The Mandan and the Horse
with Victor Mandan
My mother, when I was a child, my mother used to give me tobacco or sometimes a pot of coffee and some empty cups. Or sometimes she would give me a sack of biscuits and say, “go down there by the river. The old men are there. They are probably playing dominos or cards or checkers. Bring your gift to them. Sit and listen. They will talk.”
Arlie Neskahi :
As a young boy, victor Mandan spent many hours listening to the stories told by his elders. Though the old men may have teased him at the time, victor would become a keeper of the Mandan stories.
So I would show up with whatever I happened to have that particular day. And they would say, “oh he’s here again.” and then they’d say, “yeah, well, tell him something.” and the other one would say “you tell him something. I told him something yesterday. I’m all out of stories. You tell him something.” they’d carry on like that for a while. And then one of them would say, “well, you know, I think I remember one.” then they would go ahead and tell me.
Today, victor Mandan shares a bit of the ancient history of the Mandan people and raises some intriguing ideas about the relationship of the horse to early people.
As they traveled, they had two little friends with them. They were almost identical except their behavior was different. One of them barked and ate anything that they threw out – rotten meat, bad soup. Whatever they threw, this little critter ate it. And they called him mashuka, or dog. The other one ate grass and they fed him leaves. He was a vegetarian. And they put packs on his back also and he helped the people to move. They had another slightly different name for him, but basically it meant he ate only grass. And as they moved up, up the Mississippi and up into the branches of it, they had these two animals.
One day, the camp crier got all the people in the village to come to the edge of the village. And he said, “our little friend is leaving us.” and one of the two was standing on the edge of the woods. And he told the people, “do not cry, for I will return. And when I come back, I will be much changed and you will not know me. But those who keep the stories will know who I am. Remember, I am the one who eats the grass.”
He said, “when I come back, I will be tall as man and swift as the wind.”
He said, “I will be strong to carry much on my back – maybe two or three men or maybe heavy packs – but I will come back. But I will be gone for a while. Don’t forget me.”
The people cried. They begged him not to go, but he said he had to go. They accused each other of perhaps not feeding him enough or giving him enough water. Did somebody overload him the last time he worked? Did he have to work too hard? They said “no. We never overloaded him. Always give him a lot of water and food. Good to him.” still he was going to leave.
And so he left. He left and they never had him anymore. But they had the other one, the one they called dog. And he helped, and they moved up the river.
Finally, after many thousands of years, two hunters out on the plains seen a strange animal and they were afraid. It was something they had never seen before. And they ran home to the village, and they asked, “we seen a strange animal and we don’t know what to make of it.”
So they were asked, “did it have horns?” and they said “no.”
“How many legs did it have?”
“It had four legs.”
“Did it have fur or feathers?”
“It had fur.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was out on the prairie grazing.”
But still they did not know, so they sent him to another village and they didn’t get no answer there.
And at the third village, there was a story keeper who said, “I think I know what you saw. I think you seen (language) the one who eats the grass. If that is him, he is our friend. Do not kill him. Go to him and be his friend and bring him back.”
So they were loaded down then with pemmican. They were loaded down with dried corn, berries, corn balls. All they had to do was to run, and every once in a while, perhaps, when they came to a stream, drink a little water and go on, because they had a big supply of food.
So these two hunters returned out to the plains, found what they were after, and they followed them. Horses must stop and eat. These men didn’t have to. Eventually the horses moved slower and slower and the men got closer and closer, and eventually the men had their hands on these animals.
And after many weeks, they rode back into the village riding on horses and driving a small herd in front of them. And then the Mandan had horses.
I was told this story in the 1940’s by men who had never been to school. Men who did not speak English. Men who could still remember pre-reservation days. Old men. So I just put that thought in my memory and thanked them for a nice story.
Gourd Dance II
Then one day in 1961 or 1962, I was at Lawrence, Kansas for a graduation. I went up to the university of Kansas museum of natural history and I seen this little fellow in a glass case. They called him iho hipus, early horse. He stood there about the size of a dog. And I just stood there with goose bumps all over me just looking at that, and I thought, “How old are my people?” because that animal had disappeared from the face of this continent some 30,000 years ago according to the scientists who study bones.
Dreaming in color
A&M Records (Geffen)
Victor Mandan is a musician and storyteller living in South Dakota. He is one of the few remaining speakers of the Mandan language.