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.