wakan ah-ku, Holy Horse Coming Back, is the name of
a program or maybe I should say a way of life thats budding
on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
not a new concept but is new to this Dakota nation. Its a
revival of the horse culture, a culture that dominated the Plains
tribes for many years.
the excitement Jessica White Plumes eyes, I knew this program
fit well in her own life. White Plume is a post-doctoral research
fellow at UNDs Center for Health Promotion, and she recently
told me about her involvement with Sunka wakan ah-ku.
many in the health field, she was looking for a way to help at
risk young people when she came across horse culture programs.
Plume grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where
many people have horses. They dont necessarily ride or race
the horses, she said. They care for the animals because horses are
part of the tribes culture.
grew up riding horses. Theyre in her blood, said White Plume,
who is Lakota.
wasnt until years later that she realized the effect horses
have on the well-being of their human relatives.
realization ignited an ember. White Plume found programs on other
reservations that used horses to reach and teach young American
wakan ah-ku has about 20 students who are referred from the juvenile
justice system, which means theyve gotten in trouble somehow
alcohol or drug abuse and truancy are the major offenses.
These students are placed in the program, and there they learn about
horses how to care for them and relate to them.
dont get to ride the horses on the first day or the second
day. They do so only later on, once theyve master the basics.
Those basics are taught by Ed Solwey, a former rodeo man and the
owner of the ranch near the reservation where the program is located;
Neil Whitmer, a local rancher and longtime reservation teacher;
and Kenny Dunn, an elder from the tribe.
1½-year-old program seems to touch something in Indians and
non-Indians alike. Volunteers and donations for the program attest
to that. A tractor was offered and hay has been donated, said White
Plume. Darla Thiele, director of the program, said the Nez Perce
people heard about Sunka wakan ah-ku and donated a beautiful Appaloosa
Spirit Lake tribe itself has donated land for a riding arena.
Fox, a good friend of mine from Spirit Lake, knows the program.
Weve attended many ceremonies together, and Ive spent
weekends at her house at Fort Totten, N.D.
uncle her husband and I would spend hours together
talking about cultural ways. In their Dakota home, he taught me
Sahnish or Arikara. Wed smile when we talked about the historic
conflict that once existed between the Arikara and the Dakota. He
died a few years ago.
would have liked the program.
to the eagle, the horse is the most valued animal in Dakota culture,
Winona told me. To be given a horse at a giveaway is
to be given a high honor.
horses help the young people, Thiele said. Horses are said
to be a mirror. The horse will act as you do. You have to
trust the animals you work with. In turn, you learn how to trust,
communication and reach out to people. Trusting has been difficult
for some of the young people in the juvenile system, she said.
only problem is that children who were not placed in the juvenile-justice
system now want to join the program. But the program is planning
to expand to accommodate these youngsters, whod like to learn
about the horse culture, too.
one person whom I spoke with had anything bad to say about this
program. Instead, all were enthusiastic and full of hope about the
affects on young people of the ancient horse culture.
July, the program hosted a four-day horse camp. The turnout was
extraordinary, and the camp was so well received that officials
are planning another camp for this summer.
fact, Arvol Looking Horse, 19th-generation keeper of the Sacred
White Buffalo Pipe of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, will be part
of a horse camp scheduled for September.
White Plume and those involved in Sunka wakan ah-ku should be commended
for reviving the program and the horse culture it represents.
Yellow Bird is a reporter and columnist. Her columns appear Wednesdays
and Saturdays on the opinion pages of the Herald.