Wolves In Native American Culture
It is not uncommon for animals to become entwined with human culture over time. Even though animals cannot think and behave like us, civilizations have worshipped them, both in the past and in the present. Even if animal worship isn’t a part of your culture, it is almost certain that people at least own animals as pets. These animals could be for simple companionship, or they could be of use somehow, perhaps by providing food.
This interdependence between humans and animals probably rose out of the need to exist in harmony with common problems to face. Long before we started domesticating dogs, their wilder relatives, the wolves, were an integral part of Native American culture. The native Americans knew that they would not be able to chase the powerful wolfpacks out of their territory. So they learned to respect the wolves’ boundaries, and interestingly enough, the wolves usually returned the sentiment. A lot of other civilizations worshiped the wolf, most prominently the Egyptian civilization, but we will discuss the wolf and its association with the Native Americans here. This aspect has even been immortalized in movies and books such as The Call of The Wild. Let’s dive a little deeper into what kind of place the wolves had in Native American culture.
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One of the first things that come to mind when one thinks of wolves is their pack mentality. This is something that one can notice among domestic dogs as well and not a lot of other animals. You could say that humans are inherently social beings, but one of the first things the Native Americans learned from wolves was to work as a single efficient unit. While many species of animals do not have a lasting bond with their offspring or mates, that is not the case with wolves. Researchers have also found that wolves follow a lifelong system that is quite similar to a human family. The wolfpack follows the lead of the oldest wolf, usually the male. It is from here that the concept of the “alpha male” originated.
The Native Americans tried to imitate the working of the wolfpacks they saw. Each member of the pack or family had a specific role. And that role always provided for the whole group - pack before self. The natives had great respect for the ways of the wolves. They even observed minute details like wolves walking on thin ice without falling through or having all the heat sucked out of their bodies. That was because these were real problems, the natives and the wolves shared. In many cultures, while wolves were not worshipped, the tribes treasured them as a brother or a sister. Also, the natives were careful not to hurt any wolf, and they didn’t even tolerate the mention of hunting wolves.
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Many Native American tribes considered wolves sacred. They believed that God roamed the earth in the form of wolves. Also, they believed that anything that befell the resident wolfpack would affect the tribe too. Several of the religious beliefs of the time connected wolves to death. The Ojibwe tribe believed that wolves guarded the underworld. They also thought that wolves were responsible for the safety of their journey from the material world to the spiritual one. Therefore, it was of great importance to treat wolves with reverence as they affect you both in life and death. The Pawnee tribe believed that the first-ever death was that of a wolf killed by humans. They believed that this death triggered the floodgates of death in a world that was immortal until then. Naturally, the superiority of wolves was a common theme to these beliefs.
As wolves survive by hunting, they were not very popular among tribes that depended more on agriculture than hunting. Interestingly, the origin of myths such as the werewolf can be traced to Native American beliefs. In general, wolves were symbols of mystical power. So the people believed that wearing the skin of a slain wolf would turn you into one - or in some cases, part-human, part-wolf. However, they considered this an abhorrent act, and anyone who indulged in it would face exile. Several tribes believed that the creator of the world was a wolf. Religion often found ties with astronomy too. The natives worshipped Sirius(the Wolf Star). Also, they believed that the Wolf Star would always lead the tribe home in times of need or after a hunt. Before setting out on a hunt, the tribes would perform rituals to invoke the wolves’ strength.
Central American Culture
The Aztecs and the Incas represent a lot of things, one of them being their religious beliefs. Wolves were a part of their rituals, too, although they weren’t as exalted as they were by the Native American tribes. These tribes mainly viewed them as predators and a hindrance to their agricultural practices. Both these civilizations mostly worshipped the sun. As such, they did not regard the wolf with religious fervor. However, the Incas also believed that wolves and dogs were holy. As a result, they would often sacrifice dogs and consume their flesh. They did this to obtain the perceived power of these animals.
Even without today’s extensive research capabilities, it is quite clear that wolves are not notably different from other animals. Then why did these tribes hold them in such high regard? The answer is because they symbolically represent specific characteristics and serve as a totem. One can never underestimate the power of a totem. The world is an uncertain place, and so it is reasonable to want to believe in something immovable and indestructible. Even today, barring the “Big Bad Wolf” fairy tale stereotype, wolves usually represent mostly positive characteristics. It is not without reason that the wolf is one of the most popular choices for a mascot. So even if life isn’t as harsh as it was all those centuries ago, wolves still command the respect they did.