• March 6, 2014

Erika Larsen: In Search of a Horse

Erika Larsen

From 2011 to 2013 Erika Larsen travelled to many locations in the western U.S. to learn about the significance of the horse in Native American culture. Many people shared their stories and experiences about this connection with her, as well as the word for “horse” in their respective languages. Larsen’s photographs documenting this bond are featured in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic.

I arrived to Lapwai on the Nez Perce land where I met a woman named Rosa. She told me that I was looking for Sikem, and that the young Nez Perce generation could help me find him. So I asked a young Numipu named Olivia if she knew Sikem and she said yes. She said she had known him since she was seven and that she was free when she was with him and she felt like she could do whatever she wanted. He was her therapy. She had a portrait of Sikem on her shoulder saying ‘Live to Ride.’

Picture of Katie Harris with her horse
Katie Harris is photographed with her Appaloosa. Harris made most of the horse trappings as well as her own traditional outfits herself, including the bead work. Some of the trappings are passed down from older generations but the girls like to make their own to continue the tradition.

Continuing west to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla I met Katie. She told me she knew of Sikem too. She said she couldn’t imagine her life without him because he gave her a personal tie to her family’s history and culture. She told me a person could learn a lot from Sikem and in time he will become your best friend; you could even go on adventures together. She said Sikem is a part of her family. She had sewn by hand all of his regalia.

Picture of Patricia Heemsah and her beaded horse bag
Patricia Heemsah, of the Yakama Nation in Washington State, holds a beaded bag she uses in ceremonial dances and as regalia for her horse in parades.

Not too far away in the Yakama Nation I met Patricia. She told me I was looking for Kusi, her treasured friend. She said don’t let him fool you, he is a gentle giant, that has the tendency to be wild yet gentle and tame. She showed me a bag that her mother had beaded with Kusi on it.

Picture of Benson Ramone and daughter Tashina with their horses
Benson Ramone accompanies his 17-year-old daughter, Tashina, who’s competing in the Fort Hall Rodeo on the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes reservation in Idaho. Riding horses is “in our blood,” Benson says. “You’re born with it.” He grew up in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, where, he says, “you could ride far—there were no fences then.”

I traveled further south and met Benson on the Navajo Nation. He told me I was searching for łįį’. He said he hoped that I could pronounce it or that he might be hard to find. He told me when his time on earth was over łįį’ would be his ride to the spirit world.

I met Clayson here as well. Clayson told me if I breathe on łįį’, and if he breathes back onto me, a bond has been created for life. Clayson had made a crown piece in silver for łįį with a half moon shape and some turquoise.

Phillip Whiteman sages his horse Sioux Boy before a day of working together.
Phillip Whiteman sages his horse Sioux Boy before a day of working together.

On my way north, I stopped in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Nation where I met a man named Phillip. He told me Mo en ha, was who I must be looking for, The Beautiful, Holy Spirit. He told me, “Our Language comes from the creator, when we speak, it creates thought and a thought never leaves its source, Mo en ha reminds us that we are all connected and we are all beautiful holy spirits.” He told me I had come to the right place and that he helped children and adults alike find Mo en ha. Once they find him, they find themselves.

Picture of a mother and son
On the Crow Reservation in southern Montana, Michelle Walking Bear braids her 11-year-old son’s hair to keep it out of his face when he rides. His given name is Dallas White Clay, but he goes by “Spur.” A rodeo rider, he’s so good in the saddle that other kids often ask him to break in their horses.

Across the way, in Crow Agency, I heard the name, Iichiili, and so I inquired about him. I met a family that lived with Iichiili and they said if I looked far into the distance and as close as front door I could see Iichiili everywhere; that he had always been there.

A paint horse named Cikala, which means "Little" in Lakota.
A paint horse named Cikala, which means “Little” in Lakota.

Finally, on my travels east I met a woman from the Lakota nation named Sung Agli Win-She Brings Back the Horses. She told me I was looking for Sunka Wakan. Her father had told her when the spirits brought them the gift of the Sunka Wakan, they found that it was four-legged and with a coat like wolves and dogs, but with special powers. It was hard to translate but maybe it was like “large four-legged being with spiritual powers.” She said that I would find Sunka Wakan living harmoniously in spirit like all of nature and that our connection with him was a gift from Creator, for which we are grateful. She said we are tied together, us and Sunka Wakan. Like the buffalo, they reflect us and link us back into the sacred rhythm and balance of nature. Any given child or person spending time with Sunka Wakan may find the effect hard to describe because they are being touched at a deeper level.

View more of Erika Larsen’s work on her website.

There are 37 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Imagio
    May 16, 2015

    What tribal dress is Katie wearing?

  2. peGGy
    January 14, 2015

    The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man …
    Naduah. Rides the wind

  3. Ernest Marsh
    July 11, 2014

    To have not grown up on a ranch or farm, I have enjoyed the greater part of my life living the dream with raising horses. Thank you Ms. Erika for a very inspirational article!

  4. Stephane lacasa
    March 24, 2014

    This is such beautiful photographs, how do I become a NGEO photographer????? Stephanelacasaphotography dot com

    Thank you

  5. B.H.Parekh
    March 21, 2014

    Sir I want to send you picture. It is very nice. Please suggest me from where I can send u ?

  6. Patrick
    March 18, 2014

    Beautiful work Erika.

  7. edgar recolizado
    March 18, 2014

    reminders of a glorious past

  8. Deborah Stevens
    March 15, 2014

    Fabulous project . . and photography!

  9. Ray V
    March 15, 2014

    The picture of Katie and her Appaloosa is just hauntingly beautiful. Great article and pictures.

  10. Jose RG Vallejo
    March 15, 2014

    I miss those days on the Res

  11. graham bencke
    March 14, 2014

    The freedom of a horse in the wild is just so beautiful

  12. Donna Hewitt
    March 11, 2014

    Thank you. Wonderful reading and Amazing pictures.

    March 11, 2014

    These are not only pictures , these are
    big stories and divine life.

  14. Yanthi
    March 11, 2014

    Nice Pictures

  15. Marina
    March 10, 2014

    I love horses. Such wonderful pictures esp Appaloosa:)

  16. Joe Vinski
    March 10, 2014

    what great photo’s and what great stories, ditto to Marian’s comment

  17. Caitlin
    March 10, 2014

    “layson told me if I breath on łįį’, and if he breathes back onto me, a bond has been created for life.”

    I believe you meant “breathe” rather than “breath.”

    • Coburn Dukehart
      March 10, 2014

      Thank you, this has been corrected.

  18. Marian Giannatti
    March 9, 2014

    When we take the time to learn about other cultures, we celebrate the humanity we all share. This is beautiful! There is always a story to be told – the key is to truly listen!

  19. Al Cerrato
    March 8, 2014

    Beautiful photo’s. They show your soul.

  20. Natasa
    March 8, 2014

    Love your project thank you for sharing…WONDERFUL

  21. Lynne
    March 8, 2014

    So beautiful and encapsulates that very special bond between Man and horse. To know her is to love her.

  22. alex white plume
    March 7, 2014

    sung agli win was named during sundance by the spiritual leaders.our horses got away during the night,some cowboys tried to help us.they chased them,could not catch them. jessica ran out with a rope and a while later she brought all our horses back to camp.a feast and hunka ceremony with old songs,she was given this name

  23. Alice Trego
    March 7, 2014

    Beautiful photos. Beautiful stories. Thank you for sharing the connection between horses and Native Americans.

  24. Lesya
    March 7, 2014

    So deep! Thank you.

  25. littledarling
    March 7, 2014

    I love horses as they’re harmoniously strong and beautiful interfusion.

  26. Liliana
    March 7, 2014

    Yo quiero una hermosa experiencia como esta, AMO LOS CABALLOS, son hermosos

  27. Ralph Wolsing
    March 7, 2014

    Nice pictures! 🙂

  28. Jasmine DeFoore
    March 6, 2014

    Amazing work!

  29. Jill Ferger
    March 6, 2014

    Just beautiful !!!

  30. Cheryl Ann Hicks Phillips
    March 6, 2014

    Excellent article. It would great to read more about the American Indian and their horses. Beautiful photos of American Indians and their horses.
    Thank you for sharing.

  31. Tom Vanderstoop
    March 6, 2014

    Great pictures, invokes memories.

  32. Diego James Robles
    March 6, 2014

    The photograph of Katie Harris is absolutely beautiful. It must have been very difficult to photograph these horse.

  33. Joe Walsh
    March 6, 2014

    Great photos, really love the way that the Native people handled and respected their horses, really beautiful to read about

  34. Lillian Spencer’s
    March 6, 2014

    Beautiful pictures. “Lest we forget.

  35. anne Henning
    March 6, 2014

    i love your project good for you and thank you for sharing.

  36. Len Beyea
    March 6, 2014

    Love these photos and loved the article that others photos by Erika Larsen accompanied. Over much of the world horses have played a central role in culture (the root of the word “chivalry” is cheval, or horse), and it’s beautiful to see how just 2 centuries of horse culture among First Nations of North America has such a vital legacy.

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