Solitude, Sovereignty, Ancestry and Our Place in the Herd

It is a commonplace that horses are social animals; happiest and healthiest as members of a herd, preferably a large herd with mixed ages, genders and temperaments, created by natural selection and free choice of breeding partners.  It is also a matter of fact that most domestic horses live at least part of their lives in solitary confinement or as members of smaller herds created by humans who control all aspects of breeding and companionship; removing most elements of choice from most horses’ lives.

But the “herd dynamic” of horses is not as simple as one alpha mare and one alpha stallion who control resources, and a band of submissive herd members who get pushed around by the alphas.  As Sue McDonnell, Ph.D., describes in her book, A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior:  The Equid Ethogram, “this is a fairly unnatural condition created by our [human] husbandry practice.”

Dr. McDonnell, who has studied the herd behavior of a semi-feral pony herd for decades, writes:

Under natural conditions, it is rare to see overt aggression or a single individual controlling a limited resource.  Surely under natural conditions, horses rarely have the equivalent of an alpha individual within a band or an alpha band within a herd.  Rather, there is usually a more complex, less linear order; with division of leadership and defense roles played by a number of individuals and sometimes with alliances that swing into action depending upon the situation.

According to Dr. McDonnell, one individual horse may be submissive to another horse when it is alone and yet dominant over the other horse when it is allied with a companion.  A “mature” mare may “lead the way” when circumstances dictate, or an “assistant stallion” may fend off a threat when necessary.

The “herd dynamics” approach to working with horses has much to offer humans and is most useful, I believe, when we get past the simplistic “alpha” concept and look more closely at the true dynamics of “social order.”

In our Western culture, we worship the individual and look, somewhat sentimentally, at other cultures that elevate the group, tribe or family above the individual.  And yet, the submission of the individual to the tribe or family is a matter of contention for specific individuals.  Not every tribe member willingly or happily accepts the role dictated by the group.  You could argue that the Western culture is partly a response of individuals to the human herd; to say “I am me.  I am not an archetype or a gender or a role or a class or a nationality.  I am all of those things and more.  I am myself.”

So who or what is the individual; horse or human?  Is the American Paint horse a “true breed?”  Is there any such thing as a “blood horse” or a “full-blooded” human?

In the horse training world (and the sometimes related field of human potential or new age spirituality), claims of being “native” are often thrown around as totems or heralds of authenticity, for horses and for humans.  My horse has “papers” that purport to establish his ancestry.  Is that who he is?

I recently read a book by a woman who calls herself Brooke Medicine Eagle, entitled The Last Ghost Dance: A Guide for Earth Mages. Today, I found a quote online from a woman named Patricia White Buffalo about solitude that made me think about my horse, who is most comfortable in the company of horses but occasionally has difficulty finding his place in a herd:

“You are to learn the meaning of solitude, to be able to sit so quietly that you can hear your own breath, to become still within yourself that you may know who you are. Only then will you be able to become one with our land”.

Medicine Eagle and White Buffalo are “assumed” or “adopted” names rather than “birth” names.  I don’t know if either woman could or seeks to claim Native American or Amerindian ancestry, and I don’t know how important it is that either or both women could or could not assert a “blood” claim.  In one important sense, it is not my business and it is not my tradition.  In another sense, hasn’t this kind of thing been going on since the beginning of time or at least recorded religion (Protestants and Lutherans and Calvinists and Pentecostalist and Roman Catholics and so on)?  Is this spritual or cultural theft, or merely “religious inter-cultural borrowing?

In 1994, Medicine Eagle was “denounced” by an anti-defamation group called Center for the SPIRIT (Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions) for exploiting and expropriating Native American practices and symbolism.

The group, founded by John P. LaVelle, a Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico and an “enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Nation,” decries the “expropriation” of Native American traditions or symbols by “whites.” Professor LaVelle requests that whites look to our own religions and our own traditions for spiritual guidance.  Who could quarrel with that?  Many spiritual traditions include some form of dancing, chanting, fasting and questing.  Call it a “Celtic drumming ceremony” and be done with it.

Where this concept becomes a little more complicated is the process by which “true blood” is determined, and criticism of the  inappropriate use or selling of tradition by “true-blooded” Native Americans (or Mayans or Celts, etc.), however that may be determined or described.

Is the problem in the “commercialization” of spiritual traditions or is the problem in the cooptation by non-natives?


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