What is a Spirit Horse?

Image of The Spirit Horse Returns performance with all performers standing on stage, engaged in a powerful and energetic moment.
The Spirit Horse Returns, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra © Matt Duboff
Image of Ken MacDonald and Jodi Contin perform with voice and one drum.
The Spirit Horse Returns, Ken MacDonald and Jodi Contin © Matt Duboff
Image of Naomi Woo conducting the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra during a performance of The Spirit Horse Returns
The Spirit Horse Returns, Naomi Woo © Matt Duboff
Image of Ken MacDonald, Jodi Contin, and Naomi Woo leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra during a performance of The Spirit Horse Returns
The Spirit Horse Returns, Ken MacDonald, Naomi Woo, Jodi Contin and The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra © Matt Duboff

The NAC Orchestra and NAC Indigenous Theatre join forces to present The Spirit Horse Returns in Southam Hall

Do you know about Spirit Horses? They are small Indigenous horses that used to live alongside First Nations throughout the Boreal forests of Canada and the United States.

Ken MacDonald, one of The Spirit Horse Return’s co-creators and a Board member of the Ojibwe Horse Society, explains:

“These small horses were nearly driven to extinction with colonization, but they were preserved by a generous group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working together. That’s been our inspiration as a diverse group of artists to share stories in The Spirit Horse Returns.”

In The Spirit Horse Returns, an Indigenous knowledge keeper takes audiences on a journey through time, exploring the history and cultural significance of the Ojibwe horses as traditional helpers and spirit guides for First Nations and Métis-Chippewa people, and how they were affected by the arrival of settlers and used across North America in well-known historical events like the Gold Rush and Pony Express. The orchestra and a non-Indigenous narrator also join the journey featuring songs, stories and art of Métis and Indigenous cultures.

The projected artwork by Anishinabe artist Rhonda Snow makes Spirit Horse visually engaging for both live and livestream audiences. She has personally cared for Ojibwe Horses, playing an important role in the comeback of the breed from near-extinction. 

“When I was around 11 years old, I heard loggers speaking about ‘tiny Native ponies’ that lived free on Islands and in the Bush. They lived off the Land but to help Mother Earth and alongside Indigenous peoples. I thought and dreamt that someday I would find them. Bringing them back to Northwestern Ontario for the first time since they were taken in 1977 was a dream come true. The stories are important because we need to look back to understand the mistakes of the past. The ponies’ stories help us to do that!”

This fascinating project began with a series of events in schools and communities, sponsored by the National Arts Centre’s Music Alive (now called Arts Alive) program, the Festival of the Sound, and the Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival. The creative team includes survivors, intergenerational survivors, and people who work directly with children and trauma.

A pedagogical guide is available to provide context for young learners at every grade level. There is notable information about orchestral music and Indigenous culture. It includes suggestions about how to deal with difficult emotions tied to learning about these stories.

The show leaves audiences inspired with an uplifting message, as a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on Turtle Island come together to rescue the last of the Ojibwe horses, giving them new life and hope. Young audiences will see the magic that happens when space is made for the Spirit Horses to Return.

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