Native Americans conquered the plains with the help of horses

Before the first Europeans came to America, the horse was completely unknown on this gigantic continent. The Plains Indians called the animal "the big dog", and although the horse proved…

Before the first Europeans came to America, the horse was completely unknown on this gigantic continent. The Plains Indians called the animal “the big dog”, and although the horse proved to be the greatest blessing to the Indians, the former owners of these large animals turned into a curse for the Indians.

A young Indian of the Sioux tribe approaches the magician. His body is naked and his face expressionless.

A low voice is heard speaking in time with the sound of the drum beat.

The entire tribe has gathered in one tent to participate in the annual summer sun dance, one of the most sacred ceremonies of the Plains Indians. The magician quickly cuts two incisions on the young man’s chest.

He opens up the incisions and pulls out muscle with forceps. The open wound reveals two blood-soaked bows, and a rope is tied to both bows.

With his chest strapped to the top of the top pole of the tent, the young man begins to throw himself back and forth with violent jerks.

In many tribes, the agony of the sun god was a sign of a brave warrior’s sacrifice to the gods.

The bonds are pulled out of the man and he does not show any gap. It’s not until the flesh and muscles come off him and the ropes slacken down the column with part of the muscle hanging that the man falls to the ground, without saying another word.

Now “he will be praised as a brave warrior”, wrote an American officer who witnessed the bloody dance of the Sioux Indians on the plains of North America.

The tent dance was not the only self-inflicted torture during the Sun Dance.

Men were dragged behind horses, ugly pointer heads were hung like weights made of bare muscles on their backs.

The men were often in agony, and often many hours passed before their skin and muscles gave way. Those who endured this torturous dance and at the same time kept their cool were considered to be the desired rulers of the future.

Composure and courage were important – the men of the plains were valued as warriors.

An eagle feather in his hair indicated that the warrior had accomplished a feat.

The torture hell that followed the sun dance was more than just a human initiation.

The dance was intended to create balance with all living beings, and with the dance the participants were to thank the spirits and ask for protection or help for sick family members. They acquired visions and dreams that the older members of the tribe read and learned from.

Nor was the word of the sun only applied to the painful actions of men.

It was also the name of the gatherings when tens of thousands of prairie dwellers gathered every spring, each with their own tribe, to perform the rituals they all held in honor.

The Plains Indians prayed, danced and fasted until they made contact with the spirits.

The leaders of the groups let long, sacred peace pipes pass between them, and all those who inhaled the smoke bonded as brothers.

At these gatherings, young people could also poke noses together and buy horses, but horses were the greatest treasures of the Indians.

Pipes were sacred to the Indians. According to the French missionary Jacques Marquette (1637-1675), the mere sight of a peace pipe in the midst of battle could end hostilities.

No living creature was as important to the Indians as the horse, which completely changed the way of life of the Indians of the Sioux and Crees tribes, as well as people belonging to many other Indian tribes.

The Spanish had horses with them

It was horses that brought about changes in the warfare of the Plains Indians, as well as their nomadic culture.

When the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés set foot on land in Mexico in 1519, he had ten stallions and six mares with him. Before this happened, there was not a single horse in America.

More Spaniards joined the group and with them tens of thousands of workhorses. Some of them escaped from captivity, and after a few decades, entire herds of wild prairie horses roamed the prairies, the so-called wild horses.

Between 1539 and 1542, Hernando de Soto explored the area between Florida and the Mississippi River. In his expedition there were 237 horses. Many of them escaped.

The first Indians who learned to ride horses were the so-called Pueblo Indians who worked for the Spanish in what is now New Mexico. When the Indians rebelled against the settlers in 1680, part of their booty included thousands of horses.

Many of the animals then came into the possession of the tribes that later became known as the Plains Indians. The Indians, however, rarely rode the wild prairie horses. It turned out to be particularly difficult to capture and tame them.

Before the horse arrived in America, very few tribes lived on the plains. They traveled only on foot and lived on the outskirts of the vast grasslands as sedentary hunters or as farmers.

The Indians crossed the frozen lake by using dogs for sleds.

The dogs pulled most of the weight

Before the Indians attacked horses, they used dogs as draft animals. This also explains why they never traveled long distances on the grassy plain, but most lived on its outskirts.

The dogs arrived in America with the ancestors of the Indians who came from Siberia alone 15 to 30 thousand years earlier.

These strong draft animals were descended from wolves that had been domesticated before the migrations across the Bering Strait began across the land bridge formed by the expansion of glaciers and lower sea levels.

In addition to the dogs being used as draft animals, they also assisted their owners in sniffing out prey while hunting, watching over the camp and providing shelter on cold winter nights.

Experts consider the large malamute dogs of Alaska to be the breed most reminiscent of the original draft dogs of the Indians.

When it came time to move to the village, dogs that looked like wolves were used for the transport, but each such dog could carry about 30 kilos, and as a result, the families could not move much belongings.

The ability of horses to carry horses completely changed the ability of the Indians to travel through the grasslands. One of the first tribes to use horses for deer hunting on the plains was the Comanche tribe.

In the eyes of other tribes who did not have access to horses, this was a strange sight.

An Indian who saw a horse for the first time shortly after 1730 described it as follows:

“He (the horse, ed.) reminded me of a deer that had lost its horns, and we didn’t know what such an animal was called. But since he was clearly a slave to man, like the dog, we called him a big dog “.

In the 18th century it became common to see “The Big Dogs” grazing on the outskirts of Indian camps.

Many tribes held horses in awe. Warriors sang praises to the best hunting horses and carved wooden effigies of them when they died in battle. The horses were so important that the women were made to sleep outside the tents if the enemy tribe stayed near the camp, and the warrior then tethered his horse inside the tent.

150,000 Indians conquered the plains

By the turn of the 1800s, a total of 32 tribes had settled on the plains, including the Apache, Blackfoot, Kiowa, and Cheyenne Indians.

However, they by no means all lived as nomads all year round.

Many tribes grew corn and lived in huts during the winter. Some were fishing. However, everyone hunted deer for the meat and skins.

The territory of the Plains Indians extended from what is now Texas in the south, north to Canada. The area was bounded by the Rocky Mountains in the west, all the way to the Mississippi River in the east.

A total of 150,000 people and 60 million animals lived in the area, which was roughly 2.5 million square kilometers in size.

Scientists had to be ambushed

Hunting with bows and arrows was very dangerous. If the hunting failed, there was a risk that the tribe would freeze to hell during the harsh winters on the plains. Ingenuity was therefore the key to the Indians’ success.


Before the Indians discovered horses, deer hunting was very difficult, because the hunters had to get up close and personal with these thousand-kilogram animals in order to bring them down.


If the hunters tried to sneak up on the herd of vultures, only a few of them could manage to shoot their deadly arrows at the animals before the rest of the vultures fled.


Visundur can run at a speed of 60 km per hour. and for the taste it was of course impossible to run the animals upstairs.


Instead, the Indians resorted to trickery. In total, the villagers needed to hunt 50 to 60 animals alone in order to feed all the families of the village during the winter, and for this purpose, the hunters were at the mercy.


The Indians, for example, used to hunt on the thin ice of the river at the beginning of winter. The animals then went through the ice and drowned, and the hunters were then able to fish the animals out of the river a little further down.


Another method of hunting involved creating panic in the herd when the animals were close to a chasm. A moving herd often pushes the animals on the outskirts of the group over the edge, and many hunters fell and died as a result.


The third method was considered to be the most effective, but it was used long after the Indians got over horses: This method consisted in the use of a kind of scientific law.

The Indians were skilled riders and early European fur traders and explorers referred to them as “Horse Indians”.

Later, in the middle of the 19th century, when the war with the American army reached its peak, the American soldiers put an overemphasis on killing the horses of the Indians.

One of the most visible improvements in the lives of the Indians attributed to their ownership of horses affected the size of the top tents in which the Indians lived.

Plains Indians had previously lived in narrow huts or tents that were only 1.5 meters high, but the dwellings now turned into portable top tents that were at least three meters high and far more spacious than before.

Fish caught in a trap

A trap prepared with great effort

In the spring, the Indians built a structure made of posts and branches, over which they laid skins, which resembled a thick wall.

The hunt begins

Several hunters started the hunt by running towards the herd of deer, which was then close to the site. They drove the animals before them with shouts and flapping blankets.

Girðing led the herd into the court

In the last 50 to 100 meters from the opening of the model, a braided fence was found through which the fish were forced.

Chaos gave the hunters a chance

The first scientists who entered the court did not get out again because new scientists blocked their movement at the exit. Hunters armed with bows and arrows had hidden behind the fence and were able to shoot at close range all the animals the family needed during the winter.

The oldest family members who were no longer able to walk, gained a better life in the same way.

Previously, they had been left behind when the villagers moved, but now they could travel on horse-drawn sleds, along with the smallest children.

The most favorable change, however, was probably all the food and all the scientific skins that the Indians now had access to.

Hunting the big deer had proved to be extremely difficult and dangerous for them while they were on foot. Now the best archers could bring down the giants from horseback with bows and arrows.

This newfound wealth laid the foundation for the warrior culture for which the Plains Indians became known and feared by others, for the plains were seldom at peace.

The men of the tribes were always on the lookout for glory, horses, territories or revenge, and they attacked their hostile tribes without blinking.

The success of each campaign was mainly measured in the number of horses that were captured, but bravery and insolence were also honored.

A man who was not afraid to strike down armed opponents with his bare fists or a special small cloak earned the right to adorn himself with an eagle feather in his hair. The same booty was brought to warriors who stole horses from enemy camps.

A Crow soldier with his three meter long staff.

The warriors were proud of their feathers, and particularly brave men could gather many together in a kind of feather crown.

The scalps that the Indians cut from their opponents served as badges of honor and were attached to their clothes or they were mounted on a small wooden frame placed on a tripod in front of the owner’s top tent.

The horses were similarly decorated with feathers, scalps and pearl-covered laces.

The warriors fought with short, strong bows that could easily be fired from horseback. The only disadvantage was that the projectile had to be very short if the dart was to be lethal.

At the end of the arrow was a feather and under the feather was carved the mark of the owner so that there was never any doubt as to who owned the arrow and the prey it hit.

The Indians obtained guns, iron ax blades, and other European weapons by selling skins to French fur traders, even though the Europeans were not very keen on selling their firearms.

The Indians were then quick to adopt blacksmithing.

Children with bows and arrows were a favorite subject of white photographers.

Training the next generation of warriors began early.

Two-year-old colts were tied to calm horses, and only three years later they had become capable riders.

Thirteen-year-old boys were allowed to accompany their fathers or uncles on their first raid, and by the time boys reached the age of 16, they had become full-fledged warriors.

Men were allowed to wear women’s clothes

If boys did not seem suitable as warriors or hunters, they were considered to belong to the third gender and to be a person who contained both a female and a male soul.

Those members of a tribe who belonged to this third gender acquired a special position in the small communities. Both men and women could belong to the third gender. They could wear clothes intended for the opposite sex and could marry whomever they wanted.

In some tribes, these individuals performed special functions, such as nursing the wounded in battle and acting as matchmakers for young people who fell in love.

The Plains Indians also considered these third-sex people to be in closer contact with the spirits than others, and as a result they were often made into witch doctors.

The Indians loved to decorate themselves

Both men and women on the plain wore jewelry. The clothing was made from sheepskin, which people decorated with various ornaments, from eagle feathers to colored porcupine spikes and European glass beads.

Click on an image to see it larger with description

This third gender allowed women and men alike to enjoy the best of both gender roles.

Men who chose to wear women’s clothing could nevertheless drink alcohol and were allowed to sit in sweat lodges with the men of the tribe, and they also had the opportunity to become leaders of the group.

Third-sex beings who had originally been women could adopt the roles of men and, among other things, hunt.

Crying was forbidden on the plains

Ordinary women who did not belong to the third sex, had the job of looking after the home.

They cooked food, mended the clothes and tanned the hides. All parts of these enormous animals were utilized.

The skins were used for tent cloths and later the cloths were cut into bowstrings. The animal’s tongue was used as a hairbrush and its stomach was used as a boiling pot.

Naturally, the men boasted of their performance on the battlefield, while the women proudly displayed their handiwork to others.

Shirts and leather shoes, beautifully decorated with animal images or with hedgehog hairs that formed special patterns, were admired as much as the men’s progress in war.

The winter fur of the sage was a sought after commodity and the women of the tribe made it soft and durable. The work of cleaning the skin was hard work.

The women also took care of packing up the village’s tents when it was time to move around to chase a herd of deer.

At each new camp site, they quickly set up their tents anew, and if they were going to stay in the new place for a while, they also planted corn and beans.

The plains women could decide for themselves who they were going to marry and if they wanted a divorce, they only had to move back home to their parents’ tent.

They brought their work tools, babies and horses with them. Marrying multiple times was not frowned upon and was often seen as an advantage, because this is how many families became stronger.

Polygamy was also common then, because the constant fighting naturally meant that more women lived than men. All women had to give birth to children to ensure the survival of the tribe.

Toddlers had to learn to adapt to society early in life. In the Cheyenne tribe, this signified that children had to be taught not to cry.

G rat could be cautious because he could come up with the location of the camp. For the trick, mothers left their crying infants in desolate places if they failed to comfort them.

When the crying subsided, the woman returned and fetched her child. In this way, children learn that crying is of no use to them.

The children of the Indians were not allowed to cry.

The spirits were hiding everywhere

From the moment newborn babies first opened their eyes to the smoke hole in the top tent, they had to abide by the rules and traditions of the tribe. The Indians believed that spirits lurked everywhere, whether in rocks, thunder, the sun or the north wind.

The great spirit flowed through everything, whether living or dead, but the Sioux people called the spirit wakan tanka .

The spirits were praised with song and prayer every day. Anyone could seek appeasement by offering sacrifices to the spirit, including a deer skin or an eagle feather thrown down a hill, but more often than not it was the magician’s job to establish contact with the spirit.

The witch doctor was the spiritual leader of the group and the Indians believed he possessed supernatural powers and was often believed to be able to see into the future or foresee good weather. The magician could also cure diseases with herbs.

The effects of such treatments were usually very good, because the knowledge of medicinal plants had been learned, person by person, for many generations.

The tribe’s sorcerer was believed to possess supernatural powers

A Plains Indian who possessed spiritual powers and was in touch with the spirits was held in high esteem, and young men often went alone on solitary journeys of many days where they fasted, prayed, and waited for the spirits to appear to them.

In certain tribes, boys did not become men until they had made several such journeys in search of spiritual awakening.

The transcendent appeared to them in the form of a dream or hallucination, where a so-called super animal showed them a sign or object that could be useful.

When the man then returned to the village, he painted the symbol on his shield or on the tent. He could even choose to take a new name that reflected the super beast that had crossed his path.

If, for example, he met a wolf with special fur, he could take the name “Spotted Wolf”.

The legends of the tribes mingled with each other out on the plains where it was inevitable for the inhabitants of different villages to meet when entire villages were in the grip of an epidemic.

A clever ruler took advantage of the US’s weakness

In 1866, a long war began between the Sioux tribe and the white man in Wyoming, which was about driving the settlers away.


Chief Red Cloud was in charge of warriors from the Lakota tribe (Sioux Indians) and their allies, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.


Red Cloud’s soldiers, along with warriors like Crazy Horse and Young-Man Afraid, made fools of the US military for the next two years.


In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the United States Army was depleted, and as a railroad was being built across the Wild West at the same time, the few soldiers available were needed to defend the railroad work.


In the Wyoming Territory, the soldiers hid in their forts as a result, but were attacked if they ventured beyond the fort walls to get firewood or food supplies.


In December, the soldiers suffered a worse defeat against the Indians than ever before, when Chief Fetterman and 80 of his soldiers were massacred in a raid.


This went on for two years, but at the end of that time, the Americans began to close down the forts and forbid white settlers from traveling through Wyoming on their way to California and Oregon.


Red Cloud had won a significant victory, but it only benefited his tribe for eight years. After that time, the Americans broke the peace agreement.

The Indians developed sign language in order to be able to communicate with each other and all tribes could understand the sign language of the others.

This sign language consisted of simple movements that proved easy to read. A hand moving in waves up and down represented a stream or river, while fingers held across the throat indicated the presence of the warlike Dakota tribe.

These symbols proved to be very important when, among other things, neighboring tribes met, because the languages were very different and the same story could be told about the dialects.

The sign language was also used when it was not possible to utter a word, for example when hunting or when attacking an enemy from an ambush.

Settlers represented misfortune

As time went on, the Indians acquired new and many times worse enemies on the vast plains than just each other. Creek Indian chief Speckled Snake addressed his people in 1829.

He was angry.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, had encouraged all the Indians of the southern part of the plains to leave their homes and move east instead, to the state of Mississippi.

“Brothers, I have heard the great father give so many long speeches.”

The president had previously promised the Indians a new land if they would only move a stone’s throw away from the land that had originally belonged to them.

“Brethren, I have heard the great father (the president, ed.) deliver so many long speeches. They all start and end with the same words: “Get away, you kippkorn, you are too close to me”, said the chief.

Speckled Snake was tired of always having to retreat because of the white man, but his words contained more prophecy than he could have ever imagined, for the Indians were to move many times more than they had imagined. .

When Speckled Snake gave his speech, the first group of settlers had just passed by on the prairie with their wagons. The first relations between the Indians and the pink noses were particularly peaceful.

The Indians sold fur and food to the visitors and received horses and weapons in return.

Plains Indians were dangerous to some settlers.

The first group of settlers had barely passed by when the next one appeared. And once again more groups joined.

Over the next 20 years, eight million settlers settled in North America and introduced trains, alcohol and epidemics to the natives.

Many Indians died from smallpox, measles and scarlet fever.

When the Spanish first arrived in Mexico, they also brought disease with them, but the 19th century’s influx of settlers caused disease to spread at an alarming rate. Entire villages succumbed to disease.

The settlers were wary of the Indians from the very beginning and did not understand their culture. The immigrants considered the prairie people to be uncivilized and often compared them to animals.

In order to ensure the safe passage of the settlers across the plains, the authorities had checkpoints erected at regular intervals, and special representatives were intended to facilitate communication between the Indians and the officials of the official Indian Bureau.

No one had to listen to the ruler

The warriors moved away

If a chief became too domineering, he ran the risk of entire families packing up their top tents and leaving the part of the tribe he was in charge of.

Women’s words carried weight

In some tribes, it was the older women who chose the chiefs and had the final say when important decisions were made.

Democrats at their fingertips

When many village units of a particular tribe met, a council was elected consisting of chiefs and senior members who enjoyed the respect of the whole. Together they made important decisions.

No one wanted to sign

The white men had a hard time understanding why the chiefs would not sign treaties. However, no ruler could accept an agreement without first bringing it to his people.

The settler groups on the plains disturbed the peace of the sages. The animals could no longer follow the traditional routes and had to find their way in a new way.

Antelopes and shepherds were shot or driven away with the result that the Indians were forced to follow the animals to new habitats.

But no matter where they went, soldiers and untrustworthy settlers were almost immediately there.

In addition to this, hunters from the group of settlers began to hunt sardines and hunted hundreds of thousands of animals.

They used only the skins but left the meat on the bodies of the animals where they had been slaughtered. Rotting animal carcasses lay like raw wood all over the plains.

“Their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States 1801-1809

The government firmly stated in writing from the very beginning that the Indians had the right to land and independence.

In 1787, President Thomas Jefferson had drafted a special Indian policy which read as follows:

“Their land and possessions can never be taken from them without their consent.” Their property can never be taken away, nor their rights and freedoms curtailed, except in just and legitimate wars”.

However, the reality was quite different.

The United States was expanding rapidly and the government was forced to act. The tribes on the plains were soon to learn that what the “Big Father” said was one thing and what he did was another.

In 1830, Congress passed a new law for the forced removal of Indians. In 1871, Congress declared that the United States could no longer recognize the tribes as independent national groups.

Sioux warriors in battle against their archenemies the Blackfoot Indians.

Land wrested from the Indians

Many settlers settled on the plains and started farming there, as they believed they had just as much right to it as the Indians.

In the years between 1860 and 1890, the government even offered them free land, even though it actually belonged to the Indians.

Various treaties had been signed in which the government recognized that each tribe owned part of the land. The Indians, on the other hand, did not understand that it was possible to own, buy and sell land.

Many tribes ended up selling their land to the government without realizing what they were signing. Some thought they were giving the settlers permission to fish and graze their livestock on Indian territory.

Once the lands were bought, the Indians were then forcibly moved to other places or protected areas.

The Indians were driven farther and farther westward into the most barren part of the plains, where they began to attack each other, as well as the settlers, in a desperate search for sustenance.

Not only did the American cavalry have more modern weapons than the Indians, the soldiers had supplies sent to them. Native American warriors found it difficult to support their families during a prolonged war.

Attack despite the white flag

Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle was still hoping for peace when he was awakened by screams outside his tent on the morning of November 29, 1864.

Half-clothed men ran in all directions looking for their weapons, while women and children wept loudly. A total of 700 soldiers loaded their guns and ordered to fire on the villagers again.

Despite the chaos and commotion, the chief did everything he could to calm his people.

“The soldiers mean us no harm!” he shouted, hoisting an American flag on his top tent and another white flag.

Everything did not happen. The cavalry returned fire from their rifles on both sides of the camp. A total of 150 Indians were shot. Men, women and children lay in a pool of blood, either wounded or dead.

The soldiers continued the shooting all that day, and when darkness fell, the soldiers scalped the corpses and disfigured them as well.

The chief could not make up his mind what the cause of the attack was. He himself had gone to a meeting of the Governor of Colorado in the hope of negotiating a peace, and had subsequently moved the camp as he had been ordered to do.

Both Indians and whites scalped their enemies.

Black Kettle was one of the few survivors of the massacre and as a result was able to recount the events.

The anger at the slaughter of the Indians at Sand Creek spread to other tribes, which led to further attacks on the white man.

Bloody fighting took place across the plain. America was divided into those who favored peace and those who wanted to fight. This was true for both the Americans and the Indians.

The intention was to Christianize the Indians

In the state of Colorado, the settlers made the decision to pay $25 for an Indian scalp, with ears, while the rulers in Washington did everything in their power to calm the waves, because the country could not afford more wars.

The government had the greatest desire to make the Indians good and valid Christian farmers. The warriors, on the other hand, did not want to become farmers and wanted to live in freedom on the plains. Hunger, disease and despair beset them.

Half of them had succumbed to the cowpox that had raged for two years, and they were about to starve to death due to the ever-decreasing number of deer on the ever-shrinking plains.

The vast majority of the Indians had agreed to live in the protected areas that the government had organized for these former unruly warriors.

Native Americans danced a round dance to the pounding beat of drums in 1890.

In desperation, the Indians sought the favors of the gods, hoping for help and better prospects. The so-called Ghost Dance movement was particularly popular.

The movement’s message was that the spirit dance would bring fallen warriors to the rescue of their brothers. Together they would destroy the white man and bring the plains and the rivers back to the Indians.

The Indians danced a round dance night after night that would make the earth shake and the white man disappear.

This religious dance, however, did not accomplish its intended purpose, but marked the end of the era of the Plains Indians.

Soldiers committed mass murder

To this day, it is somewhat unclear what triggered the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The fact is, however, that on December 29, 1890, American soldiers killed up to 300, mostly unarmed, Iakota Indians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, who were followers of the Ghost Dance movement.

The frozen body of Sioux chief Spotted Elk was found after the massacre at Wounded Knee.

These Indians had broken out of the reservation, after the police had killed Chief Sitting Bull who was in custody.

Now the group planned to take up the camp and surrender to the soldiers from the 7th Cavalry Division, who pursued them.

Even though the Indians were willing to cooperate, Colonel James Forsyth demanded that all their weapons be collected. Everything was confiscated, knives, axes, firearms and even the women’s needles made from porcupine spikes.

The tension grew as the soldiers argued from tent to tent, splitting men and women. One of the warriors is said to have raised his weapon and that triggered the fight.

The soldiers fired at the disarmed Indians. Women and children tried to escape one by one, but everyone – horses, dogs and people – fell prey to the soldiers’ bullet fire.

Those who did not die on the spot subsequently died of their wounds or from the fire.

Life on the reservations was controlled by white soldiers and there was a huge change in the way of life of the Plains Indians.

This massacre marked the last bloodbath between the Native Americans and the new settlers.

The Plains Indians and their way of life as free men were a thing of the past.

Read more about Native American self-reliance

Bob Drury: The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend , Simon & Schuster, 2014

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