In light of the heated controversy—much of it played out right here in this space—regarding plans by several meatpackers to open plants dedicated to processing horse meat, the following news lead is eye-opening:

“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.”

That statement is attributed to Tim Begay, with the Navajo Historic Preservation Department, whose comments were part of a story in the Navajo Times a couple weeks ago. Begay, a Navajo Cultural Specialist, added that horse consumption among members of the Navajo Nation was—and is—a way to combat colds and flu, as well as an alternative food source during the winter months.

However, that characterization doesn’t flash a green light for the proposed horsemeat plants, he said.

“[Horsemeat] was used as medicine, which is totally different from slaughtering and selling them to different countries,” he said. “After [natives] domesticated horses, and if you look at Apache history, that’s when they also started eating horses.”

The last time Begay said that he ate horsemeat was in the late 1980s. He added that the methods of butchering a horse are similar to how a sheep is butchered for consumption during tribal feasts or ceremonies.

Of course, horses didn’t physically become part of the Navajo culture or permanent residents of their tribal homelands until Spanish conquistadors brought them to the New World in the 16th century. However, the horse existed as a spiritual being in ancient ceremonies about the creation of the universe.

“They always played a significant role in all of Navajo history,” Begay said about the animals he called “sacred creatures.” He cited a Navajo story in which one of the Hero Twins, Naayéé’ Neizghání, grew sick and was instructed by Navajo deities to conduct an Enemy Way Ceremony with songs and prayers to rid him of the darkness that affected his spirit. The prayers, songs and chants used during the ceremony were about the horse, which the Hero Twins saw when they journeyed to meet their father, the Sun.

Recognizing the ecological damage

More importantly, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has endorsed horse slaughter and horsemeat processing for a different, and more contemporary, reason: An estimated 75,000 feral horses are currently roaming the vast reservation that sprawls across northern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. The horse herds damage the range and farmland, trampling riparian areas and depleting precious water sources.

“Outsiders” don’t understand why the tribe supports permits for horse slaughtering facilities, Shelly told The New York Times. “I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”

The Navajo aren’t the only natives with such sentiments, according to The Times. The National Congress of American Indians, the Mescalero Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Yakama Nation in Washington state have all supported the issuance of permits for horse slaughter facilities, nearly all expressing similar sentiments to Shelly’s position.

The Oglala Sioux even considered opening their own facility, the Bennett County Booster newspaper reported in April.

Other tribes have noted the suffering of the horses themselves.

An editorial in the newspaper published by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (headquartered in Pendleton, Ore.) urged Congress to respond to the problems of feral horses on tribal lands.

“Not funding horse inspectors resulted in widespread starvation, neglect, abandonment and unnecessary suffering of the horse, especially in Indian Country,” the newspaper’s editor wrote. “[While] Robert Redford has proclaimed that ‘Horse slaughter has no place in our culture,’ the actor forgets that there used to be horse slaughterhouses in America. At race tracks and horse ranches around America horses are slaughtered when they break legs. It is possible to maintain a romantic image of the horse and also be a realist about the kind of deprivation that is apparent on public and tribal lands because of horse abandonment.”

Meanwhile, Navajo Cultural Specialist Begay admitted that his background makes him reluctant to support rounding up horses to be slaughtered for meat.

“We sing for them, and now we want to get rid of them,” he told the Navajo Times. “Does that adversely affect our way of life? We now have vehicles. Nobody really rides horses except for in rodeos or during ceremonies like the Enemy Way.”

Other Navajos, such as Olin Kieyoomia, of Tohatchi, N.M., confirmed that horsemeat serves as medicine.

Kieyoomia, who is president of the Navajo District 14 Council, said he ate horsemeat from a feral horse last fall to help overcome a lingering cold. Before killing and eating the two-year-old horse, Kieyoomia said he and his father made an offering of corn pollen to thank the animal for providing nourishment. Within two or three days of eating the horsemeat, which he cooked in a stew, Kieyoomia told the Navajo Times that, “Believe it or not, we got better.”

“From a historical perspective, horses have always been an herbal remedy,” he said.

Doubtful if many non-natives—and certainly nobody connected with animal rights causes—would agree with that last statement. But the explanation raises the same “spiritual” justification that activists insist is the reason why horse should not be killed and eaten.

Of this we can be sure, however: The controversy will continue, no matter what the outcome.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.