First Ponies of the Weeminuche

Gray Sun had seen them once. It was the year 1598. He and a band of about 15 Utes had been wandering the high desert, trading with the Pueblo below the Chama River. His company had walked all the way from the San Juans to trade with friends and conduct raids on remote Navajo villages.

In those ancient days, the Utes could only survive by living in small bands and moving by season in their constant search for food. Advanced social interaction was limited and starvation was often only a day or two away.

He told the wide-eyed children, including Little Knife, Evening Bear and his younger sister Spring Waters of his first vision of a horse. None of the children had ever seen one and could only imagine the magnificence of this creature that in a few decades would drastically change their lives.

“My friends the Pueblo warned me to stay clear of the Spanish,” said Gray Sun.

“They said the men in armor killed for sport and had taken many of their tribe to their cities as slaves.”

Gray Sun assessed his audience, which grew as he spoke. His high cheekbones punctuated his speech while his dark copper skin danced with the moonlight. He and his party had been intent on seeing one of these horses, he told them.

Then one morning, while they were hunting they noticed strange tracks in the dust. Moments later they took cover on the riverbank just as men rode by on horseback, their shiny armor and steel swords glistening in the morning sun.

“If the Nuche (Ute name for themselves) could not become invisible like the wind they would have discovered us,” he said,” because in our astonishment we were standing almost straight up, with our jaws dropped, on the bank when the riders passed.

“It had two heads, one covered with a helmet, hair on its face, armor and a great torso. Its legs were larger and stronger than the legs of any warrior. A few yards away the Spaniard dismounted and we realized that it was a man atop a slightly smaller monster that they called the horse. He then got off and walked around independent of his other four legs while straps from mouth to the earth tethered the horse. The horse even had a throne where the Spanish sit. I have heard that some of the horses wear iron too. This Spaniard had no feathers and therefore could not have been a chief.

“That day,” continued Gray Sun, “we sat mesmerized by such a proud and powerful beast under what appeared to be the spell of the arrogant Spanish soldier. The Pueblo told us of many more of these horses to the south. All of us longed to touch one and the bravest plotted on how to tame such a monster.”

*****

When a Ute reached the age of 14, he was anxious to prove himself. Little Knife and Evening Bear were among a group of a dozen braves who would journey to the desert lands of the south in search of the warrior’s soul. The carried dried fish, nuts and berries from the tribes’ dwindling stores. They carried bows and arrows. Their clothing and moccasins were made of buckskin, and they walked the entire way.
Had they Spanish horses they could run down bison and shoot deer from a gallop not stalk them in cumbersome packs. Often their bands might consume an entire kill in three days. With horses, they could hunt as they needed meat, as they traveled or when prey wandered into their domain.

Seasonal foods, such as yucca, wild onions and chokecherries would be slowly ripening as they headed south escaping from the cold mountain winter. They would return to the high country in late spring for the Bear Dance, as their descendents had done for centuries. They would be wealthy with the fame befitting chiefs.
They followed what is now the Animas River out of the mountains heading south. Game was plenty along the river and the forests allowed many secure places to camp away from predators and the elements. After walking for five days they came to the headwaters of the smaller San Juan River.

Crossing the San Juan in January was no easy task. Although parts of the shore were frozen, the river had to be forded at shallow spots where the stream was gentle and the footing secure. The San Juan, like all the other rivers in the West was larger and more powerful than it is today. After two hours everyone was across. It was much greener on the south side.

In another week of walking southeast they would cross the Continental Divide and soon reach the big river that the Spanish had aptly called the Rio Grande. Hot springs, beautiful scenery and welcoming Pueblo lodges made the journey a pleasant one. Fortunately, they would not have to cross the Rio Grande. A friendly village stood on the west bank at Cochin not far from their destination, the Navajo villages near San Ysidro.

The older braves, themselves novices in the art of plunder, had been told by the elders that the Dine’ (Navajo) would be easy prey, hibernating in their winter lodges. Slaves and weapons were the primary objective but the soul of the Ute had horses on his mind. At Cochin they were joined by a small band of Pecos warriors who, as sworn enemies of the Navajo (Head Crackers as they were called by the Pecos) would join in the raid.

As the well-armed contingent left Cochin early in the morning they saw a sow Grizzly – sign of good fortune and a blessing from the Spirit – and made a proper detour. The bear, respected as it was in the animist religion, could be an adversary of great proportions. After all, the Utes were descended from the Great Spirit and the Grizzly Bear. However, that morning the puffy dream clouds in the sky looked more like horses than bears.

Were horses even larger? Did they eat people? How could they hope to catch one and lead it back into the mountains?

Around their fires, they talked of the coyote: his intelligence and his treachery. His freedom and his cunning were legendary. They would need all these attributes the next night when they would strike.

*****

Donning war paint the party descended into the irrigated valley where smoke from the Navajo fires lazily drifting on the horizon. The presence of many Hopi slaves, on the perimeter herding sheep verified that of a fierce battle had recently been waged between that tribe and the Spanish. Unlike the Pawnee and the Comanche, the Utes would avoid taking scalps. They waited for desert darkness to fall.

They silently passed the Navajo village and stopped above a small Spanish outpost where bearded ironclad soldiers worshipped statues and a king across the world. The tents sat to the south a small creek that disappeared into pinyon and juniper. There were not many of them and there were over forty horses in corrals and grazing under the watchful eyes of Pueblo slave children.

Little Knife thought of his family in the Rockies. He thought of his younger sister, Spring Water and how she would do the Lame Dance when they returned in spring. He thought of Gray Sun and looked proudly at his boyhood friend Evening Bear, now donned in war paint and waiting. He watched the horses move in the corral.

Muscles and large heads swayed. The monsters seemed peacefully aware of the Utes. An enchanted stallion stood guard over the herd. He was powerful like the bear and lion. Smart like the wolf. Fast like the elk. No one in the mountains would believe that these great creatures could come to the Blue Sky People. How could we ever get a horse like that back to our mountains?

Three scouts were sent forward to watch the Spanish. When they returned they told of children horses that were kept near their mothers at the center of the herd then left behind at dusk when the remainder of the herd was removed from the corrals at dusk to be exercised and watered by only a few slaves.

It was decided that we would attack at that time and take three colts. The majority of the herd would be stampeded into the Spanish camps to create alarm and diversion. A fire was started upwind from the sleeping Navajo. The Utes would then catch the colts and make off in the opposite direction across the creek and into the forest where others would whisk them away while we formed a rear guard. In addition to the horses we would seize food, slaves and maybe even a rifle or two.

At dusk, we crept down into the lowlands near the camp and quickly stampeded the horses. The slaves did not try to prevent us from doing this. Some actually welcomed us and helped secure the colts. In moments the Spanish tents were engulfed in a galloping, terrorized herd. Most were engaged in catching the horses and not in defending against the attack. The Navajo were busy beating out fires.

The Hopi slaves then crossed the creek and left with us. Four of our braves shot arrows at the Spanish and Navajo who followed across the creek. It was all so very simple. We had suffered no casualties.

The Spanish gave little real chase due to concerns of more trouble with Hopi warriors nearby. They said: What importance is there in the theft of three colts when we have the riches of the new world at our fingertips. By the middle of the night the Utes were miles away following the moon north with their booty. By morning, they slept with the colts secured.

A late spring snow fell as they saw the shining mountains to the north. The horses had calmed and were now enjoying the sweet grass and cool mountain spring water. We crossed the Chama a week later and would be home in a dozen sunsets.

What would our people do when they first saw us with these splendid animals in tow? We would be greeted as great warriors. The elders would sit wrapped smiling in their blankets, the children would touch horse flesh, warriors would surround us beaming, shamans would tell of our exploits for centuries in the lodges at night.

The Circle of Life would go on. By winter these colts would grow to great horses and would change every part of our lives in no time at all.

– Kevin Haley

 

 

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