- Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492 by Peter Mitchell
Borrowing the term from Black Elk, Peter Mitchell examines the individual and comparative contours of indigenous “Horse Nations.” Horse Nations crosses continents and disciplines as it analyzes and assesses multi-faceted dimensions of indigenous interactions with horses introduced by Europeans to the Americas, southern Africa, and Australasia. Mining an impressive collection of “historical, ethnographic, and archaeological” sources in multiple languages (11), Mitchell has produced an interpretative compilation full of information and insight that should be an important reference for researchers who are continuing to blaze new trails in our knowledge and understanding of indigenous peoples’ reception and integration of the horse.
Mitchell covers a lot of chronological and geographical ground. Following surveys of the domestication and dispersal of the horse in Eurasia and Europe and the prehistoric interactions between soon-to-be-extinct horses and early human occupants in the Americas and their subsequent American return after 1492, Mitchell engages in examinations of the impacts of horses on indigenous peoples in regions of western North America, northern, central, and southern areas of South America, southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Reflecting the significant amount of literature on the subject for the Great Plains and of particular interest to readers of this journal, Mitchell dedicates significant spaces to the equestrian experiences of Native Americans on the Southern, Central, and Northern Plains. Drawing from and discoursing with the historical works of such scholars as Pekka Hämäläinen and utilizing what archaeological evidence is available, Mitchell succinctly addresses subsistence, sociocultural, economic, demographic, and environmental aspects of the rise and fall of the Comanches’ horse-mounted hegemony on the Southern Plains. Mitchell also tends to the contrasting equestrian adaptations of the “village-based farming communities” and the “mobile societies of the open grasslands” (141) in the Central and Northern Plains as he explores in part how the horse factored into the dynamics of human geography, bison hunting, trade, gendered workload, social status, ways of war, artistic, oral, and ceremonial expressions, cultural ecology, and ethnic identities in these regions.
Mitchell focuses on comparing and contextualizing his regional Horse Nation case studies and pointing out fertile fields for study in his final chapter. Useful to future comparative explorations, he constructs categories of Horse Nations, traces thematic similarities between them, and distills determinant factors for their emergence. Although all of the changes that [End Page 330] the indigenous Horse Nations experienced post-1492 cannot be solely attributed to the horse, as Mitchell demonstrates and notes,
without horses neither raiding, nor large-scale trading of bison robes, guanaco hides, and ponchos, nor livestock-keeping (where this took place), nor the intensified warfare or increasing social differentiation that frequently arrived with them, could, I submit, have emerged and thrived in anything like the way that they did.(360–61)
Noting their predominance “on the borderlands of empires” (349), Mitchell also sees many parallels between the indigenous Horse Nations and the “pastoral nomads” of Eurasia that are ripe for further comparative analysis. Regarding the indigenous Horse Nations of the Great Plains, Mitchell’s work should spark and stoke even more scholarship that situates this region’s rich history in its global context.