Just over a year ago, I wrote a post pointing out that we could all learn a great deal about those who brought their horses to the American Southwest by looking at the DNA of horses running on the Indian reservations in the Southwest. (click here) The Navajo Reservation covers about 25,351 square miles of high desert and canyon lands in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.
The area is also checkered with public lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Forest Service and State parks. The rugged terrain means that the horse population there could not be systematically annihilated in the same way as the Indian horses running on the Great Plains were during the 1870’s. That means that the equine DNA from the horse on the Navajo Reservation offers us all a window into our past, as long as we are willing to look at the evidence with open minds.
So I have to salute the Navajo who decided to take a look at the DNA of the horses on the reservation before removing large numbers of horses. There are plans to test at least four horses from each of the 110 chapters in order to have enough information to form long-term plans for managing the horse herds. So far they have tested DNA on a hundred horses from 15 chapters on the reservation. As I suspected, at least in the American Southwest, the story of the humans and their horses is not as simple as white colonists versus red savages.
The testing has only just begun, and the results imply that the history documented by the Spanish and the Anglo governments has conveniently overlooked much of the true story of the horses and their people. Some strains are related to horses found in Venezuela. That is not a great surprise as the Spanish exported breeding stock to North and South America. But some strains of Navajo horses are related to horses found in East Asia.
I have long wondered just who the horsemen who integrated themselves into the existing indigenous populations in the American Southwest were (click here). But DNA testing in humans has been controversial among Navajo, in part because the test results show that, like most tribes, they have astonishingly global ancestry. So I was thrilled to see that those tests show 32 genetically distinct strains of horses!
I hope that the Navajo researchers include documenting the human stories from each chapter on how their strain of horses came to be with them in their data. Combining the results from the equine DNA with the oral histories of each chapter could offer insight into just who maintained long-term relationships with their horses before and after they arrived in the New World as well as why they needed to be invisible to the European governments encroaching on the indigenous territory (click here). That evidence would allow the Navajo to take pride in those allies they integrated into their existing indigenous population over the centuries.
Climate change, drought and the covid-19 virus are stressing the human population as well as the free roaming horse population on the Navajo reservation. Despite their current hardships, the Navajo have not asked for help to support their efforts to research and manage their horses. In my eyes, that is all the more reason for all those who have a genuine interest in understanding our past to offer feed, finances, supplies and publicity to those working to understand and sustain our living equine legacy.
But I only found this story because I check the online editions of Horsetalk, an equine platform based in New Zealand! In the USA, the online information on the genetics of the Navajo horses only appears in local papers from the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Mainstream Anglo news sources continue to push removing free roaming horses from our public lands without offering unbiased information on the history and genetics of those horses. (click here)