Restoring the Cultural Importance and Healing of Horses

Nisqually ranch hand Derrick Sanchez takes a moment with Buck, a horse he is training to be ridden by Nisqually tribal members as part of a reconnection with horses and the healing they provide.

The thunder of hundreds of horses running on the plains above the Nisqually River once signaled the Nisqually Tribe’s prosperity prior to foreign settlement.

But the Treaty War of 1855 stripped the tribe of many of the horses. Then in 1918, Pierce County seized more than 300 acres from the Nisqually Reservation via condemnation to create Fort Lewis, dispossessing hundreds of Nisqually people of their homes and the land to raise horses. Tribal members were scattered far and wide and many of the intimate relationships with horses were lost.

Today, the tribe is honoring Chief Leschi and his brother Quiemuth, both renowned horsemen, and the Nisqually legacy of horsemanship by acquiring land and horses to restore that close relationship.

“Horses aren’t a job, they’re a lifestyle,” said Keoni Kalama, general manager of the tribe’s 68-acre ranch adjacent to the Nisqually Reservation southeast of Yelm.

Kalama helped start the ranch, which has grown from a couple of horses to 10 since last summer. He is a Nisqually and Northern Cheyenne tribal member who grew up in the horse ways in Montana.

“It is what we call the Red Road. No alcohol, no drinking,” Kalama said. “You ride and care for horses, you participate in many long rides and contests with horses such as roping and relays.”

Horses, like canoes, come with a distinctive vocabulary, songs and dances, bringing opportunities to resurrect the Nisqually language and customs.

“Richard Oatfield, who owned the land in the 1960s, always had it in mind to return this land to the tribe,” said Cynthia Iyall, Nisqually tribal administrator, and a Leschi descendant. “He went to school with many of our parents.”

Most of the horses have never been ridden, so Kalama and his ranch hand Derrick Sanchez work to desensitize them to noise and distraction, accept a saddle and learn to load up in a horse trailer.

“We don’t ‘break’ horses here,” Sanchez said. “We create partners.”

For Sanchez, it has been a gratifying journey to get a somewhat unruly 2-year-old horse named Buck to accept a saddle and bit, and love to be ridden.

“It’s been on his time to get to where we are now,” Sanchez said. “We have trust.”

Kalama invites veterans and those in recovery from substance abuse to help with the never-ending work. “Come get some of this horse medicine,” he tells them.

The medicine is what tribal council envisioned for the horses and property from the start, Iyall said.

“It is intentional that there is a strong connection with our health and mental health services to provide therapy for tribal members with the horses that has been shown to be so beneficial to people who have faced trauma,” she said.

Both Kalama and Sanchez will be trained by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International to be horse therapists. Formed in 1969, the organization trains specialists to use horses to assist children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges to find strength and independence.

At this stage, the horses are taken in trailers to be ridden in Nisqually neighborhoods in hope of attracting youth to work at the ranch and learn to ride when the horses finish their training this summer.

“The future is exciting,” Kalama said. “Returning the warrior society to Nisqually, a culture that takes care of people in emergencies and is self-reliant and resilient, that’s what horses can do.”

Keoni Kalama, general manager of the Nisqually Tribe’s horse ranch, holds Buck as Derrick Sanchez, ranch hand, gets settled for a training ride.

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