Review: Rise and fall of the Horse Nation at NMAI
"When Christopher Columbus first came to America, there were no natives on horseback to greet him. That is not only because he landed on an island in the Bahamas. It’s also because there were no horses in the New World. They originated here 40 million years ago and spread to other parts of the globe, but by 1492 horses had been extinct in the Western Hemisphere for 10,000 years. On his second trans-Atlantic voyage, in 1493, Columbus brought along 25 horses and reintroduced the species to America. Many more were brought later by French, English and Dutch colonizers.

This is just one remarkable piece of information to be gleaned from “A Song for the Horse Nation,” an exhibition of 98 artifacts relating to native horse cultures, opening on Saturday at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan. Including saddles, riding blankets, clothing and beaded bags adorned with equine imagery and much more, the exhibition brings to light a fascinating and ultimately sad chapter in American history.

Organized by Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the museum, the show presents most of the artifacts, all from the Smithsonian’s collection, that were pictured in a small paperback of the same title published in 2006 (by the museum and Fulcrum Publishing). In his introduction the historian Herman J. Viola, a curator emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, tells of the rise and fall of American Indian horse culture, which thrived for only about 100 years.

As Mr. Viola explains, scholars now believe that horses began to proliferate among Indians in the West after Spaniards in Sante Fe fled a Pueblo uprising in 1680, leaving behind hundreds of horses and other animals. At first the Indians were frightened and mystified by the large and unfamiliar creatures. They called it names like Big Dog and Big Elk. But by the time of the French and Indian War (1754-63), Plains Indians were among the world’s best horsemen. A century or so later, their horse culture was dead, a victim, as Mr. Viola put it, of “too many white people and too few buffalo.”"

Get the Story:
Art Review: Brief, Productive Love Affair With ‘Big Dog’ (The New York Times 11/13)