It’s a scene we remember from hundreds of Hollywood westerns - a troop of Native American horsemen gallops across the plains shouting war cries while loosing off a shower of arrows from the saddle, or with their rifles blazing at the US Cavalry or a beleaguered settler family. It is such a cliche, you might think that the mustang was native to North America. It wasn’t.
Horses were brought to Mexico in the 15th century by the Spanish invaders and by the 16th century, they were widely established, mainly because the colonial ranchers needed them to mount the local vaqueros who herded their cattle. That was when the Native American plains tribes started raiding and capturing them.
For Plains tribes such as the Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux and Blackfoot, captured Spanish horses transformed Native American life completely since the unique combination of the horse, the buffalo and the open prairie made it possible to outrun the buffalo herds for the first time instead of stalking or ambushing them. In fact, horses changed the entire Plains Indian economy. Where once status was measured in coups and scalps, it could now also be measured in numbers of horses an individual owned, since more horses meant more buffalo and greater wealth. One tribe, the Blackfoot, made war almost exclusively to capture horses rather than to acquire territory or defeat enemies.
The plains tribes soon become expert riders and within a very few decades the horse had become an indispensable part of Native American life and were used for buffalo hunting, warfare and transporting buffalo skins, tepees and other loads. At the same time, the plains tribes were apparently more renowned for capturing horses in battle or catching and breaking wild mustangs than breeding horses – though one tribe, the Nez Pierce, specialised in breeding the beautifully patterned Appaloosa horse.
Considering the importance of the horse to the plains tribes and their own ornate ceremonial dress, you would think it would be quite natural to bead horse blankets and horse tack, but again, you would be wrong. Indian mounted warriors traditionally rode bareback and used only a length of rawhide tied as a halter for reins – no saddle, no bridle, no bit – and the braves were often as unadorned as their mounts, although the horses and riders themselves were painted for battle.
In fact, in many photographs of mounted Native Americans taken in 1890s and early 1900s, almost all of the horses are totally undecorated, except for a woven saddle blanket, although some otherwise undecorated horses sported a beaded chest panel hanging from their necks.
In a photograph of six chiefs taken in the 1920s, for example, four are wearing their war bonnets, and all seem to be wearing some beadwork, but the horses are undecorated.
The evolution of Native American beaded horse gear is interesting. Early saddles evolved from simply cinching a buffalo skin around the horse’s body for added comfort to a padded pillow of hide (called a pad saddle) stuffed with grass or animal hair, and sometimes beaded at the front and rear. Some tribes carried empty pads on horse raiding expeditions so that they could be stuffed with grass to make the ride home on a stolen horse more comfortable.
Another type of Indian saddle was the frame saddle, a wood or horn frame held together by a green hide which shrunk when it dried. These usually had a high pommel front and back and the most attractive of them were the Crow women’s saddles, which were often fully beaded from the late 19th century onwards.
As the plains became settled, western and Spanish saddles and bridles, often boldly ornamented in silver, influence the native tribes and beaded saddles became more common among the by now displaced tribes.
I have seen stuffed or fibreglass horses dressed in full regalia circa 1900 – 1920 in many US museums, including the fabulous Field in Chicago, but the most unexpected example I have come across was a magnificent specimen in the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, a reminder of the huge amount of interest in American Indian life in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As you would expect, each plains tribe produces article of beaded riding tack base on its own beadwork designs and aesthetics. The items beaded closely correspond to Spanish and American tack – saddles, bridles and saddle blankets, but the one object that was distinctly Native American was the horse mask, which fitted over the horse’s head on special occasions, or was set with faux buffalo horns to confuse and frighten the enemy during raids.
Ornately beaded tack was greatly popularised by showmen like Buffalo Bull Cody who wanted a colourful spectacle to pull in the crowds and elaborately beaded saddlery is still a common sight at rodeos, roundups and major tribal events. In fact, the 19th century tradition of showmanship and spectacle flourishes to this day, with beaded horse tack being produced by many specialists beaders in the States. This beautifully dressed woman rider and her equally beautifully dressed horse who are taking part in Oregon’s famous Pendleton Roundup are proudly continuing this tradition.
See tribal beadwork catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp
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