White Horse Society


   The White Horse Owners Society consisted of distinguished warriors who were superior hunters.  Most members chosen for the honor came from the Wablenecha, the Orphan Band.  The White Horse Society started in the late 1860s by Brings Three White Horses and his brother Red Fish of the Northern Brule Sioux, associated with the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa clans.  The coat of a white horse, considered sacred, provided an easy-to-see surface for drawing each warrior's war exploits.

   The group is called "Sunkska Akanl Okolakiciye" in Lakota,  meaning "White Horse Riding Society". They were under direct orders of chiefs and were the strategists in war.  This society also organized tribal hunts when buffalo had been sighted.  For this reason they were sometimes called "Nigh Tanka Okolakiciye", the Big Belly Society; meaning "those who feed the people".   Its members were to be humble, generous and care for orphans of the tribe.  At various times Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull were members of such a society. 

   There were other societies among the Lakota:  Bare Lance Owners, White Marked, Badger, Mandans, Brave Hearts, Omahas, Kit Fox and Crow Owners.  Societies sought to demonstrate they had the bravest warriors.  Failure brought ridicule, so each group sought members who were daring fighters to bring them honor.  Each society had a lance and regalia, distinct from another society, to be carried into battle.  Frequently each society met for fellowship inside their own lodge where a pipe was smoked and business conducted.  Pictographic exploits of its members were painted on their tipi liner or a buffalo robe. 

   This large pipe, beaded bag, lance and parade bridle were paraphernalia of the White Horse Owners.  They were cared for by Charlie Owns-a-Yellow-Shield, a Minniconjou Sioux, born about 1850.  He was both a member of White Horse Owners and Crow Owners.  He came from the Eating Dung band ("Unckce Yuta" in Lakota).  A Lakota woman explained the name's origin:  While warriors were gone, their camp decided to move.  When the hunters returned hungry, they found the village deserted so stirred ashes from a campfire for food scraps and ate what they found.  When they caught up with their camp, they reported eating what the members discarded.  It was explained that what they had eaten were feces a mother had tossed into the firepit, after changing her baby's diaper.


    The White Horse Owners paraded for many occasions.  They dressed in finery and painted war deeds on their horses, such as a red hand for an enemy killed or a hoof print  for each horse captured.  Beads and quillwork embellished their horses.  There were many honoring songs to recognize these older braves, as they rode around camp during celebrations.  Those seeing the White Horse Owners were expected to sing honoring songs and, in turn, riders would give gifts to the singers.  In the Buffalo Days there was something to donate, but by 1920 there was little to offer and many members had died, so the society disbanded.

   The above White Horse Society pipe has a flat ash stem embellished with red, white and blue porcupine quill plaiting.  Yellow and purple horse hair, tied with purple silk on its mouthpiece, were colors to appease the Thunder Being ("Wakinyan" in Lakota) for protection.  Each person smoking the pipe placed this stem and hair into his mouth as a pledge to act truthfully, otherwise it was believed lightning should strike him dead.  The red pipe bowl has a gracefully carved front of a horse wearing a saddle blanket.  Tied to the stem's middle is yellow horse hair, blue-dyed human hair, fringed buckskin and red trade cloth.  Brass tacks at the end of the stem are decorative and represent hail.

   The pipe bag shown above was used to store willow bark tobacco and the pipe bowl.  The front and back of the beaded bag have the same design showing four rectangles as meat racks indicating their members were good hunters who guided the buffalo hunts for food.  The green diamond center refers to feather coups earned by its members.

  The spear shown above was captured from a Crow warrior, then used as the White Horse Riding emblem into battle.  Its earlier history is this was a American Revolution lance that found its way West.  The lance is embellished with strips of ermine, tied with sinew at six places.  Below the head is a beaded pendant with two feathers, red padre beads and yellow and red cloth.    

   A parade headstall for the horse of Owns-a-Yellow-Shield is shown to the left, without a bit.  Its leather pieces are decorated using Venetian bead designs for the Thunder Being; red for Lightning, blue for Thunder.  The brow band has hand-rolled tin cones with red horse hair.  

   A winter count from the grandfather of Owns-a-Yellow-Shield records events each year of the Minniconjou Dung Eaters band.  It starts with the 1800-01 year, showing Dakota killed by Gros Ventres Indians using tally marks.  The Sioux were called "Dakota" at this time.  Winter counts were kept by each band's historian, drawing the most significant event each year, with pictures moving in a spiral.  Images picture things as battles with Crow and Arikara enemies, horses taken in raids and diseases.  These drawings are reddish-brown in color, with several having added red or yellow color.  Drawings of the fifty-three years of Yellow Shield's calendar have similar events as those drawn by Lone Dog, Flame and Swan in their winter counts.

1800  21 Dakota killed by Gros Ventres Indians between Forts Berthold and Union.

1801  Many Sioux got smallpox and died.

1802  Blackfeet Dakotas stole American horses, first time horseshoes were seen.

1803  Dakotas stole many curly hair (wooly) horses from the Assiniboine Indians.

1804  Danced using their calumet pipe before going to war.

1805  Seven Minniconjou killed by Crow at mouth of Powder River.

1806  A Dakota killed an Arikara in his earth trap, as he was grabbing an eagle.

1807 Chief Red Shirt, a Hunkpapa, was killed by Arikara.


1808  Broken Leg, a Dakota, was killed by Arikara.

1809  A trader named Little Beaver was blown up by gun powder.

1810  Chief Black Rock, a Minniconjou, made medicine using a white buffalo cow skin.

1811  Twenty-seven Mandans, were killed by Dakota in a dirt lodge.

1812  Wild horses were first caught by Dakota with lariats.

1813  Dakota had fatal whooping cough, shown with red lines from mouth.

1814  Dakota killed an Arapaho in his lodge with a battle ax to the skull.

1815  Large dirt lodge, showing a bow above, was built by Sans Arc (No Bows) Dakota.

1816  Dakotas had quantities of buffalo, showing rib cage and neck of a buffalo.

1817  La Framboise built a trading post at Ft. Pierre using dry timber (rotten wood).

1818  Trader's store was built by Joseph above Farm Island, near Fort Pierre.

1819  A meteor fell, making a loud noise.  Red Cloud was born this year.

1820  Two Arrows, built a dirt medicine lodge having streamers at the top.

1821  Whooping cough caught by many Dakota.

1822  Dog, an Oglala, stole seventy horses from Crows.

1823  Dakota decide to go on warpath with whites against the Arikara.

1824  Joined Gen. Leavenworth up the Missouri against the Arikara and killed 30.

1825  Swan, a Minniconjou, had twenty horses killed by a jealous Indian

1826  Thirty Sioux lodges of Sioux below Whetstone on the Missouri died in a flood.

1827  Severe winter with deep snow, so 23 Indians died.

1828  In a fight with Mandans, Crier was shot in the head with a gun.

1829  Went in winter to Bear Butte in Black Hills.

1830  They drove many antelope into a corral and then killed them.

1831  Killed many Crow Indians as they attempted a sneak attack in the winter.

1832  A Dakota, looking for buffalo at Buffalo Gap in Black Hills, was shot by a Crow.

1833  Lone Horn's father was gored and died, from a buffalo he attacked with a knife.

1834  Many storms of meteors seen in winter.

1835  They were at war with the Cheyenne near the Black Hills

1836  Many that year had smallpox.

1837  Successful hunt with 100 elk killed at Black Hills.

1838  Spotted Horse carried the pipe around and went on warpath against the Pawnee.

1839  Indians built a lodge on White Wood Creek in the Black Hills and wintered there.

1840  Red Arm, a Cheyenne and Lone Horn, a Dakota made peace to end 5 years of war.

1841  Feather-in-the-Ear stole 30 spotted ponies from the Crow.

1842  No buffalo; Indians made medicine to the Great Spirit and immense droves came.

1843  Unusually heavy snow; had to build corrals for ponies.

1844  Chief Four Horns fought the Crow and was left behind, a year later he came home.

1845  Twenty died of smallpox.

1846  Rashes on bodies and sore throats from measles, and camped under a bluff.

1847  Harvey Bull was made chief.

1848  Many thrown from horses while surrounding buffalo on ice, causing broken legs.

1849  Broken Back, a Minniconjou, was killed by Crow in the Black Hills.

1850 They went hunting buffalo and, while hunting, Crows attacked them.

1851  Trade goods were distributed at Fort Laramie and Sitting Bull was made chief.

1852  Crow chief Flat Head came to tipi of Lakota chief to smoke pipe of peace.

   The last figure depicts a peace made with the Lakota to end the calendar in 1853.  Owns-a-Yellow-Shield was in his mid-twenties when he fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and escaped with other Sioux to Canada.  This winter count was brought back when his band surrendered in 1881 to live on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Larry Belitz, Plains Indian Material Culture Consultant