Multicultural Guests

Before the Horses
Presentation by Kae Cheatham
Cristina Estrada- Underwood
Summer 2016


"….although ways of doing things might have changed, deep inside people don't really change.”


Thanks to a Hometown Humanities Montana grant, the MSUN Office of Diversity Awareness and Multicultural Programs (ODAMP), received the visit of Kae Cheatham an author, historian, photographer, and speaker.

Cheatham has published more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction in the genres of juvenile biography and poetry. Her articles have appeared in many national publications. She is a founding member of the Nashville Writers Alliance. She also gives independent workshops on writing and history. Cheatham also has been a writer and photographer stringer for a rodeo magazine. In the area of photography, her themes are primarily domestic animals and rural events. Her photos have been in many national and international publications, and she has been part of the Humanities Montana Speaker's Bureau since 2004.

Her young-reader book, Spotted Flower and the Ponokomita (in the second printing of the second edition) is the basis for her Humanities Montana presentation Before the Horse: Northern Rockies Lifestyles.


How was life in Montana before the horse? Those who attended the lecture Before the Horse: Northern Rockies Lifestyles (spring 2016) had the opportunity to find an answer to this question thanks to an illustrative presentation by Cheatham.

 From her, we learned that horses landed in America with the Spaniards at the beginning of the 1500’s, but didn’t make it to the Northern Rockies until the 1730’s and greatly changed the lifestyle of the inhabitants.  However, before the horses made it to this land, dogs were the earliest domesticated animals and came to this land with the first nomadic hunters and gathers, approximately 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.


It is understood that dogs could probably carry 75 pounds on their backs (in backpacks). Larger dogs would pull travois. All the items first Americans owned had to be transported, so the dog population was pretty much equal to the human population—each person needed one dog and there were some who needed more than one dog. For example, the herbalist might have needed several dogs to carry all his/her baskets. Groups of travelers probably were not less than 100 humans and dogs. They both would go as fast as to 6-8 miles a day. Men would lead the walk—for scouting and looking for encroachments; then, they would be followed by women and children. These two groups would be spread out about half a mile because of the dust. Dogs were (and are) intelligent, but they are also willful, and just like humans, not all dogs got along well. Precious belongings couldn’t be trusted to the dogs, like parfleches where women kept their important tools.


DNA proves that people before the horses were well-rounded athletes, and particularly accomplished walkers. Their villages represented a well set up structure. The most important people settled at the center; in their villages, First Americans lay out avenues—babies and children had a good place to play. Lodges were smaller than 10 feet in height, but they spread wider although there is evidence of higher lodges up to 14 to 15 feet. Lodges stayed at a site for up to 3 or 4 weeks.


How did the stone people make their garments? The materials they used were leather, wood, bone, and stone knives. Men and women alike wore leggings—which served as protection because of the landscape. Men would wear long leggings all the way up the knee, and for sure all moccasins would be worn out easily.


With the arrival of the horse, trading developed; horses only represented the beginning of the change. Trading posts appeared and women could make clothing from wool or calico, which wasn't as heavy as leather clothing.


As for cooking after horses, metal implements arrived like tripods and kettles. Before the horse, the meat was often put on the fire and then eaten. In the Dog Days feasts were prepared in hot rock pits in the ground. Stews and teas were prepared by using the stomachs of large animals as containers. For spoons, the people used the bones of large animals. Most of the time First Americans would cook outside the lodge, since lodges were not very big. Dogs also ate meat; their owners had to keep them healthy.


Many trails the First Americans walked are now major highways in Montana. The fact the people were labeled as nomadic didn’t mean they didn’t have a place to go. They visited the same sites periodically with a purpose, and they knew their objectives.


Hunting was a very important practice for the first Americans; from it, they got meat, hide, and bones—every single useful piece; however, it wasn’t a solo activity. A way of hunting was to run animals into corrals, but even after the Dog Days hunters didn’t have access to ice packs or refrigerators, so their solution was to smoke the meat and dry it. One hundred pounds of fresh meat, would weigh no more than 20 pounds once dried, so protein was very much omnipresent in their diet. Along with the bison, the Montana region was rich in game like deer, bear, antelope, and beaver.


Kae Cheat

Cheatham during her presentation at MSUN, spring 2016
(Photo Cristina Estrada-Underwood)


What would a regular day be like in the Dog Days?

If the weather was nice, both women and men might have taken a morning bath; then both would have proceeded in their daily chores: women to cure hides, make clothes, and take care of the kids and men to hunt and make tools. Art was an intrinsic part of life for the First Americans: everything was decorated. First Americans were very knowledgeable chemists; for example, they knew how to make colors last.


Very much like today, playing for children was a way of learning. Games of skill with lances and hoops were common. Boys played with certain types of stones and also decorated their faces. Seashells were found in this region, from the long-ago inland sea. Later shells were often traded to other people, not from the region.


Teen girls and boys would flirt, with boys painting their faces and playing the flute and girls putting on their best dresses just to go get water. In winter, boys and girls alike would go sledding. Everyone had fun with foot racing, dog races, and eventually horse races; games of chance were played often using stones and songs were associated with these games. And of course dancing; for example, the origin of the grass dance, which is predominantly for young people, goes back to beating the grass to make a clear space for the camps to be set up.


One aspect the attendees of this presentation took with them is that although ways of doing things might have changed, deep inside people don’t really change. For example, we still continue talking, loving, relating to one another, and having fun: but now in addition to doing it in person, we do it communicating through the phone or social media. It was the same for the people of the Northern Rockies: what they believed, their languages, songs, dance, and family concerns had existed for many thousand years; these did not change when the horse came along.


The Cheatham presentation was very informative. The use of her visual aids really sparked the imagination of all of us who wished it would be possible to have a glimpse of what life would have been like in the old days—not to mention that it also prompted us to reflect how modern conveniences have influenced our lifestyle.