Talking to my Horse, Whistling the Garry Owen
The following story should be true.
After decades of war we set down our weapons and made the Medicine
Lodge Treaty with the Americans. I was one of the many who argued
against signing: my entire family had been rubbed out at Sand Creek
and I did not trust the white men. But having known nothing but war
all my 19 summers I too longed for peace. Eventually I accepted the
counsel of my elders and urged the other young men to recognize the
truce. I married into Black Kettle’s band and after the summer
buffalo hunt we set up our winter camp on the Washita River, well
within the territory set out for us. It was the winter of 1868.
Life was sweet. We were at peace, and my wife was pregnant with our
first child. We had taken in her three sisters and their children,
as their men had been killed in the fighting. Our lodge was full of
laughter and happiness. Despite my misgivings about the treaty I
began to relax.
Game was plentiful and the hunting was good. One day in late
November I came across three antelope grazing near the river.
Unslinging my bow I killed two, missing the third. But instead of
fleeing he cocked his head at me and said, “Soon.” “Soon?” I asked,
but the antelope said nothing more before bounding away. I returned
to our camp, and after feasting on antelope meat with my family I
smoked and meditated on this until I fell asleep.
I awoke in the night with a strong sense of unease I couldn’t place.
Around me my extended family slept peacefully. I dressed quietly,
slipped out of the teepee into the cold, crisp night and walked to
where I had tethered my pony. On seeing me with his big clear eyes
he said, “Father, take me down to the water, for I am thirsty.” I
did as he asked, and as we walked to the river he said, “We are in
for a big fight. Today will be a day to remember.” I said, “Oh, what
you hear is the crashing of the snow crust up the valley. It is just
the herd of your brothers and cousins.” “No” said my pony,
stubbornly shaking his head. “Come” I said, “I will show you”.
I mounted up and started out of the cottonwood grove where we were
camped. When we came out into the open and looked up to where our
pony herd was I saw a great line of horses galloping towards us. In
the pre-dawn light I assumed Pawnee raiders had stampeded our herd
and made to wheel around to get my rifle and raise the alarm. But
before I could direct my horse back to camp, the strangest thing
happened. Impossibly, I heard a brass band playing the Garry Owen.
At the first strains of music the horses opened fire. It was General
George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. Raving egomaniac that he
was, Custer had brought an entire brass band into the field with
him. Their music was the signal to attack. My pony screamed, “I told
you!” and took off across the valley faster than any horse could go,
the sound of his hooves louder than thunder. He raced towards the
cavalry line, and seeing me on his back they began to fire at us.
The air filled with bullets, but my pony only went faster. Then
suddenly he stopped and reared, throwing me, and let out a long,
unearthly whinny so loud I thought I would go deaf.
At the sound of this the big cavalry mares began to buck savagely,
throwing their cursing riders to the ground. Then as one they spoke
in a voice that shook the earth, commanding the soldiers to throw
down their weapons or perish. Immediately half the troopers did just
that, crying out in terror. The rest just stood there, dumbfounded.
A wild-eyed young lieutenant began screaming for his men to shoot
their horses, but no one moved. He ran to a grizzled old sergeant
who was on his knees, praying, and ordered him to his feet. The
sergeant didn’t budge. He yelled the order again, and when the
sergeant didn’t respond he drew his service revolver and cocked the
hammer. He repeated the order, but the sergeant continued to pray.
The lieutenant shot him in the face. The report of the pistol seemed
to bring the troopers to their senses. Picking up their discarded
rifles they began to shoot their horses. And then, all hell broke
Out of nowhere the ponies from our camp joined the cavalry mares and
together they stampeded the soldiers, kicking and biting and
stamping. The air filled with the sound of gunfire and the screams
of men and horses. Into this slaughter came General Custer, who had
ridden in with his reserve force, thinking his men were being
ambushed. But their horses went strange too, and I saw Custer’s
beautiful white charger buck him off. He leapt to his feet, his left
arm hanging at an unnatural angle and began screaming orders, but
the bugler’s horn was crushed under a regulation US Army horseshoe.
Custer was staring down at his shattered arm, a look of confusion on
his face, when he vanished in the swirling carnage.
And then, suddenly, it was silent. The surviving soldiers were
herded together, limping and bleeding. To a man they looked
terrified. Many horses were hurt too, the ground littered with the
dead and wounded from both sides. Custer was nowhere to be seen.
“Soldiers of the US Army!” thundered Custer’s horse, “There will be
no more fighting. We will take you back to your fort, and from there
you will return to your homes. The Horse Nation no longer does your
He was about to continue when the sound of war cries came from
behind us. The warriors from our village were charging across the
valley on foot, screaming for vengeance. At this my pony galloped
towards them. “Warriors!” he cried, “Stop where you are. We, the
Horse People, forbid you from making this fight. We will not allow
the soldiers to attack you again.”
The warriors stopped as one. It was not odd to them that my pony
could speak, but no one had ever seen the Horse People behave in
this way, and they were awed by the power of this medicine. Seeing
the defeated American soldiers they lowered their weapons.
My pony came back to me. “See how it is today. We, the Horse People,
have suffered greatly for you. Many are dead. Hear me now, and know
“Just as you are amazed by the events of this day, you will forget.
Despite the sacrifice we have made for you today, you will forget.
And surely as the sun will rise the time will come when you abandon
us, the Horse People, for machines of your own making. And just as
you abandon us for these machines, you will abandon your own selves
for them. You will come to believe that these machines are your
relations, and you will alter yourselves to be like them, thinking
this will make you stronger. You will change your own minds so you
may speak with them and they to you. On this day you will forever
lose your relation to us, and to all the animal people.
Hear me now, and beware. Never will your machines show you loyalty,
nor love. Never will they come to your aid in time of need as the
Horse People have done today. I would like for you to remember these
words, but you will forget. It is the nature of your kind.”
And with that, he turned, and walked away.
Soundtrack from a performance of "Horse" by Archer Pechawis
Festival Talking Stick, Vancouver, Canada, January 2007
Cris Derksen on Cello
Written, shot and edited by Archer Pechawis
With excerpts from: The Invaders (1912) Kay-Bee Pictures © Public
Original music: Cris Derksen
Arrangement: Cris & Archer
Sound editing: D’arcy O’connor