August 5, 2010

What can you tell me about the Sioux and curley horses?


Hi Leah,

The Sioux were introduced to horse culture by the Cheyenne about 1730.The Curly Horse is depicted in a Sioux Indian “Winter Count” for the winter of 1801 – 02, which was known as the winter the Sioux stole Curly horses from the Crow. This particular “Winter Count” was kept by a Sioux artist named Swift Dog, whose tribe has been placed on the Standing Rock/Cheyenne River Reservation of South Dakota. A portion of the Curly horses today can trace their roots to these horses.  There are only about 3,000 curly horses in existence today, even after a quarter century of line breeding for the curly trait. In the 1800s that number was probably closer to a few hundred. It was probably very rare to see one, and even rarer to have a breeding herd of curly horses.

In 1880 some Curlies were captured from the wild herds in Nevada. The locals referred to them as “Wooly Ones” or “Buffalo Horses.” Coming from mustang stock, they were stocky and agile, the perfect mount for buffalo hunting. Drawings made by Chief Red Cloud in 1881, describing the battle of the Little Bighorn, depict Curly horses as being at the battle.


A Sioux legend describes them as appearing to the people as a group of “curly red dogs” and as the “horses before there were horses,” suggesting they were remnant wild horses that were native to North America and were here before the Spanish brought horses to America.  Since the Sioux had never seen horses before this time, they thought at first that they were big magical dogs. The Sioux word for horses, sunkawakan (pronounced shoon-cah-wah-kawn) means Holy Dog in English. Sunka is the word for dog. They probably thought the curly horses were sacred because they looked different than most horses, and there weren’t very many of them. Also, many curly horses have small roan or black spots, which are called medicine spots, and were probably considered mystical, since not many horses, except the Appaloosa, have small spots.


There are other oddities to curly horses than their curly hair, which can be like crushed velvet, the wave of a permanent, or full ringlets. An odd fact about curly horses is that they shed their mane and tail completely in the summer, then it grows back in the winter. The rest of their coat also sheds out and becomes almost straight in summer, then gets really curly again when it grows back in for winter. Since the hair is kinkky or curly, this is probably nature’s way of getting rid of the tangles that would develop in kinky mane and tail hair that was never combed.


Curlies are of medium size, somewhat resembling the early day Morgan in conformation and a number of traits have been found in this unique bred that links them to the true primitive horse. Many individuals have been found without ergots. Some have small, soft chestnuts. Their eyes have an unusual Oriental slant to them, which gives them a sort of sleepy look, but which also tends to give them a larger range of vision to the rear. The sleepy look is very deceiving, as they have a proud carriage, are very alert, and not lazy.


Their unusually tough, black hoofs are almost perfectly round in shape. Even Curlies with white legs will have four black hoofs, creating a striking appearance. They have an exceptionally high concentration of red blood cells: stout round-bone cannon; straight legs that also move straight; flat knees; strong hocks; a short back with only five lumbar vertebrae;  powerful shoulders; a V’d chest and round barrel, all of which contribute to their strength and endurance.


The foals are born with thick crinkly coats, even inside their ears that sometimes tip back at the top, and they also have beautiful curly eyelashes. They have an unusually affectionate disposition and are a no-nonsense breed of horse that have the ability to do whatever is asked of them.


First, you should know the Sioux Indians are not one big tribe. There are a bunch of different tribes that collectively make up the Sioux Nation, which is just a classification made up by the US Government. Some of the better known sioux tribes are the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. There are Cheyenne River Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Hunkpapa Sioux, and many more. In fact, today there are 18 Sioux First Nations in Canada and 17 Sioux Tribes in the United States. There are five main divisions of the Sioux Nation, and many smaller tribes within each division.The name Sioux comes from the French pronounciation of a name their enemies called them, which meant “snakes” and most Sioux people don’t like to be called Sioux. They will always identify themselves by their tribal name, like Lakota, etc, not Sioux.


Men were usually named for physical traits  such as being tall or scarred, or more commonly for character traits like being brave or foolish or slow (meaning lazy). Often they took on animal names that reflected similar characteristics as their strengths, or that they had seen in a vision. Or they could be named for something that symbolized a particular incident in their lives.


Most Sioux children had a childhood name, then later in life, they changed their names when something significant happened, sometimes several times. They did not have last names until the government assigned them when Indians were forced onto reservations.


Women were usually named after a physical trait, such as small feet or big ears, or a flower that symbolized their beauty, or birds. They could also named for their work skills if they were particularly good at a certain task, such as being a good cook or skilled seamstress or a medicine woman.


The Sioux tribes are Plains Indians. Before they aquired the horse, the Sioux were semi-nomadic, but they settled longer in one area, lived in larger communities, some Sioux tribes grew corn and tobacco, and didn’t move around as much. Once they aquired a sufficient amount of horses, they became a nomad society. The Plains Indians were the tallest people in the world in the 1800s. The taller a society’s average height, generally the better is their overall health and standard of living, compared to shorter societies.


In this new nomad way of life, they lived in tipis in mostly small groups called villages, that included related families and their spouses and children and grown daughters and their husbands and children, etc,usually about 2-3 dozen tipis, although some villages had more than 100. Because lineage in Sioux culture is traced from the mother, not the father as we do today, girls usually stayed with their mothers and aunts and cousins when they married, and men moved to the village of their first wife. Sioux men were allowed to have as many wives as they could provide for. Often the wives were sisters.


The tipis were arranged in roughly a circle, with a communal area in the middle for dancing and feasts and working hides, etc. It was always near a water souce, but not too close, so they didn’t pollute the water with their waste. They usually bathed in the water daily, even in winter. (In the 1800s, white people were lucky if they bathed every 2-3 months). Tipi doors did not face East as is always suggested in the movies, but instead in the direction that provided the best protection from the wind.


They moved their village every week or two so their animals didn’t overgraze the grass and they didn’t over hunt the animals in one area, and so their human waste didn’t get too thick and stinky. They usually followed the animals they hunted, mainly the buffalo, or went to different areas to harvest berries and nuts and roots or medicines at different times of year, then in the winter, they moved to lower ground in a protected valley and stayed there for the winter months until the snow melted enough to make travel practical again. 


Originally tipis were only about 12 feet high, but after the Sioux acquired horses, they began building them twice that size. They also used a hide sled called a travois, which was made from two long tipi poles with a hide tied between them. Before the Sioux had horses, they used dogs or women to pull them. Later, this was one of the main uses of the horse. A horse could drag a load four times heavier than a dog could pull. On average, it took eight to ten horses to satisfy the needs of each family. However, the Sioux maintained relatively small horse herds, as compared to other Plains Tribes. Wealth was determined in horses. When the tribe moved from place to place, those who didn’t own enough horses were loaned horses by another member of the band who had may horses. Horses trained for hunting buffalo were so valuable, that they were kept inside the tipi or “logde” (as tipis were also called) at night.


In the early 1800s, on Native trade routes, the going rates for horses were:

  • 1 ordinary riding horse = 8 buffalo robes
  • 1 fine racing horse = 10 guns
  • 1 fine hunting horse = several pack animals

    • OR 1 gun and 100 loads of ammunition
    • OR 3 pounds of tobacco
    • OR 15 eagle feathers
    • OR 10 weasel skins
    • OR 5 tipi poles (trees were scarce on the Plains and poles had to be hauled from long distances)
    • OR 1 buffalo-hide tipi cover
    • OR 1 skin shirt and leggings, decorated with human hair and quills
  • A young boy’s first job was usually to take care of the horses. They turned all their village’s horses loose in a communal herd when they weren’t using them, and the boys would take turns watching  their family’s horses to see that they didn’t wander off or to alert their warriors if another tribe was trying to sneak up to steal them, and to watch for injured horses and keep an eye out for predators that might try to eat the horses, and they would take them to water. It was a great honor if an esteemed warrior asked a spedific boy to watch his horses.


    These would be very young boys, maybe 5 or 6 years old up to about 10. By age six, they would also start developing the skills needed for war and hunting and by 12 would be breaking and training their own horses. Most of them would ride before they could walk if horses were plentiful in their tribe. Most boys went on their first hunt between the ages of 10-12 and most were warriors by 15 or 16. They had to become a warrior before they could take a wife.


    Horses were the price asked for a wife. This could be as little as one horse or dozens if the bride to be had many suitors or her father was a chief or wealthy. A young man usually obtained his first horses by raiding an enemy tribe. Wild horses were seldom captured, as it took much more effort to catch them than steal them from a neighboring tribe, and an even longer time to gentle and train them after capture before they would be of any use. Besides, capturing a well trained horse from an enemy was considered an honor and brought esteem and admiration to the young man from his peers and older warriors.







    Both boys and girls were the mother’s responsibility until about age 5 for girls and age 6 for boys. Up to that age, children were allowed to play and pretty much do as they wished. Physical punishment was not practiced, and very little a young child  could do would bring a reprimand. If they were especially annoying or throwing a tantrum, a mother might throw cold water in their face.


    Then at age five, aunts and grandmothers would start training the girls for a woman’s duties and the uncle or grandfather would take over the boy’s training at age 6. The parents were considered still too immature to be good role models and fit to train their own children well.


    Medicine “men” could also be women. Different medicine people did different kinds of medicine. Some were healers that treated only specific illnesses, and others were like our general practioners today, who treat a little of everything. Some were spiritual medicine people who did special ceremonies to remove evil spirits or break hexes. Often illnesses were thought to be caused by evil spirits, so many medicine people treated both spiritual ailments and physical ailments.


    A medicine man usually apprenticed under someone else who was already an established medicine man, for 10-20 years before they had aquired enough knowledge about the herbs and ceremonies to practice on their own.

    Sioux Indian tribes and reservations (Sioux Section Index)
    Standing Rock Sioux
    Santee Sioux
    Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux

    Sioux tribes
    Rosebud sioux tribe
    Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe
    Lower Brule Sioux tribe
    Lakota Sioux
    Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota Overview

Native American Animals
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