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Bringing The Horses Back for the People

There's a new herd of horses roaming the rolling prairie lands east of Glacier National Park. This is the land of the Blackfeet and the new horses are traditional Indian "ponies" that gained Montana's Indian people the reputation of "Masters of the Plains" for centuries.

The "ponies" have been gone for most of this century, victims of disease and government rifles. Now, they are back, thanks to a growing interest in Indian culture both on and off the reservation.

"We are bringing the horses back for the people," explains Blackfeet artist, culture-bearer and entrepreneur Darrell Norman. " They are a symbol of resurgence," Norman says, adding that the herd of 20 or so is part of a tribal and cross-cultural education effort on the reservation.

The traditional Indian horse was a Spanish mustang whose heritage goes back to the "Barb horse" of the Berber tribes of North Africa. Their stamina, strength and spirited toughness served the needs of Montana's tribal people so well that the horse became an integral part of the culture.

Around the turn of the century, tens of thousands of Indian "ponies" were shot or died from disease. Some were saved by a Wyoming rancher and that's where the core of the Blackfeet herd came from. Beginning with eight in 1994, dozens of other registered mustangs from around the country have moved onto the natural prairie grasslands of Norman's 200-acre ranch and other property on the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Reservation .

While the horses are "symbols", Norman, his fellow artist/partner Robert Black Bull, Blackfeet traditionalist Curly Bear Wagner and others have organized activities and services that provide visitors with "hands on" experiences regarding Blackfeet culture. Their Blackfeet Historic Site tours offer half-and full-day guided trips around the reservation. At a tepee village on Norman's ranch, visitors participate in traditional arts and crafts, storytelling and dancing, and enjoy meals and accommodations in an authentic Blackfeet tepee circle camp. Visitors also learn what Indian life is like today.

"We give people a very clear understanding of who the Blackfeet people are and what we are doing as a modern people, not just as antiques of the past," says Norman.