I wasn’t there the day the first Indian horse came to our people, but I heard the story so many times as a boy that it became real to me.

The Ojibway were not people of the horse. Our land existed as an untamed thing, lakes, rivers, bogs and marshes surrounded by citadels of bush and rock and the labyrinthine weave of country. We had no need of maps to understand it. We were people of the manitous. The beings that shared our time and place were lynx, wolf, wolverine, bear, crane, eagle, sturgeon, deer, moose. The horse was a spirit dog meant to run in open places. There was no word for it in the old talk until my great-grandfather brought one back from Manitoba.

When the sun was warm and the song of the wind could be heard in the rustle of the trees, our people said that the Maymaygwayseeuk, the water spirits, had come out to dance. That’s the kind of day it was. Sparkling. The eyes of the spirits winking off the water.

My great-grandfather had wandered off into the bite of the north wind one day near the end of winter, headed west to the land of our cousins, the Ojibway of the plains. His name was Shabogeesick. Slanting Sky. He was a shaman and a trapper, and because he spent so much time out on the land, it told him things, spoke to him of mysteries and teachings. They say he had the sending thought, the great gift of the original teachers. It was a powerful medicine, allowing vital teachings to be shared among people separated by tremendous distance. Shabogeesick was one of the last to claim its energy before history trampled it under foot. The land called to him one day and he walked off without a word to anyone. No one worried. It was something he did all the time.

But that late spring afternoon when he walked back out of the bush from the east, he was leading a strange black animal by a rope halter. Our people had never seen such a creature, and they were afraid. It was massive. Huge as a moose, but without antlers, and the sound of its hoofs on the ground was that of drums. It was like a great wind through a fissure in rock. People shrank from the sight of it.

“What manner of being is this?” they asked. “Do you eat it?”

“How does it come to walk beside a man? Is it a dog? Is it a grandfather who lost his way?”

The people had many questions. None would approach the animal and when it lowered its head and began to graze on the grass, they gasped.

“It is like a deer.”

“Is it as gentle as Waywashkeezhee?”

“It is called a horse,” Shabogeesick told them. “In the land of our cousins it is used to travel long distances, to bear loads too heavy for men, to warn of Zhaunagush before he can be seen.”

“Horse,” the people said in unison. The big animal lifted its head and whinnied, and they were afraid.

“Does it mock us?” they asked.

“It announces itself,” Shabogeesick said. “It comes bearing great teachings.”

He’d brought the animal back on the train and walked it thirty miles from the station to our camp on the Winnipeg River. It was a Percheron. A draught horse. A working beast, and Shabogeesick showed the people how to halter it, to rig it with straps sewn from cedar roots and trading post rope so it could haul the carcasses of moose and bear many miles out of the bush. Children learned to ride on its broad back. The horse pulled elders on toboggans across the deep snows of winter and allowed men to cut trees and haul the logs to the river where they would float them to the mill for money. Horse was indeed a gift and the people called him Kitchi-Animoosh. Great Dog.

Then one day Shabogeesick called everyone together in a circle on the teaching rocks where the Old Ones drew stories on the stone. The people were only ever called to those sacred stones when something vital needed to be shared. No one knows where that place is today. Of all the things that would die in the change to come, the way to that sacred place was perhaps the most grievous loss. Shabogeesick had brought Kitchi-Animoosh, and Horse nibbled at the succulent leaves of the aspen while my great-grandfather spoke.

“When the horse first called to me, I did not understand the message,” Shabogeesick told them. “I had not heard that voice before. But our cousins on the plains spoke to me of the goodness of this Being, and I fasted and prayed in the sacred sweat lodge for many days to learn to speak with it.

“When I emerged from the sweat lodge this Horse was there. I walked with it upon the plains and the Horse offered me its teachings.

“A great change will come. It will come with the speed of lightning and it will scorch all our lives. This is what Horse said to me under that great bowl of sky. ‘The People will see many things they have never seen before, and I am but one of them.’ This is what he said to me.

“When the Zhaunagush came they brought the Horse with them. The People saw the Horse as special. They sought to learn its medicine. It became a sign of honour to ride these spirit beings, to race the wind with them. But the Zhaunagush could only see this act as thievery, as the behaviour of lesser people, so they called us horse thieves.

“The change that comes our way will come in many forms. In sights that are mysterious to our eyes, in sounds that are grating on our ears, in ways of thinking that will crash like thunder in our hearts and minds. But we must learn to ride each one of these horses of change. It is what the future asks of us and our survival depends on it. That is the spirit teaching of the Horse.”

The People did not know what to make of this talk. Shabogeesick’s words scared them. But they trusted him and they had come to love Kitchi-Animoosh. So they took good care of him, fed him choice grains and hay that they traded for at the rail line. The children rode him to keep him fit. When the treaty men found us in our isolated camp and made us sign our names to the register, they were surprised to see the horse. When they asked how he had come to be there, the People pointed at Shabogeesick, and it was the Zhaunagush who called him Indian Horse. It has been our family name ever since.