Natives and the Horse

By the mid-1700s, the Native groups in the Interior of what is now British Columbia had horses. Seldom has the introduction of any animal so significantly changed the culture of a people. Horses forever altered the semi-nomadic life of the Native people of western North America, which involved carrying everything on their backs or on dogs and walking to the next food source. The Native people could cover great distances on horseback and, perhaps more significantly, they could transport greater amounts of food and material goods. By the time the early fur traders arrived in New Caledonia, as the Interior of British Columbia was then known, the horse was already a fixture and had become a symbol of wealth among Native people. The Natives of the Interior plateau of British Columbia were the first stock raisers and, over the years, they learned the advantage of good pasturage and water for the health of their animals.

A photograph of a Thompson Native with a horse with a traditional saddle. Click to enlarge,
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Horse saddled in traditional Thompson style. AA-00816 - Courtesy Royal British Columbia Museum

To the Native people of the Interior, horses became more than useful beasts of burden. The social structure of the community came to be based upon ownership of horses, and horses eventually functioned like currency. Even though they were a symbol of individual wealth, the animals also belonged to the entire community so that, in times of scarcity, they were shared among the people. This distribution of essential resources was one of the principal roles of the chief. He was the wise leader, the one who made sure that all in his band were cared for, and horses were the community’s major resource. Native culture remained centred around horses up until modern times.

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