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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Robert Hilgendorf

August 18, 2013

Category: Philosophy and Religion > Belief Systems

I was jolted into some memories of my time on the Navajo Reservation when I read the August 11 New York Times article about the conflict over whether USDA should grant a license to the proposed Roswell, New Mexico horsemeat processing plant.   Congress has restricted the granting of that license in response to those who rallied to support the preservation of the wild-horse population in the West, including Robert Redford and former Governor Bill Richardson.   In support of the plant are a number of Indian tribes, most notably the Navajos who see the wild-horse population as an ecological disaster. The 75,000 wild horses are crowding out the Navajo cattle and sheep and damaging the rangeland.

Why is all this interesting or important? I remember when the special lunch-menu item on the Harvard Faculty Club was always "horse steak." Yes, it was the real thing. So the liberals were OK with slaughtering horses then. I am sure the menu has changed now.

When I went out to work on the Navajo Reservation in 1968, we were struck by the beauty of the wild horses roaming free. But once I started work in the DNA legal services law office the romance of the "wild horses" was shattered by the fact that the open range often meant horses, who liked the salt on the road, were the cause of night-time accidents too numerous to count, in which cars struck the horses, most often killing the unwary driver. 

My naïve fascination with horses caused me to ask Fleming Begaye, the Navajo owner of the Shell gas station and trading post which housed our law office, if I could use his corral if I rode a horse to the office. He said, "No, the Navajos do not want to see their attorney riding a horse to work."

Then there was the funeral of John Rockbridge, a Navajo medicine man.  At the end of the ceremony they started to take his horse back behind a nearby hill and motioned to me to join them and assist in killing the animal so that it could accompany him in the afterlife.   I declined, not being sure whether it was an honor or a joke and I still puzzle over the event now.

The larger issue this raises is how our sentimental view of the American Indian is often trumped by reality. The Reservation remains a hard place to live. Drought persists. Navajos depend on their small flocks of sheep and goats for subsistence. It is their only money in the bank. They take care of the horses they need, but the wild horses roaming their lands are often in bad shape, suffering from starvation due to the poor quality of the rangeland. The Navajos were granted sovereignty over their lands but often "Washingdon" overrides them.  They are practical about their horses. Thin the herds, slaughter the animals humanely, and sell the meat — that is their message.    I agree with them.