Horse meat is not only a delicacy in Europe and China; it’s also one here. Since at least the 1500s, Navajos have harvested and consumed horses.
This is according to Tim Begay, a Navajo Cultural Specialist with the Navajo Historic Preservation Department, who added that horse consumption in the Navajo Nation was and is mostly a way to combat the common cold and flu, and an alternative food source for families during the winter months.
“It was used as medicine, which is totally different from slaughtering and selling them to different countries,” Begay said of why Navajos harvest horses.
“After they domesticated it, and if you look at Apache history, that’s when they also started eating horses,” he added, noting the nutrients of horses helped Navajos and Apaches boost their immune systems.
The last time Begay ate a horse was in the fall of the late 1980s. He added that the methods of butchering a horse are similar to how a sheep is butchered for consumption during feasts or ceremonies.
“They always played a significant role in all of Navajo history,” he said about the sacred creatures. Begay also cited a Navajo story of when one of the Hero Twins, Naayéé’ Neizghání to be exact, grew sick from fighting the monsters of the Fourth World. The Twin was instructed by other Navajo deities to have a Nidaa, or Enemy Way Ceremony, to rid him of the darkness that affected his spirit from being in war, Begay said.
The songs and prayers of the Nidaa’, which consists of a myriad songs, including “The Spirit of the Horse,” restored Naayéé’ Neizghání back to harmony with the natural world.
“That was how the Nidaa’ was made,” he said.
These prayers, songs and chants about the horse, which the Hero Twins saw when they journeyed to meet their father, the Sun, were used during his Enemy Way.
Even though the horse didn’t physically exist among the Navajo until the Spaniards brought them to the New World, the horse existed as a spiritual being in ceremonies since the creation of the universe, according to various accounts of the Navajo Creation Story.
Begay did say the Enemy Way ceremony conducted by the Navajo deities during that primordial time “was different” from the version now practiced today.
Though he didn’t take a position on horse slaughtering – a solution President Ben Shelly has endorsed because of the estimated 75,000 feral horses roaming the reservation, ravaging the range and depleting water sources – Begay said his cultural background makes him reluctant to see horses being rounded up and taken to slaughter for meat.
“We sing for them and now we want to get rid of them,” Begay quipped. “Does that adversely affect our way of life? Maybe it’s our change of time? We now have vehicles. Nobody really rides horses except for in rodeos or during ceremonies like the Enemy Way.”
The cultural specialist figures that the practitioners of the Blessing Way, who know the horse songs, have consumed horse meat at least once in their lifetime, given their knowledge of the horse through singing, chanting and ceremony.
But for Navajos like Olin Kieyoomia, of Tohatchi, N.M., horse meat is a delicacy and is medicine.
The president of the District 14 Council, which represents five chapters in Fort Defiance Agency, said the last time he ate horse was last fall, when he and his father identified a feral horse to harvest. They decided to butcher the two-year-old horse to help them overcome a lingering cold, Kieyoomia said.
Before killing and eating the horse, Kieyoomia said he and his father made an offering to the horse with corn pollen to thank it for providing nourishment. They placed the hide of the horse under a juniper tree in the Chuska Mountains.
Within two to three days of eating the horse, which was prepared as a broth stew, Kieyoomia said, “Believe it or not, we got better.”
He describes the taste of horse as “bland” when cooked as a stew and “very tough and lean” when cooked over an open pit fire.
“From a historical perspective, horses have always been an herbal remedy,” he said.