“The old warrior waited patiently for us. Although his magnificent regalia was heavy and it was hot in the practice barn, he showed no signs of irritation. He stood erect, with great dignity, stamping his feet a bit when he saw us approach.The horse was ready for the duty of ceremony, ready to bear whatever spirits needed unburdening…Red Clouds is one of several rescue horses who serve as equine therapists at the Sinte Gleska University’s (SGU) ranch on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Red Clouds is a member of Sunka Wakan Oyate, the horse nation. For Lakota people, Red Clouds is more than a horse, he is a relative, therefore his role as healer and therapist [in the] mental health program is especially potent.” M. Pember, ICTMN
“Greg Grey Cloud walked up to greet the horse. The big man’s voice was unexpectedly gentle as he spoke to the animal. Outwardly, Grey Cloud could be described as gruff. In his sweat-stained t-shirt and well-worn cowboy boots, he was the very picture of a hard-working, no-nonsense ranch foreman. But standing close to the old warrior, Grey Cloud seemed to change. His bearing softened, and he seemed to grow vulnerable as he stroked the horse’s neck and prepared to share his secrets.
The horse stood quietly as Grey Cloud spoke, hardly moving until the man finished his story.
Reclaiming the relationship with the Sunka Wakan Oyate goes far beyond the benefits of therapy. For the Oceti Sakowin peoples, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, the horse nation is an important bearer of culture and spirituality and represent a means to return to the traditional health and wholeness of their ancestors.
Grey Cloud spoke so I could hear, but it seemed as if it were only he and Red Clouds in that dusty barn. Grey Cloud began his story, an awful memory from his childhood that has haunted and traumatized him for years. It was New Year’s Eve, Grey Cloud recalled. He was 9 years old. His sisters were 7 and 11. Swept up in drunken revelry, his father forgot about the children as he left their home in search of another party. Six teen boys remained behind with the children.
The teens began to drink. As they got drunker and drunker, their talk turned mean and lascivious. They decided it would be a good idea to rape the young girls. When they began ripping off the girls clothing, Grey Cloud stepped forward, shouting, kicking and hitting at the teens. The teenagers turned their attention to him. Taking turns, they raped him, laughing and calling him names he didn’t understand. At the time, he recalls feeling grateful that at least his sisters were spared. When they finished, they urinated on him.
Beaten and bloodied, he laid on the floor as the teens once again turned to his sisters. Somehow, he got to his feet and tried to fight them again but he wasn’t able to stop the teens, who raped his sisters.
The sisters cried for a long time. Grey Cloud tried to comfort them but was hurt and confused by their sudden fear of him, their brother. Speaking of it now, he realizes they now saw him as a man, the enemy.
Fearful of retribution from the teens and later of how the community might judge him, Grey Cloud kept this horrendous story secret for over 20 years. It was the horses, the Wakan Oyate, however, who healed him as he worked as an equine therapist and foreman with the Tiwahi Glu Kini Pi Program at the SGU ranch. Part of the SGU tribal college, Tiwahi Glu Kini Pi offers clients a wide range of western and Lakota culturally based mental health counseling and services including providing access to Wakan Iyeska (Medicine men), instruction in Lakota men’s and women’s teachings and equine therapy.
‘It was these horses who taught me that it was okay to be afraid, but that it wasn’t okay to remain silent and protect the men who hurt me,’ he says.
‘These horses helped me see that it was important for me to share my experiences so that we can help each other in the community to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen to other children.’
Supporters of equine assisted therapy believe that those who don’t respond well to traditional talk therapy can benefit from interacting with horses. According to an article in The Guardian, since horses are pack animals they are very sensitive to stress and body language. Horses pick up on the way people are feeling, mirroring their emotions and responding, providing feedback for people struggling with troubling emotions, such as fear and anger.
Although many health professionals laud the benefits of this therapy, it does not have the scientific stamp of approval as an evidence-based practice (EBT). Most large granting institutions, such as government and university organizations, will only fund organizations that use EBTs as their primary therapies.
The Oceti Sakowin peoples, however, need no assurance from the scientific world as to the powers of the Suka Wakan Oyate, not only to heal but to also imbue the rider through talking and working with the animal, with the courage and strength to take on risky, even dangerous tasks.
They also know the horse nation is a source of spiritual power. Long ago, according to Grey Cloud, when warriors faced a powerful challenge or adversary, they dressed their horses in fabulous regalia under which medicine people first painted special symbols on the horse’s’ body.
It is only by breaking the silence about violence and sexual assault that the community can heal itself. Greg was the first Native man I ever heard talk in such depth about what happened to him. He let us know that we can no longer be silent.”