Tribe divided on horse slaughter

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, August 8, 2013

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W hile President Ben Shelly has publicly supported the idea of a horse slaughtering operation in Roswell, N.M. to deal with the soaring feral horse population on the reservation, some medicine healers and horse lovers like Leland Grass oppose it.

The reason Grass is against Shelly's endorsement of the slaughterhouse, which was temporarily barred from operating by U.S. District Court Judge Christina Armijo on Aug. 2, is because of the sacred nature of the horse in Navajo ceremony, singing and chanting.

Contrary to what most believe about the Spaniards bringing the horse to the Americas during the 16th century, Grass said the horse has always been part of Navajo culture and ceremony, as evidenced by the Navajo Creation Story.

According to Grass's oral history, when the Hero Twins, known as Naayéé' Neizghání and Tóbájíshchíní, journeyed to their father, The Sun, to rid the Fourth World of monsters, they not only acquired knowledge from their father to defeat the monsters, but also saw at their father's lodge, the horse.

The Twins didn't take the horse with them because they were looking for tools to protect the living of the Fourth World.

"'No, we didn't come for that,'" Grass said, recounting the dialogue between the Sun and his sons, which is also cited in the Blessing Way Ceremony. "'We need something that will kill these monsters ...'"

The Sun, according to Grass and other oral accounts, gave the Twins weapons - lightening as an arrow and bow - to kill those monsters that ravaged Diné Bi Kéyah during that period of time.

"When they observed the horses at the Sun, all they took was the knowledge they seen, and the songs and prayers were brought back down," Grass said. "They kept it with them until the horse was right here."

Right here is on Diné Bi Kéyah, where Navajos like Grass are in disagreement with Shelly's endorsement of slaughtering horses for meat. On July 31, Shelly, on behalf of the Navajo Nation, announced he supports Valley Meat Co., who would export horse meat, because the 75,000 feral horses on the reservation are drinking up wells and destroying the rangeland of the 27,000-square-mile arid landscape.

Grass compares Shelly's backing of the horse slaughter plant and the recent round-ups to the 1930s Navajo Livestock Reduction, when the BIA decided the range of the reservation could no longer support flocks of thousands of sheep and herds of goats, cattle and horses.

"They took a lot of things from the reservation and gave us a little bit back," Grass said, adding that sacred knowledge linked to these domesticated animals and their relationship with Navajo healing were also taken away with them. "They only gave us in return a chapter house."

Grass added that songs and prayers were reversed when the BIA "came about and killed all these animals. That's when the medicine people backed away from the songs and prayers and got scared of what the BIA was doing for them."

With the herds of feral horses - some in Western Agency reported to be 100-strong or more - roaming the mountains, canyons and deserts of Navajo land, Grass fears livestock reduction will occur again, this time with these beings that have been here "since the earth was made with the Creator."

Instead of rounding them up for slaughter, Grass thinks that they should be rounded up for adoption or treatment centers.

The medicine healer, who equates horses to guardian angels, says they can help heal people suffering from suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.

"When you work with the horse, it heals you with Mother Earth," he said, before adding that if the Navajo Nation supports slaughtering, he would like Shelly to shoot the first horse.

Grass also added people need to be responsible for their horses. He theorizes that horses that are vaccinated once but not yearly are responsible for spreading disease among the feral horses.

But according to Scott Bender, tribal veterinarian with the Navajo Nation Veterinarian Program, if horses are vaccinated yearly and they're put out with roaming feral ones, they're relatively protected.

"Keeping your horses vaccinated will protect them from the stuff feral horses bring around - flu, rhino and strangles," he said. "The feral horses do pose a risk to owned horses."

Asked what his thoughts are about rounding up feral horses from the reservation and transporting them to horse slaughtering plants for export, Bender said he would rather see a horse humanely slaughtered than suffer from disease, thirst or starvation.

"They're not suffering when put down that way," he said.

Bender said the slaughtering of feral horses also provides a food source for humans, and even feed for carnivorous zoo animals.

He compared horses to rabbits, saying they will reproduce freely and outperform other animals for survival if left uncontrolled. "Humans are the control for horses," he said.

Currently, there over 61,000 feral horses penned up on Bureau of Land Management lands, with tax money going toward these animals to feed them, the veterinarian said.

Adoption events, such as the one scheduled Aug. 16-18 in Show Low, Ariz., barely make a dent - there's not a huge market for adult horses that have never been handled.

On Navajo, the statistics are more staggering. Bender equated the roaming horses to the feral dog problem across the reservation.

"If it's okay for cows, sheep, goats and pigs, why is it so bad to put down horses that way?" Bender said of slaughtering horses.

Meanwhile, as the Humane Society of the U.S. challenges the Valley Meat Co. in court, it's also planning to challenge the traditional consumption of horse meat by Native Americans.

According to George Waters, president of the George Waters Consultancy Service, there are between 12 and 20 tribes in the West whose reservations are being severely damaged by feral horses.

"The fact that those tribes have examined the issues and horse meat processing as the only viable way to deal with the situation is significant," Waters said. "The fact that HUUS has gone out and drug up four or five individual Indian people to try to undermine the legitimate concerns of tribal governments, who are land managers, is repugnant."

Waters represents the Yakama Nation of Washington as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Not all medicine men come down on Grass's side on this issue.

For medicine man and horse lover James Peshlakai, it's important he remains neutral.

"We hear this issue all the time," said Peshlakai, who is a member of the Western Navajo Equine Organization.

All he knows from Navajo teachings is that that horses, like other livestock, need to be properly cared for.

"They provide food, medicine and spiritual support for ceremonies," he said.

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at