Horse power helps First Nation members heal, deliver message of unity
'When we get cut, we all bleed the same colour,' community member says
The horse is generally known as an animal for its speed, stamina and hard-working demeanour. But for people on a western Manitoba First Nation, the horse also represents a close bond that helps heal wounds and division.
"Through the power of the horses, they help these people," said Doug Hanska, a councilor in Birdtail Sioux First Nation. "Something within the horses ... helps them release their problems."
Birdtail Sioux's close relationship with the horse started back in the 1990s with the first Unity Ride, an event meant to bring people of all backgrounds together to remember and heal. Since then, the ride has grown and expanded to other communities.
People in the First Nation say the horses have helped some residents recover from drug and alcohol addictions.
Seven of the community's members rode through Brandon with a police escort on Wednesday after a brief ceremony at Brandon University to kick off National Aboriginal Day festivities.
"Many of the riders that have come here today have come based on remembering our people," said Harold Blacksmith, who has been working with the ride and in the community.
"It brought awareness to each and every one of us," he said. "Many of them have recovered and some of them are still recovering."
'The horses have healing'
Peter Kasto Jr. has been riding and teaching new riders since 1995.
"The horses have healing. When [young people] see us riding, they in turn want to emulate, be like us," he said. "It just gives them that hope."
Kasto said youth that can't ride have started walking alongside, feeling the horse's spirit.
"People come up to you and start hugging your horse and start crying," he added. "And you being the rider, you feel [the healing] and you see it happening."
Hanska said an equine training program started last year in conjunction with the school on the First Nation. Youth get to spend time with the horses, learning to care for them and about their cultural significance.
He believes it's made a big impact as it has expanded to allow more youth to take part, steering them down a path of respect and cultural awareness.
Blacksmith hopes the riders carry the message of healing and unity far beyond the borders of Birdtail Sioux. He believes everyone coming together as one will help those still dealing with the effects of residential schools and other traumas.
"We just want to create an awareness," he said. "Life will go on, but it makes it much simpler and easier alcohol and drug free."
"We must remember, we're talking about red people, we're talking about white people, we're talking about yellow people, we're talking about black people. But when we get cut, we all bleed the same colour," Blacksmith said.