories.
I remember when the buffalo were returned to Lakota land. Long grasses not seen in years by the elders returned and grew. The mere weight of the animals’ hooves on the earth brought water to the surface. Creeks and streams came back. These returned the insects and the birds. A great restoration of the land began after the reintroduction of the bison. Several years later the tribe released a herd of wild horses. The bison stood quietly on the top of a ridge and watched the horses come out of the trailer and begin their run toward freedom.
It is night now. The mustang stands outside, the elk and deer are bedded down in dry grasses beneath trees on the hillsides. An owl speaks. Beneath stones, snakes hibernate, but the winged serpent moves slowly across the dark starlit sky toward the edge of Earth, the edge where all things will fall if we are not more careful in this world with other lives who see us and know us, who welcome us as we, too, restore ourselves to this land.