Horses are Sacred: A View from the Nohooká Dine’

by Leland Grass

In August, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly stated that—to alleviate what he claimed was a horse overpopulation problem—the government of the Navajo Nation would support rounding up, selling, and slaughtering wild horses from Navajo lands, as well as the planned opening of a horse slaughterhouse in Roswell, New Mexico. (No horse slaughter facilities currently operate within the borders of the United States.)

His stance disturbed many of the Dine’ people (as the Navajo formally refer to themselves). The Elders and Medicine People of the Nohooká Dine’ (Earth Surface People) made it clear that the president did not speak for them, unanimously passing a resolution in August condemning the roundups and subsequent “execution” of the horses. In September, the Dine’ Hataali Association and several Navajo chapters—including the Tsayatoh, Iyanbito and Shiprock Chapters—all passed resolutions opposing the roundups and slaughter. Finally, in October, President Shelly backed down and withdrew the government’s official support for roundup and slaughter.

Leland Grass is a Dine’ Traditionalist from the Betatakin Canyon area of Arizona, south of Navajo National Monument. He is the youngest Ho'ya'nee' (vigilant one) for the 12 Traditional Headsmen Council of Nahooká Dine’.

The following article by Leland offers a perspective concerning what horses mean to the Dine’ and why the Nohooká Dine’ feel horse slaughter is a grievous violation of their culture and tradition. AWI is honored to have the opportunity to work with Leland and his fellow Elders and Medicine People to present a humane and responsible management plan for their wild horses.

The Dine’ (Navajo) people reside in their innate homeland, within four cardinal sacred mountains, encompassing portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. It is from this spiritual center that horses remain sacred. This understanding of sacred was challenged by the Navajo Nation, a federally recognized tribal government and its political leader, President Ben Shelly.

The traditional leaders, Elders and Medicine People developed a resolution on August 26, 2013, that stated: “Nohooká Dine’ strongly oppose any and all actions by the Navajo Nation, Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture that leads to the mass execution of the horses that have been illegally round-up. ... these illegal actions violate Our Dine’ Way of Life and Our Responsibilities as Human Beings.”

You cannot go to Dine’ People’s grazing area and take animals without our consent, permission or without proper notification and identification. The Navajo Nation government is breaking their own rules by conducting the round-up and sale in this manner.

This conflict between the original teachings of the Nohooká Dine’ and the contemporary political structure of the Navajo Nation is a clash on how to care for and maintain the Nation’s horse population. The Navajo Nation addressed the horse management issue by rounding up and selling the horses to kill buyers to be slaughtered in Mexico. The inhumane treatment of the horses during this round-up and sale also alarmed the Dine’ Hataalii Association, a distinguished association comprised of Dine’ Medicine Men and Women. The Association responded by clearly stating they do not support or in any way condone the slaughtering of horses and the sale of horses to those that are identified as kill buyers.

This struggle between maintaining cultural traditions and being assimilated into contemporary culture is being played out on the range. Indigenous peoples see this clash as a microcosm of a much larger issue. Traditional Dine’ knowledge explained by the Dine’ Hataali Association describes the physical make-up of the horse and its connection to Nature. The horse’s mane represents dark rain clouds and ensures moisture and well-being to all life forms on Mother Earth and in Father Sky. Underneath the hooves are arrowheads that ensure the protection of the Dine’ people and all other life forms. With this understanding the Dine’ see the inhumane treatment of the horse as a violation against Mother Earth and her natural cycles.

In the resolution developed by the Nokooká Dine’, we clearly expressed our objection to the Navajo Nation’s way of managing the horse population by stating “to treat Life so recklessly and without the counsel of the Elders and Medicine People IS NOT Our Way of Life, rather it is the way of life that was planted in our young people when they cut their hairs and prevented our children from speaking our language, it is a forced assimilation. We see this mass execution of our relatives, the horses, as the rotten fruit of a bad seed that was planted in the minds of our children in the earlier days.”

After pressure from the Elders and Medicine People of Nohooká Dine’, the Dine’ Hataali Association, animal advocacy groups, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and actor Robert Redford, Navajo Nation President Shelly released a statement reversing his support for horse slaughter and bringing a halt to rounding up the Nation’s horses.

The Dine’ people continue to struggle and strive to maintain our way of life, the way the Creator taught us from the beginning of Creation. This knowledge and way of life that has been handed down generation-to-generation from the beginning maintains that all life is sacred and it is our responsibility as human beings to respect this understanding. It seems as Indigenous Peoples we continue to be our own worst enemy when we forget who we are and the spiritual foundation we stand on.

With the help of horse lovers across this land and the Dine’ Elders and Medicine People who still maintain and protect this sacred connection to the horses and all Creation, we were able to ensure, in this case, that horses remain sacred. This issue of horses is tied to our way of life as Indigenous Peoples so we realize that it’s not only the horses that are threatened but it is also our way of life that is threatened. It is our understanding that the health and future of the horses are intricately tied to our own. That is why we are fighting so hard. We are fighting for our own future generations. 

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