In 1971 Congress declared that the American Wild Horse, the mustang, was "an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” a "living symbol" of the "history and pioneering spirit of the West."1 This series of paintings explores the fraught relationship between these “living symbols,” the land they inhabit, and our role in “stewarding” their ecosystems.

        I met my first mustang in August. He was kind and gentle. He acknowledged me with a greeting, placing his nostrils to my face. We inhaled and exhaled the same breath. He was gaunt after months of scavenging for food during the dry California summer. On the public lands where most free-roaming mustangs live, 80,000 horses and burros share grass, soil, roughage, and water with a million cattle and the deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and other species of wildlife that call this land home.

        As I was greeted by this wild horse, government-issued helicopters instigated an emergency roundup 900 miles to the east. They flew low over public lands, chasing 684 mustangs into pens, where they would be branded with a government label and kept in a lifelong holding pen. This would leave just over 100 mustangs on the parched range, a small fraction of the 13,666 that lived there before population control efforts.

        The United States government quotes scientific claims that mustangs are not indigenous to North America and have no natural predators. Cattle ranchers argue that increasing mustang populations exacerbate drought and decay of public lands affecting our food systems. And when bleeding-hearted Americans cry “Save the mustang! The cattle are to blame!,” they often draw on an American mythology that sees the mustang’s capture as a threat to their own freedom and the fabric of the country.

        I have heard whispers of another history, forgotten or actively erased, that says horses originated on this continent and never left. They were not pioneers. They lived in harmony with the land and people for 10,000 years.2 Our country’s history reveals a pattern of removing those with knowledge of the land that sustains us; of mislabeling colonization and domination as "stewardship,” papering over this violence with euphemisms like "pioneering" and "freedom." Perhaps that is why we have forgotten this story.

        I only knew one history of the mustang until I met the wild one in August. He had wisdom in his eyes and a long story to tell if I would take the time to sit and listen. So I sat and listened until the seat of my pants grew red-brown from the earth––the thirsty earth that would have much to say to me, too, if I would just sit and listen.

1.  The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, Pub. L. No. 92-195, § 1331, 85 Stat. 649 (1971).
2. Collin, Y.R.H. (2017). The Relationship Between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth [PhD dissertation, University of Alaska, Fairbanks]. https://www.sacredwaysanctuary.org/publications.

*Reference photographs courtesy of Emily Green