Horse-eating part of Navajo tradition

By Alastair Lee Bitsóí
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, August 15, 2013

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H orsemeat is not only a delicacy in Europe and China, it's also one here.

Since at least the 1500s, Navajos have harvested and consumed horses.

This is according to Tim Begay, a Navajo Cultural Specialist with the Navajo Historic Preservation Department, who added that horse consumption on Navajo was and is mostly a way to combat the common cold and flu, and an alternative food source for families during the winter months.

"It was used as medicine, which is totally different from slaughtering and selling them to different countries," Begay said of why Navajos harvest horses.

"After they domesticated it, and if you look at Apache history, that's when they also started eating horses," he added, noting the nutrients of horses helped Navajos and Apaches boost their immune systems.

The last time Begay ate a horse was in the fall of the late 1980s. He added that the methods of butchering a horse are similar to how a sheep is butchered for consumption during feasts or ceremonies.

"They always played a significant role in all of Navajo history," he said about the sacred creatures. Begay also cited a Navajo story of when one of the Hero Twins, Naayéé' Neizghání to be exact, grew sick from fighting the monsters of the Fourth World. The Twin was instructed by other Navajo deities to have a Nidaa, or Enemy Way Ceremony, to rid him of the darkness that affected his spirit from being in war, Begay said.

The songs and prayers of the Nidaa', which consists of a myriad songs, including "The Spirit of the Horse," restored Naayéé' Neizghání back to harmony with the natural world.

"That was how the Nidaa' was made," he said.

These prayers, songs and chants about the horse, which the Hero Twins saw when they journeyed to meet their father, the Sun, were used during his Enemy Way.

Even though the horse didn't physically exist among the Navajo until the Spaniards brought them to the New World, the horse existed as a spiritual being in ceremonies since the creation of the universe, according to various accounts of the Navajo Creation Story.

Begay did say the Enemy Way ceremony conducted by the Navajo deities during that primordial time "was different" from the version now practiced today.

Though he didn't take a position on horse slaughtering - a solution President Ben Shelly has endorsed because of the estimated 75,000 feral horses roaming the reservation, ravaging the range and depleting water sources - Begay said his cultural background makes him reluctant to see horses being rounded up and taken to slaughter for meat.

"We sing for them and now we want to get rid of them," Begay quipped. "Does that adversely affect our way of life? Maybe it's our change of time? We now have vehicles. Nobody really rides horses except for in rodeos or during ceremonies like the Enemy Way."

The cultural specialist figures that the practitioners of the Blessing Way, who know the horse songs, have consumed horsemeat at least once in their lifetime, given their knowledge of the horse through singing, chanting and ceremony.

But for Navajos like Olin Kieyoomia, of Tohatchi, N.M., horsemeat is a delicacy and is medicine.

The president of the District 14 Council, which represents five chapters in Fort Defiance Agency, said the last time he ate horse was last fall, when he and his father identified a feral horse to harvest. They decided to butcher the two-year-old horse to help them overcome a lingering cold, Kieyoomia said.

Before killing and eating the horse, Kieyoomia said he and his father made an offering to the horse with corn pollen to thank it for providing nourishment. They placed the hide of the horse under a juniper tree in the Chuska Mountains.

Within two to three days of eating the horse, which was prepared as a broth stew, Kieyoomia said, "Believe it or not, we got better."

He describes the taste of horse as "bland" when cooked as a stew and "very tough and lean" over an open pit fire.

"From a historical perspective, horses have always been an herbal remedy," he said.

In District 14, which includes the communities of Coyote Canyon, Mexican Springs, Naschitti, Tohatchi and Twin Lakes, about 20 feral livestock, mostly horses, were rounded up as of Wednesday, Kieyoomia said.

"It's a very small amount compared to what's out there," he said, before adding, "It's just sad to see that horses are being neglected by malnutrition, pesticides, and dehydration."

Kieyoomia blames the lack of horse wranglers, which were a norm in the past, as a possible reason for why there is a soaring feral horse population on the reservation.

"That's how they controlled the population at the time with castration," he said. "Nowadays, you have very few children or men who do that process anymore."

The 32-year-old rancher also said the land needs to heal, adding that he would rather see a horse slaughtered for horse meat, than suffer from disease, malnutrition or thirst.

"If you see unwanted feral horses, contact your local grazing official or ranger's office," he added.

Since July 29, 150 feral livestock, mostly horses, have been rounded up on the reservation and sold to permitted buyers, who take them to the Mexican border to harvest as meat, according to Roxy June, principal planner with the Navajo Department of Agriculture.

The roundup of these feral animals is being conducted according to tribal law and is funded by a $1.3 million emergency supplemental appropriation the Navajo Nation Council passed on July 18 that Shelly later signed into law July 25, June said.

June said that all animals located on highway rights-of-way, whether branded or not, are taken to a central compound in Blackhat, N.M., where they are held for detainment. Owners of those animals that are branded are allowed a few days to claim their animals, and if they're not claimed during that period of time, the horses are shipped off with the buyers.

Buyers are provided a livestock trader permit to purchase these feral animals from the BIA, June said.

"Most of the buyers take it (them) to Mexico to harvest the meat," she said. "What the government of Mexico does is give the meat to their poor people for free."

As of July 29, round-ups have occurred in Greasewood, Tsaile, Wheatfields, Piñon and on the rights-of-way in the Northern, Chinle and Fort Defiance agencies of the reservation. A feral livestock roundup in Chinle, along with free horse castration and mare birth control vaccine conducted by the Navajo Veterinarian Program, is also scheduled to occur today.

In an effort to decrease the feral horse population by improving general horse health, the tribal veterinarian program is offering free castration and mare birth control for feral horses in several chapters this month and in September.

"We're rounding up any livestock that is not properly permitted and any livestock not branded is property of the Navajo Nation," June said. "They're picked up and shipped off."

The $1.3 million supplemental appropriation was allocated for equipment and the hiring of 24 laborers and administrative support staff that have helped with the round-ups until Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. The Navajo Division of Agriculture, Department of Resources Enforcement and Department of Water Resources are involved in the feral horse round-ups.

June said roundups of any feral livestock will continue to occur as long as chapters have resolutions supporting them.

"It's really the land that is suffering," June said on Tuesday adding that the $1.3 million for the feral horse roundups came after Shelly declared a drought state of emergency on June 27.

"Everything looks green, but is it weeds or healthy grass?" she added. "Everybody is talking about the horses, but we also got to think about Mother Earth and Father Sky."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsóí at 9287-871-1141 or email at