Long ago the natives here were all wild and free, going anywhere they wanted and did so with Spanish horses that became a part if each tribe’s life. Those days of wandering came to an end as each tribe and peoples were slowly put on reservations one by one until those days of freedom were gone. The spirit of defiance lives on and desire to roam free is often spoken about in the legends and stories of our peoples. In some ways the eagles flight and the wildness of the wolf are a part of our culture as much as the bear and mountain lion as well as any wild animal that goes about our lands and their right to exist wild and free is much a part of the story of native America.
It was a few years ago now, it was Spring. The Bureau of Land Management had set up a wild horse roundup in Eastern Utah. I was doing some work on the boundaries of Indian lands in the heart of an old reservation that was part of a tribe’s jurisdictional land and in federal court between the tribe, state and in dispute over land, water and it’s resources.
I was doing some work in the field with the cadastral survey crew of the BLM looking at reservation boundary lines and title search work which was chasing paper here and there. It was during this time in the field that I found myself one morning riding out with the wranglers who would be catching and rounding up the wild horses and mustangs for their adoption program. There has been much made of these horses, some believe that these wild horses needed to be removed from the land because of overgrazing and inbreeding. Others believe that they should stay where they are and run free. I am not sure about the debate but I guess someone should ask the horses I heard one person say.
I found myself riding out with Chuck, he was pleasant sort of guy and we headed to a place known as Moon Water Point, way out in the middle of nowhere with undulating hills that dropped into the valleys and canyons surrounding the Green River some fifty miles north of Green River, Utah on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The wranglers were private contractors, and some were employees with the BLM, the rest were from the Ute Tribe Fish & Game Department, they were easy to tell because they were Indians. Everyone was anticipating the round up. I had heard that a helicopter was out early that morning gathering the horses.
We had been on the road for about 21/2 hours over a long windy dirt road when we got to Moon Water Point. The trucks and trailers used by the wranglers were off the hill out of sighe and we parked there in the brush and walked up the hill to the top of the bench. On top there was a brush line setup in a V to funnel the horses into a make shift corral that had three sides dropping of the bench like a cliff dropping off steeply and the brush hid a portable fence set up to hold the horses.
The guys there had been there for a few days gathering the horses and were set to catch them there. I spoke with the Ute cowboys there and they were a hardy stock, rough and ready. I have heard they pride themselves as horseman, those Utes, I did not hear anyone say it, but they seemed to know the animals and this area was their land. In speaking with them some did not agree with the roundup of these horses. These were the last remaining part of them, their people that represented their former life as the People of the Shining Mountains who were born on horses and roamed all over these lands from Denver to Salt Lake. I could sense their feeling but they were there to do a job and so they were waiting for the horses to get there.
Everyone mounted up and headed out moving off the bench to the North and in the distance you could hear the herd of wild horses coming this way. You could see them off in the distance, kicking up the dust and running through the sagebrush, they were running in groups of 2 and 3 with others of 4 and 5 running alongside. You see they travel and live in small groups to be able to forage the high and low areas for food.
There were groups of 4 and 5-year-old stallions eager to make a place with the herd but they cannot live together and so they break off in small groups, each having his own band. The helicopter was chasing them from behind and they were all running together. They were assorted colors, magnificent, their legs flying and moving with a grace of years of running rough sagebrush and these lands. This was their place and we were the interlopers. Their nostrils were flaring, their manes and tails blowing in the wind. There must have been 35 to 40 of them coming.
They came and ran up by us onto the bench at full speed, galloping past with a beauty and grace that took me back a hundred years and then we were in the chase, behind them. The horses we were on got caught up as kindred spirits, losing their domestication to go with the herd their roots, to be wild and free.' The horses went into the V, the funnel. The lead stallion was black, a large horse, beautiful in his long strong strides, he led them in. The group was going full tilt, all of them went in. The guys hiding in the brush gate quickly closed the gate behind them, the horses were corralled. There was a quarter mile of room in there for them to settle down.
The lead horse didn't slow down and we all watched as he continued to run to the edge of the point to where the land dropped off. All of the horses were running behind him at a full gallop. What was he doing, he was going to fall off, straight to his death and take some of the others with him. The enclosure was opened and the wranglers took off after him to rope and cut him from the main group. We were watching and could not believe it when he jumped off, one by one the whole group went over the edge. A sick feeling came over as I saw this, it would be a sad day this day tosee all of them lying at the bottom of the drop. There was a 35 to 40 foot drop to the bottom. I could see horses with broken legs and all sorts of things went through my mind.
When we rode up the edge and looked below the last of the group was bounding over the cliff, leaping to a large rock standing apart a ways from the drop and it was to here they had jumped using the rock as a way to jump halfway down and then bouncing off it as it were to drop to the valley below without breaking stride. There was no pause and they were running not a one injured or hurt, all had made it. I stood there with those Ute wranglers.
The guys from BLM were all cussing those horses and talking about the craziness of them. The Indians to a man stood there apart quietly watching them. All of us looking and without saying a word our hearts were running along with them as they escaped into the canyons below. They were running wild and free.
It is not all of the story there is this...
One of the native cowboys there, a Ute I have known for many years since high school as he came to Toadlena as a Mormon Missionary, it was the last area of his mission and he was young then. I got to know him way back in the sixties. He liked to play basketball and was a jokester but was also a rough and ready sort of guy. He had served a two year mission and was headed back to Fort Duchesne. I remember him because when he was going home he put his clothes in the back of a pickup truck, his black suit up on top and as the truck was headed north toward Shiprock the zippered suit bag flew out the back and was gone.
He just laughed and said, my time is up and so are my days of wearing suits, he was a native cowboy. I have known him for years and visited with him many times. It was him years later who said to me, we are doing a horse roundup you should join us. We spent some time together in the camp just sitting down before a fire and talking about things, some about his mission and also about the changes we had seen but I felt privileged to sit with him and other Indians there around the fire as they sang some of their Indian songs.
I heard that he was in poor health and was put in the nursing home and on my way to a place further North I went to see him. He was still an ornery guy gruff in his ways but that was his exterior. We sat for a little while and we talked about the small things that men often do when they get together and we also remembered this time and spoke about it. We sat there and remembered how the horses went off the cliff and ran away into the canyons and he said to me....you know those horses are still out there, they run for us....