Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story “A Man Called Horse” is about a wealthy, upper-class Bostonian who is captured by a band of Crow Indians. Over time, he learns to appreciate and adapt to their culture, earning the name “Horse.” His original name is never given. Published in 1950, Johnson included a reprint of the story in her 1968 collection Indian Country
. It was the basis for a 1958 episode of Wagon Train
and a 1970 movie starring Richard Harris.
The story begins by introducing the protagonist, who has moved west from Boston in search of opportunity and status. He is captured by a band of raiding Crow while bathing in a stream. Slaughtering all of his companions, they initially let him go, so they can chase him for sport. They finally capture him in earnest, placing a leather thong around his neck and leading him alongside their party like a horse.
Once he has been brought back to the Crow camp, the man is treated like an animal. He is forced to wrestle his food from the camp dogs. He begins to daydream about how he will tell the story once he returns to “his people” in Boston, but realizes he will not escape anytime soon – he has been presented as a gift to the mother of the man who caught him. The man begins to compare himself, increasingly, to the horses in the camp, lamenting that unlike the horses, he could not survive on his own if he escaped his captors.
After four months of limited interaction with the tribe, the captive suddenly finds that he has passively acquired some of their language. He learns that the man who captured him is named Yellow Robe and his mother is Greasy Hand. One of her two daughters is Pretty Calf, but the younger one has a name not in his vocabulary. He names himself Horse; the community accepts it but continues to treat him as though he is invisible. Horse tries to incorporate himself into the community; for example, by trying to learn to shoot with a bow and arrow – which occasions a lot of amusement for the Crow.
However, not everything is fun and games. One day, Horse witnesses Greasy Hand kill a dog out of simple spite. Horse, who is called upon to get rid of the corpse, understands that his position in the camp is no more secure than the dog's. He decides to woo Pretty Calf, knowing that to be accepted as her husband, he must offer her a horse. He bides his time, and one day, while out shooting small game with two village boys, notices a sick man from another tribe huddled on the ground. Horse shoots him before he companions, and touches his bow to the corpse, thereby counting coup. He gathers the man's horses, and the three return to town as heroes.
Horse offers a captured horse to Pretty Calf and becomes her husband. This dramatically changes his position within the tribe: he is now treated with dignity and is no longer berated by Greasy Hand. In fact, since he has now risen in status, she does not address him at all, as is custom, and he learns that he is to ignore her.
He learns many other things as well from his new wife, becoming familiar with tribal customs. In particular, she teaches him about marriage customs, which allow men under some circumstances to “steal” other men's wives. Her sister was taken from her husband that way. She asks Horse if he will ever leave her, and he, although he doesn't believe it himself, says no. He continues to dream about the stories he will tell of his time with the Crow, once he returns to Boston. However, he is no longer in a hurry to leave.
Horse continues to thrive in the tribe. He amasses five horses, and Pretty Calf becomes pregnant. She is proud when other young women make advances towards him.
The Big Dogs, a society that Yellow Robe belongs to, elect him the wearer of the bear belt. This means Yellow Robe cannot run away from battle. Pretty Calf and her mother are sure this means he will die. Pretty Calf thinks Yellow Robe wants to die because he still grieves the loss of his wife.
For a while, Yellow Robe soars. He is in many successful raids. Finally, he is killed, and the tribe mourns. Their mourning is extreme and violent: Greasy Hand cuts off another finger joint, as she has done after the loss of each of her sons. Pretty Calf gashes her arms with a knife in mourning. They sacrifice or give away all of their wealth. Horse, repulsed by the violence and waste, vows to finally run away from the tribe.
However, before he can do so, Pretty Calf gives birth. The child is stillborn, and Pretty Calf dies. Horse recalls that his late wife had explained that when a wife dies, her husband no longer owes anything to her family and can leave, but his mother-in-law can ask him to remain a part of her family. Greasy Hand, utterly devastated and with nothing left to offer but her pride, asks Horse to remain her family.
Although he is under no obligation to remain and wants to return to his home in Boston 2,000 miles away, he remains with Greasy Hand for three more years, until she too dies. When he finally returns to Boston society, he refuses to tell any of the elaborate stories he had dreamed of telling during his time with the Crow. He explains only, “It was sometime before I could leave. They called me Horse.”A Man Called Horse
is notable for portraying the interaction between American settlers and native peoples without sentimentalizing either side. All of the main characters in the story are three-dimensional and change dramatically over its course. The protagonist's transformation, after coming face to face with first his own, and then his Crow family's vulnerability to loss and grief, is particularly poignant, and rings with the power of a parable. Johnson's story is also an excellent candidate for studying the way source stories are changed by their adaptation into other media since it has been the basis for both TV episodes and films.