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Indian Chief in the Clouds

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This article was found in the Anderson Independent, which reprinted from the Associated Press as written by David Foster. The S.C. paper printed this on August 25, 1996. This article will bring into play the Brislawn Reserve the Spanish mustang and today's triumphs of saving a piece of history among members of the Blackfoot Tribe.

Long before the black clouds blow down from the Rockies, the horses know a storm is near. A stallion shakes his man and kneads a hoof into the grass, then breaks into a gallop. Mares and foals join in, and soon a dozen mustangs streak across the prairie, legs blurring beneath them.

These are the original pride of the Western plains, Spanish mustangs, direct descendants of the Indian Ponies that once ran rings around the U.S. cavalry.

Yet these hardy steeds are a rare sight today. As the West was won, the mustangs lost. Like the Indian who rode them, they were slaughtered in war and neglected in peace, their range fenced off, their bloodlines diluted.

Now, however, Spanish mustangs have returned to Indian country, brought home to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation by a father, his daughter, and their friend.

They wanted to resurrect a bit of history. Little did they realize what it would resurrect in them.


Every year, 2 million tourists drive through Browning on their way to Glacier National Park. Most never even stop for gas.

To an outsider, Browning can seem depressing and dangerous, a sullen reservation town encrusted with poverty. There is little work and a lot of booze. Trailer homes and junked cars rust along the dusty streets.

But there is another Browning, a hidden place that whispers with the spirits of a prouder past.

Darrel Norman hears the spirits.

Born here 54 years ago, he left at age 12 when his father found work in Seattle. For decades he was teased by memories-the smell of sage in a summer rain, the wrinkled elders telling stories. In 1991, he sold his Seattle house and built a new one on a hill two miles west of Browning.

Tina Norman hears the spirits.

Age 30, she was born and raised in Seattle but never felt at ease there. It was so crowded, so polluted, so tense. In 1994, she visited her dad in Browning, planning to stay two weeks, and she hasn't left yet.

Bob Blackbull hears the spirits.

Forty-five years old and the only Indian on the reservation with Rhode Island accent, he arrived by bus in 1971, seeking his place in a confusing world. When he saw the mountains, rising white from the plains, he told himself, "This is it. You're home".

They are artists, Darrell and Tina and Bob. They live in Darrell's house, which doubles as the Lodge Pole Gallery and is crammed with Indian arts and crafts. They make paintings, sculptures, beadwork, headdresses and spears. They try to wring from the past what is useful and beautiful for today.

It was art, naturally, that led them to the mustangs. Mr. Blackbull heard about them from an artist friend keen on historic authenticity.

Old paintings showed 19th-century Plains Indians on horses that were smaller and leaner than the big, muscled saddle horses popular today. Where did they come from? The answer, it turned out, was Spain.

Though North America is where horses first evolved, they vanished from this continent 10,000 years ago and did not return until 1519, when Hernando Cortez landed in Mexico with 10 stallions, and five mares and a foal.

More Spaniards followed with more Spanish horses, fabled in Europe for their endurance. By 1600, Spanish settlers had introduced horses to Indians in what now is New Mexico, and the horses gradually spread northward, some by escaping and forming wild herds, others through the trading and raiding of Indians.

By this time the horses were uniquely American-smart, sinewy and adapted to a hard life on the desert and plains. The Mexicans called them mestengos, or strays; in English, they were known as mustangs.

The Blackfoot were among the last to get horses, around 1750, but they soon became expert riders, using horses to hunt bison with greater success than they'd ever had afoot.

Horses and the new buffalo-robe trade transformed their subsistence culture into an affluent one, with showy clothing and elaborate rituals.

A man with many horses was wealthy and often brave to boot, since a common way of acquiring horses was to raid another band's herd.

But the days of glory were numbered, for both the Indians and their horses.

During the Indian wars of the late 1800s, thousands of Indian ponies were slaughtered. As Indians moved onto reservations, they abandoned their mustangs for bigger horses suited to the plodding work of farm life.

The wild herds met varied fates. Ranchers might shoot a band's stallion and replace it with a domestic horse, just to see what foals would come of it. Thousands of Mustangs were killed for pet food. Some herds, isolated by ranchers' fences, became inbred with blindness and dwarfism.

Since 1971, the West's 40,000 or so remaining wild mustangs have been protected by the federal government, which captures some each year for adoption to limit the herds. Most of those animals, however, bear scant resemblance to the Spanish mustangs that roamed the West 100 years ago.

Fortunately, the mustang's decline was noticed early on by a Wyoming horse-packer named Robert Brislawn. Starting in 1916, he traded Indians for their best mustangs. His son, Emmett, continued the work by seeking out isolated wild herds, and today Mr. Brislawn is a big name in the small world of Spanish Mustang breeding. Fewer than 2,000 registered Spanish mustangs exist today.

When Bob Blackbull learned all this, he saw symbolic potential in the idea of Indians raising the mustangs, and enterprise that had become a white man's hobby.

He also saw dollar signs. Not only could mustangs, draw attention to the gallery, Mr. Blackbull enthused, they could create a new economic base for the entire reservation. Tribal members, land rich but cash-poor, could be shown how to raise mustangs. A renewed horse trade could finance an equestrian center and an Indian arts institute. Troubled Blackfoot youth could get involved.

His dreams proved contagious with Darrel and Tina Norman, and soon it was decided. They would start their own herd of Spanish mustangs.

One problem: They barely knew the first thing about horses.

Descended from battle-hardened horsemen, these children of the plains were decidedly soft around the middle. Darrell, son of a shoe salesman, had peddled antiques and insurance before becoming an artist. Tina's training was in cosmetology, and Mr. Blackbull was not mechanically minded unless it involved leather or beads. He once fixed a broken windshield wiper with two rawhide thongs, threading them through the windows and pulling right, left, right, left as the car streaked through the rain.

But they were Blackfoot, weren't they? With confidence buoyed by ignorance, they leapt into horse breeding.

They were graceful and spirited, their coloring and character as varied as the prairie flowers at their feet: Blue Boy, a proud, steel-blue-roan. Desert Winds, refined but sturdy. Wyoming Belle, and affectionate “love bug”.

All were instant celebrities.

“After the horses returned, Mr. Blackbull says, it just seems that everything started happening”.

School children came by the busload, and many parents followed. The Lodge Pole Gallery became a cultural center of sorts. Artists, dancers and other friends would invite themselves to dinner, sending Darrell scurrying to market for more “tribe size” packages of hamburger.

Strangers started showing up, and so the artists became innkeepers, Blackfoot style, renting out mattress space in a circle of tepees set up in the field.

The mustangs, meanwhile, were multiplying. The first year, Mr. Blackbull bought six more Spanish mustangs from a New Mexico rancher. Five foals were born this year. Mr. Blackbull bought 19 more adults this summer, and by year's end, he says, there will be 60 mustangs in seven herds around the reservation.

A nonprofit organization called the Blackfoot Buffalo Horse Coalition was formed in July to oversee the mustang project. It started with five members. It now has 45.

Spanish mustang fanciers are glad to see the horses reunited with the Blackfoot.

"They're the first Indians we know of who are trying to re-create a piece of their culture by going back to the horses their ancestors rode," says Carol Peters an Indianapolis horse-breeder active in the Spanish Mustang Registry. “I don't know how much of their culture they can get back, but any effort is great.

The venture also pleases Blackfoot tribal chairman and Chief, Earl Old Person. "There was a time when kids of the Blackfeet nation always learned how to ride horses," Mr. Old Person says. "That's kind of lost now."

There are detractors. While Darrell Norman's 2,400 square foot house would not stand out in most suburban neighborhoods, it is derided by some on this poor reservation as “the cathedral on the hill.”

Others criticize the horses. Mr. Norman says they tell him: "It took 100 years to get rid of those things-why bring them back?"

**This article from The Anderson Independent Mail 25 August 1996

**Referencing the 1519 landing of Hernando Cortez and his 10 stallions are documented in the American Paint article by Nancy M. Hood of the Western Horse Magazine April of 1993 issue #60….

Spotted horses first came to the North American continent in 1519 with the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez. Cortez brought horses to help his men travel across a new world in search of riches. According to the Spanish historian Diaz del Castillo who traveled with the expedition, one of the 16 war horses that carried Cortez and his men was a sorrel and white horse with spots on its belly. That spotted horse bred with Native American mustangs and laid the foundation for what is today the American Paint Horse breed. By the early 1800's the western plains were generously populated by free-ranging herds of horses, many of who were spotted.

Because of their color, these flashy horses soon became a favorite mount of American Indians. Comanche Indians, considered by many authorities to be the finest horsemen on the Plains, cherished the Paint Horse, believing them to be favored by the Gods. Evidence of this favoritism is exhibited by drawings of spotted horses found on the painted buffalo robes that served as records for the Comanche's.

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