The Ponies' Story of Survival

First Nations Origins

The Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed was originally located at Nett Lake (Ojibwe: Asabikone-zaaga'iganiing, meaning "At the Lake for Netting"), Lake Vermillion (Ojibwe: Onamanii-zaaga-ignaniing, meaning "At the Lake with Red Ochre") in Northern Minnesota, and Lac La Croix First Nation (Ojibwe: Zhingwaako zaag-igan, meaning "Lake of the Pines") in Northwestern Ontario. The ponies had been living with the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe (Ojibwe: Zagaakwaandagowininiwag, meaning "Men of the Thick Woods") since before the 1800s.

The Bois Forte traditional Elders and Knowledge Keepers recall a time when there were thousands of ponies. The ponies were integral to First Nations spiritual ways of life. According to Donald Chosa Jr., Cultural Coordinator/Knowledge Keeper at Bois Forte Indian Reservation, the breed became endangered when the Missionaries came to the community in the 1940s. The Missionaries apparently saw no use for the ponies and felt that is was inappropriate for the First Nations children to see the ponies breeding. As a result, the majority of the breed was destroyed (Native Report, 2013).

Article: The Role of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony for First Nations Youth Mental Wellness

Research has demonstrated the importance of culture for positive mental health outcomes among First Nations youth. This paper introduces the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony as a potential key player in First Nations youths’ healing journeys. A culturally-responsive framework is offered that highlights the ways in which a mutual helping relationship can be built between First Nations youth and this critically endangered Indigenous horse.

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Larry Aiken, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Historian

"Horses were not introduced, necessarily, by the Spaniards; these are Indigenous horses that originated here. And I know the Spaniards introduced horses to the Plains Indians are so forth, but we had Indigenous ponies that were here, and the Lac La Croix Ponies, that are Indigenous to this land."


On The Brink of Extinction

Despite this loss, a small herd survived and was kept on the Lac La Croix First Nation. Before spring, the ponies were herded over the ice by the community members onto an island called Pony Island. The ponies lived on the island during the summer, foaling and foraging for food. When winter returned, they were herded back to be used to hauling, logging, or other work until spring, and the cycle began again (Lynghaug, 2009; Bois Forte News, 2013). By the 1960s, the ponies were roaming freely and living on wild grasses, buds and twings, and bark off poplar trees much like deer.


In 1977, there were only four mares left on Lac La Croix First Nation. Canada's Department of Health viewed the ponies as unwanted pets and deemed the ponies a "health threat." It was only a matter of time before the ponies would be destroyed. Aware of the ponies imminent demise, five men -- Fred Isham (originally from Lac La Croix First Nation but lived on Bois Fort Indian Reservation), Wally Olson, Walter Saatela, Bob Walker, and Omar Hilde -- decided to rescue the ponies in February of that year.


The men were able to capture and load the four mares on a trailer and travel across the frozen lake to Minnesota. The ponies were all in good health, but none of them were bred. According to the research at that time, the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies were believed to be descendants of the Spanish Mustang and Canadian Horse. But it was not until they settled into their new home in Minnesota that they were bred to a "wild Mustang captured off the plains of North Dakota," named Smokey (SMR 169), since no Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony stallions remained. With the introduction of a male line, the breed survived.


Return of the Indigenous Pony

With individual breeding programs now in place across North America, the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony population is showing a comeback. But in 2013, there were still only 110 known ponies owned by individuals scattered across the nation, with only 27 males and 49 females that could be used for breeding (Bois Forte News, 2013). Today, there is still only an estimated 175-200 ponies left and the breed is currently listed as "critically endangered" by Rare Breeds Canada (2015). With an incomplete breed registry and the lack of a nation-wide conservation strategy, the future of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony is unknown and their risk of extinction a real concern due to the low numbers and small gene pool.

February 17, 2017 was a milestone for the breed when six Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies (five mares, one of which was pregnant, and a stallion) were repatriated and arrived at Lac La Croix First Nation for the first time since February of 1977, 40 years after the last remaining mares were removed from the community. Because the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony has a deep cultural and spiritual significance for their original caretakers and other Indigenous peoples across North America, the ponies' return "marks a reclaiming of what was once the way of their grandparents and great-grandparents" (Native Report, 2013).

Canadian Encyclopedia: The Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony

The Lac La Croix Indigenous pony is thought to be the only existing breed of horse developed by Indigenous people in Canada. It takes its name from Lac La Croix First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, where it was last found in the wild. Known in the Ojibwe language as bebezhigooganzhii (meaning “one big toenail”) or mishdatim (meaning "big dog"), it is a small, semi-feral horse that once lived in the wild and worked as a service animal — but is also considered a spirit animal — for the Ojibwe people of Northwestern Ontario and Northern Minnesota. 

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Native Report, Season 9 Episode 7

On this edition of Native Report (2013), you learn about the rare Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony and its cultural and spiritual significant for the peoples of Bois Forte Band of Ojiibwe in Northern Minnesota.