Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Dogs of the Great Plains Nations

A strange sight likely met the Spaniards several days march north of the Pecos River in 1541. Thousands of Indians crossing an endless stretch of flat country, with tents, packs, children, even round river boats—all their possessions—dragged and carried by dogs mixed among and coaxed by the women, a moving city spread out as far as the eye could see, searching for the great woolly cattle that sustained them.

Yet the Spaniards would not have been shocked by the numbers of dogs, only by their function. The armies of the conquistadors included hundreds—in at least one case over a thousand—war dogs, large animals that required great amounts of food, dogs that were for the Spaniards a crucial (though now often overlooked) part of their war technology. To the Indians, particularly of Central and South America, the Spanish dogs were fearsome demons that ravaged their ranks even before their men could raise their bows against the armored soldiers and their new types of weapons. The battle was often lost before it began because of the dogs.

The Plains Indians did not have horses until the Spaniards lost and traded some of theirs, so their mobile life required that they use the only domesticated animal they had, the dog, which had been refined for generations to fulfill its purpose of dragging and carrying the provisions of a hunting culture. The first plate show's George Catlin's painting of the Sioux moving camp in the 1830s, by which time both horses and dogs pulled the travois.

Origins of North American Dogs

Grover Allen, a Harvard biologist writing in 1920, correctly perceived the origin of the dogs of the Americas:

“[T]here can be no question but that the domestic dogs of both Old and New Worlds are closely related and of common ancestry. It follows that instead of having domesticated various dog- or fox-like species of the American continents, the peoples of the New World must have brought their dogs with them, presumably from Asia, and this probably at a culture stage prior to the domestication of other animals, at least in the North, since no other domestic animal is common to the peoples of both hemispheres.”

Allen goes even further in anticipating Olsen (1974), Savolainen et al. (2002), Pang et al. (2009), and Brown et al. (2011) (though Brown et al. allow for the possibility of a non-East Asian origin of domestication):

“The probability therefore is that the Domestic Dog originated in Asia and was carried by primitive man both east and west into all parts of the inhabited world. That this migration began in late Pleistocene times seems highly probable.”

See Wayne and Vila (2001) for morphological evidence. Recently, Morey (2010) discusses the difficulty of correlating genetic timelines with archeological evidence.

Allen finds three basic types of dogs in the Americas, but considers the possibility that more than one type came across from Asia:

“In the Western Hemisphere three types of dogs may in a very general way be distinguished: — (1) the large wolf-like Eskimo Dog of the Arctic countries, strong, powerfully built, with broad muzzle, erect ears, and large bushy tail curled forward over the hip; (2) a smaller type, varying more or less in size and proportions, with erect ears but a drooping tail; and (3) a much smaller type, the size of a terrier, heavy of bone, usually with shortened rostrum as seen among the tribes of the Southwest or again, apparently more slender both in limb and skull as in southern Mexico or parts of South America. South of the Eskimo country, the two latter types of dogs are characteristic, and seem to have occurred together over much of their range, so that travellers often mentioned a "wolf-like" and a "foxlike” dog among the Indians of both North and South America, In this connection, it is interesting to recall Köhler's (1896) statement that in eastern Asia, between the provinces of Gansing and Ussuri, the Chinese have small fox-like dogs" [“Ihre Hunde gleichen einem kleinem Fuchse”], a comparison of which with the small American dogs would be of interest. The smaller American dogs of the slender type (Techichi) seem not very different from the Old World C. palustris, and may be not remotely related. The more heavily built small dogs with shortened faces and shorter, stouter limb-bones, are perhaps derived from the more slender type, and possibly owe certain of their peculiarities to cross-breeding with the larger dogs, though this is at present wholly conjectural.”

Hamilton Smith depicted a dog of the North American Indians, certainly in Allen’s broad second category. He described the dog as smaller than the coyote, “about equal in size to a spaniel,” an animal that was “sullen, and seldom uttered a howl; but his aspect was savage, and the colours of his fur were those of a common wolf.” Smith had seen a dog that belonged to Chief Tecumseh, which would put it further east than the dogs otherwise described here, though the form and coat coloration suggest that something close to the Plains-Indian dog.

Allen notes that though he uses the term “breed,” he is not trying to suggest there were conscious breeding programs:

“[W]hile the term “breed" is applied to these locally distinct forms of dogs, it is not assumed that the American natives made any conscious effort to change or keep constant the traits of their dogs; possibly some of the variations are merely the result of a certain mongrel mating, going on quite independent of human intent, so that, as in case of the Peruvian Pug-nosed Dog, the variation cropped out only occasionally and may or may not have been purposely preserved.”

There definitely was some separation of canine types in the wool and hunting dogs of the Pacific Northwest, though as a general statement, Allen is largely correct. (See Crockford (2000), stating that the "NW Coast Wool dog may constitute a rare example of a true indigenous dog 'breed,' developed without benefit of written records.")

While the dogs of the Americas had an east Asian origin, their uses—or perhaps better, the priority of their uses—was considerably different from that found in the Old World. The dogs of the New World were more often pack carrying and draft animals, more often eaten, and in many locations not used in tracking and hunting. They provided guarding functions, barking at intruders, but were not trained to fight. Catlin (1841), for instance, reports that before battle, the Sioux warriors blackened their faces, but the women muzzled the dogs.

Types of Dogs Used by Great Plains Tribes

Allen describes two types of dogs used by native Americans along the Missouri River, the Plains-Indian dog and the larger Sioux dog. Although these types were not always easy distinguished, Gilbert Wilson (1924) concludes that “the Hidatsa dog was approximately of the Sioux type.”

Prince Maximilian of Wied, a German explorer who began his travels among North American Indians in 1832, is quoted by Wilson regarding the Sioux dog:

“Smaller articles were conveyed by the dogs…. The dogs, whose flesh is eaten by the Sioux, are equally valuable to the Indians. In shape they differ very little from the wolf, and are equally large and strong. Some are of the real wolf colour; others black, white, or spotted with black and white, and differing only by the tail being rather more turned up. Their voice is not a proper barking, but a howl, like that of the wolf, and they partly descend from wolves, which approach the Indian huts, even in the daytime, and mix with the dogs…. [they] showed their teeth when any one approached them.”

Henry Marie Brackenridge, who ascended the Missouri River in 1811, described the dogs of the Arikara as often indistinguishable from wolves:

“The dogs, of which each family has thirty or forty, pretended to make a show of fierceness, but on the least threat, ran off. They are of different sizes and colors. A number are fattened on purpose to eat, others are used for drawing their baggage. It is nothing more than the domesticated wolf. In wandering through the prairies, I have often mistaken wolves for Indian dogs. The larger kind has long curly hair, and resembles the shepherd dog. There is the same diversity amongst the wolves of this country. They may be more properly said to howl, than bark.”

Schwartz (1997) states that “on the Plains, to a much greater degree than elsewhere, native dogs received frequent influxes of wolf blood—with or without the connivance of people.” Various travelers recorded that bitches were tied up outside villages to encourage their being impregnated by wolves. (See, e.g., Richardson, 1829) Dogs of the Indians were known to interbreed with coyotes as well as wolves. “[T]here is nothing in Audubon’s description of the Hare-Indian dog specifically inapplicable to the Coyoté.” (Coues and Yarrow, 1874).


Audubon (1854), without mentioning a specific location, says that Indians destroyed beaver dams and used dogs to help capture the beavers. Traditions exist among some Plains tribes that hunting could involve using dogs to drive buffalo and other game over cliffs and into dead-end canyons, after which the dogs would be recalled and the prey could be killed by arrows or rocks. (La Flamme, 2012).

In general, however, early travelers and anthropologists make few references to dogs in hunting, though the dogs might pull a sledge during a winter hunt, as shown by Catlin. Peter Rindisbacher painted Assiniboines hunting with dogs (c.1822-4), the animals apparently used to surround and harass a buffalo.

Mandelbaum (1940), writing about the Plains Cree, states:

“Dogs were not used in hunting, although they were always eager to give chase. When a hunt was in progress near them, laden dogs had to be held, lest they run after the fleeing buffalo and so spill their burdens. Dogs were taken along by war parties to carry extra moccasins and other supplies.”

Mandelbaum notes, however, that dogs would sometimes kill and eat a young colt, and when “allowed to run free they would try to separate a buffalo calf from the herd and make the kill.”

Draft and Pack Functions
Coronado’s expedition to northern Texas in the 16th century may provide the earliest description by a European of the use of dogs in carrying and dragging loads. The narrative of Pedro de Castenada de Nacera says of the Indians encountered north of the Pecos River that "they travel like the Arabs, with their tents and troops of dogs [perros] loaded with poles and having Moorish pack saddles with girths. When the load gets disarranged, the dogs howl, calling some one to fix them right." A letter written on the Rio Grande in 1541 (included in Winship, 1896) adds:

"The people have dogs like those in this country [Spain], except that they are somewhat larger, and they load these dogs like beasts of burden, and make saddles for them like our pack saddles, and they fasten them with their leather thongs, and these make their backs sore on the withers like pack animals. When they go hunting, they load these with their necessities, and when they move—for these Indians are not settled in one place, since the travel wherever the cows [buffalo] move, to support themselves—these dogs carry their houses, and they have the sticks of their houses dragging along tired on to the pack-saddles, besides the load which they carry on top, and the load may be, according to the dog, from 35 to 50 pounds.”

The practicality of the dogs is explained as due to the flatness of the country. Curiously, this use of the dogs reminds Castenada of a passage in Marco Polo concerning the Tartars, who have dogs as large or little smaller than asses [canes tan drandes ó poco menos ques asnos] which are harnessed to a sort of cart and can traverse quagmires.

Yet the conquistadors brought their own dogs for military purposes, along with horses, and the mere presence of this expedition and those after began massive change to all North American dog cultures.

Clark Wissler, Curator of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History, included the photograph of an Assiniboin dog travois in his study of Plains Indians (1920).

Variations in Dog Cultures

Prince Maximilian of Wied (1834) described variations between the tribes in numbers and characteristics of dogs:

“When they quit their huts for a longer period than usual, they load their dogs with the baggage, which is drawn in small sledges, made of a couple of thin, narrow boards, nine or ten feet in length, fastened together with leather straps, and with four cross-pieces, by way of giving them firmness. Leather straps are attached in front, and drawn either by men or dogs. The load is fastened to the sledge by straps…. The Mandans and Manitaries have not, by any means, so many dogs as the Assiniboins, Crows, and Blackfeet. They are rarely of the true wolf's color, but generally black, or white, or else spotted with black and white. Among the nations further to the north-west they more nearly resemble the wolf, but here they are more like the prairie wolf (Canis latrans [coyote]). We likewise found, among these animals, a brown race, descended from European points, hence the genuine bark of the dog is more frequently heard here, whereas among the western nations they only howl. The Indian dogs are worked very hard, have hard blows, and hard fare; in fact, they are treated just as this fine animal is treated among the Esquimaux.”

Complaints of the harsh treatment the dogs receive, particularly those used in pack carrying and draft work, are common among early travelers.

Grover Allen provides a brief summary of the use of the travois:

“In the plains country from Saskatchewan to the Mexican Boundary, the travois was in general use. This consisted of two light poles, the smaller ends fastened together and resting on the dog's shoulders, the heavier ends kept apart by a crosspiece and trailing behind. A leather collar served to keep this frame in place for dragging the goods piled upon it. In this way entire villages moved, the dogs dragging the household effects. The contrivance seems not to have been used west of the Rocky Mountains.”

Catlin describes the “grand procession” of a Sioux camp moving, stretched out for miles, with each horse and dog loaded with its burden. The drawing shows both dogs and horses with travois, and a woman leading a horse with a baby on her back and a dog held in her cloak. (For art historians, the color plate of this procession above does not include the dogs behind the woman in the foreground, nor the dog in her cloak. Was Catlin afraid that the sketch of the actual procession would make her too sympathetic for his audience?) He describes five to six hundred wigwams, perhaps 1,500 men, and thousands of dogs following in the “train and company of women,” each one that is large enough, and not too cunning to be enslaved “encumbered with a car or sled … on which he patiently drags his load—a part of the household goods and furniture of the lodge to which he belongs.” It is not all toil, as the dogs are occasionally seen—

“Catching at little bits of fun and glee
That’s played on dogs enslaved by dog that’s free.”

Hind, describing travels in 1859 and 1860, also indicates that managing the dogs was the responsibility of the women:

“The dog is the great stand-by of the squaws, who have to attend to all the duties of the camp, the men employing themselves solely in hunting and fighting. The dogs drag on poles the camp furniture, the provisions, the little children, and all the valuables of the family. It is a very amusing sight to witness several hundred dogs solemnly engaged in moving a large camp. They look wistfully at passers-by, and take advantage of the least want of attention on the part of their mistresses to lie down, or snarl and snap at their companions in the work. They nevertheless obey the word of command with alacrity and willingness if not fatigued.”

Gilbert Wilson records that some tribes, like the Crow, did not use the travois often, and some did not use it at all, instead putting packs on dogs. Mandelbaum says of the Plains Cree, however, that they were not adept as some tribes in the use of horses and continued to rely on the dog travois until the mid-nineteenth century. Audubon describes wolves, or at least wolf crosses, being used for draft work in what is now North Dakota:

"Many of the Assiniboin Indians who visited Fort Union during our stay there, had both wolves and their crosses with the common dog in their trains, and their dog carts (if they may be so called) were drawn alike by both."

That there could be thousands of dogs in a camp is clear from a passage in the journal of H.M. Brackenridge of a journey in 1811, who describes the Osages as having at least a thousand dogs in their camp, so many as to remind him of Virgil’s “fine description of that place of the infernal regions, set apart for the punishment of the wicked.” He notes that children and dogs were inseparable companions in an Arikara village, stating that each family had thirty to forty. The Arikara had societies named after animals, but the “band of dogs is considered to be the most brave and effective in war, being composed of young men under thirty.” Hind (1860) records one division of a tribe having 900 people, 600 horses, 200 oxen, 400 dogs, and one cat.

Despite having so many dogs, Mandelbaum states that each dog was trained to answer to its name. Names were often descriptive of a dog’s coat or markings: curly dog, black eye, black ear, black dog, black and white dog, shaggy dog.

Dog Sacrifices and Dog Meat

Mandelbaum relates a ceremony of the Cree intended to secure supernatural aid against sickness:

“The novices who were to be initiated were each told to bring a dog to the long lodge where the ceremony was held. The mite-wiwin leader came out to meet them. His body was painted red and he wore two otterskin armlets. He carried a sacred club, carved or inscribed with animal figures. At the entrance to the lodge, the novices lined up, holding their dogs leashed on rawhide thongs. Four songs were sung by the members and then the leader struck and stunned each dog with his club. Before delivering the blow he feinted at striking three times. The server grasped each dog by the head and by the tail, and, holding it before him, brought it into the lodge. The dogs were stretched out one behind the other. Songs were sung again and then the server took the dogs out to give them to the women who were to cook the meat.”

Dogs were often fed to honored guests. Visiting a busy Mandan village, Catlin comments on the dogs:

“With all this wild and varied medley of living beings are mixed their dogs, which seem to be so near an Indian’s heart, as almost to constitute a material link of his existence.” During his stay with the Mandans, Catlin was initiated into a society, the Conjurati, which involved a dog being sacrificed and hung by its legs over his wigwam. Catlin later says that if a horse or dog is sacrificed, “it must be the favourite one.”

Catlin describes a Sioux dog feast, where the dog meat is cooked in “a sort of stew,” sending “forth a very savoury and pleasing smell, promising to be an acceptable and palatable food.” He describes the reaction of the Europeans at the feast:

“Each of us civilized guests had a large wooden bowl placed before us, with a huge quantity of dogs' flesh floating in a profusion of soup, or rich gravy, with a large spoon resting in the dish, made of the buffalo's horn. In this most difficult and painful dilemma we sat; all of us knowing the solemnity and good feeling in which it was given, and the absolute necessity of falling to, and devouring a little of it. We all tasted it a few times, and resigned our dishes, which were quite willingly taken, and passed around with others, to every part of the group, who all ate heartily of the delicious viands, which were soon dipped out of the kettles, and entirely devoured; after which each one arose as he felt disposed, and walked off without uttering a word. In this way the feast ended, and all retired silently, and gradually, until the ground was left vacant to the charge of the waiters or officers, who seemed to have charge of it during the whole occasion.”

Yet Catlin insists on the value of the dog to the Indians:

“The dog, amongst all Indian tribes, is more esteemed and more valued than amongst any part of the civilized world; the Indian who has more time to devote to his company, and whose untutored mind more nearly assimilates to that of his faithful servant, keeps him closer company, and draws him nearer to his heart; they hunt together, and are equal sharers in the chase—their bed is one; and on the rocks, and on their coats of arms they carve his image as the symbol of fidelity. Yet, with all of these he will end his affection with this faithful follower, and with tears in his eyes, offer him as a sacrifice to seal the pledge he has made to man…. The dog-feast is given, I believe, by all tribes in North America; and by them all, I think, this faithful animal, as well as the horse, is sacrificed in several different ways, to appease offended Spirits or Deities, whom it is considered necessary that they should conciliate in this way; and when done, is invariably done by giving the best in the herd or the kennel.”

The painting shows the pots holding the dog stew at a Sioux feast. Catlin was wrong about all tribes conducting dog feasts, though many did. Cummins (2002) states that the Arapaho feasted on dogs enough to be called “Dog Eaters” by other tribes, whereas the Blackfeet had a strong aversion to eating dogs, though they would occasionally do so if starvation threatened. Mandelbaum says that eating dogs “marked an occasion as extraordinary.” Hind reports that among “Crees, Ojibways, Swampya, and Sioux, the dog is supposed to be the most acceptable sacrifice to offended deities, five dogs being the common number for a propitiatory offering.” At another point he says that among the Indians of the Saskatchewan Valley, “the customary offering consists of two, three, and sometimes five dogs.”

Lest it be thought that Europeans in America did not eat dogs, it is to be remembered that on an expedition through Peru, Gonzalo Pizarro and his men ate almost a thousand dogs to avoid starvation.

Hidatsa Dog Culture

One of the most detailed studies of a dog culture was that of Gilbert Wilson. From 1908 to 1918, Wilson spent two months each year among the Hidatsa, researching and collecting for the American Museum of Natural History. The Hidatsa are a Siouan tribe living in North Dakota and speaking a language akin to that of the Crow. They were allied with the Mandan, who taught them to plant corn. In sign language, according to Wilson, the sign for “Hidatsa” is a motion as of shelling corn from an ear.

Wilson recorded that for the Hidatsa the dog was still an important beast of burden, whose care and management was left to women. One woman in particular, Maxidiwiac or Buffalo Bird Woman, who spoke no English, was the source of most of Wilson’s information. She felt that “horses did not learn to know their names as did dogs, nor do I think they are as intelligent as dogs.” The first drawing from Wilson’s book shows an unconscious dog being revived by a woman, probably after the dog choked when eating too fast, as well as two dogs of her tribe.

Buffalo Bird Woman described her tribe’s dogs:

“In old times, our packing dogs were about the size of a timber wolf. Our old dogs looked a good deal like wolves; though they had much broader faces and had strong, firm legs. The tail was usually bushy but was sometimes quite short or nearly wanting.”

Dogs in a litter would be killed if it did not appear that they would grow big enough for work:

“In order that the mother might stay in good condition, we never saved more than three or four puppies out of any litter. When there were too many to nurse, the mother became poor in flesh, very often grew weak and sometimes died. Of the three or four puppies saved, we might choose one bitch and the rest males.”

A ritual determined if a dog would be strong enough for the travois:

“After they were ten days old, puppies began to eat food that we gave them; but before we fed them, we smoked them. We burned some of the larger kind of sage on some coals, and I, or someone of the family, held a puppy with his head in the sage smoke until white saliva, like soapsuds, dribbled from his mouth. Then I took the puppy from the smoke. Lifting him up, I said, ‘I want to test this dog to see if he will carry a tent’ and then let him drop a few inches to the ground. If the dog fell over, I knew he would not grow up strong, but if he held his place and did not fall, I would say, ‘Hey! hey! this dog will carry my tent.’”

Male dogs were castrated at about a year old to keep them fat and content to stay around the lodge. Dogs were allowed on the roofs of lodges, but not inside unless it was very cold. Kennels were built for females before they delivered a litter. The figure from Wilson’s book shows drawings of a puppy being held over smoke and two types of kennels.

It took about four days to train a dog to drag a travois. Buffalo Bird Woman said to Wilson:

“At first, when he was hitched to the travois and called by name, he struggled and whined with fear, but the woman coaxed and called to him, until he started toward her. The first three days the woman tied a thong around the dog's neck collar and led him. By the fourth day the dog had learned and would follow his owner. For the first trip very little wood was loaded on the travois, but the amount was increased from day to day until the dog could drag a full load. Some dogs were much stronger than others and could carry a much larger load. We always knew which dog to load the heaviest.”

Wolf Chief told Wilson about how dogs were trained to drag tent poles:

“Before a dog was made to drag tent poles, a light load of something that was not fragile, like a robe or a few blankets, was bound down over the travois and then the travois was harnessed to the dog. As dragging tent poles was heavy work a good strong dog was chosen …. The poles, ten, twelve, or thirteen in number, were strung together by a thong through holes pierced at their smaller ends. Then the tent poles were fastened at, or near, the fork, the smaller ends of the tent poles projecting about two feet beyond the dog's head. The tent poles were then spread out over the travois basket and bound down. A big tent might have poles six paces long. Stich poles, when bound to the dog travois, might extend three feet beyond the dog's head….”

A top view of a dog pulling a tent, along with the use of travois to form a tent, and a buffalo paunch are shown in the figure from Wilson’s book. Dogs also pulled buffalo meat on a travois, about a quarter of a buffalo per dog, though other accounts say a dog could pull half a buffalo.

Water was carried for dogs in buffalo paunches in warmer weather. In winter they could eat snow. Although many accounts mention dogs being beaten, Wilson records that Buffalo Bird Woman said that “we never whipped our dogs.” Women collected the wood and used dogs to bring it back to the village. Three women could load about 20 dogs by noon, according to Wolf Chief. “One or more women with fifteen or twenty dogs could bring in enough wood to last the family a month, I think, but a family with only four or five dogs would have to go out every week.”

Buffalo Bird Woman told Wilson that dogs were not used to pull sledges by the Hidatsa, nor were they used in hunting or in herding the horses. The Hidatsa dogs did carry boats for hunting expeditions. The dogs were helped in crossing water with a travois, according to Buffalo Bird Woman:

“If our dogs needed to cross a creek too deep for them to ford easily, one of the men waded into the water and held the rear end of the travois out of the water while the dog swam across…; in this way, the objects carried on the travois basket were kept dry. The man raised the two ends of the travois poles very much as a white man lifts the handles of a plow.”

If a party crossed a river in a boat, the dogs sometimes swam after, but were sometimes in the boat.

The Hidatsa stopped using the dog travois about 1879. The end of the large buffalo herds and the reservation system were by then eliminating an entire way of life.

A dog digging a hole against a lodge might be killed because it was believed that “if a dog dug outside at the foot of the lodge roof, some member of the household was going to die.” If a dog howled alone, not with the other dogs, it was a sign that he was sorry for something that was about to happen to the household. Buffalo Bird Woman told Wilson:

“At night, when the dogs barked and whined the people would say, ‘Ghosts are around. The dogs are talking with them. They can see ghosts with their eyes.’”

Hind, traveling on the Canadian plains, says the “midnight howl of three or four hundred dogs is an awful and appalling sound. It rises suddenly from a low prolonged whine to a deep melancholy howl….”

Mandelbaum records a saying among the Cree: “When dogs are seen to play during bad weather, good weather will soon follow.”

Unfortunately, much of the wisdom of the dog cultures was not recorded.

Cheyenne Legends

Legends indicate that many Great Plains peoples saw the dog as with them from the beginning of their cultures. John H. Seger (1934) records that the creator of the Cheyenne, Great Medicine, showed them the buffalo, but they had no way to follow the buffalo. There were no horses yet so the Cheyenne captured young wolves or wild dogs and raised them to guard their camps. They packed their equipage on the dogs when they followed the buffalo south in the fall.

George A. Dorsey (1905) describes the importance of dogs to the Cheyenne, shown here moving north to follow the buffalo. Dorsey includes another story about how dogs helped bring the buffalo to the Cheyenne. A medicine man goes off with a chief’s wife under instructions from Great Medicine:

“A day and a night and a day the medicine-man traveled with the woman, whose five dogs carried the tipi poles and the camping paraphernalia. The second night they rested. The medicine-man directed the woman to erect the tipi so that it would face the east, and to make two sage brush beds. Then he told her that he had received a message from the Great Medicine of the Above that he should go and bring to his people the Great Medicine-Lodge, the Great Medicine's symbol of the ancient world, with the promise that, if the people would receive the ceremony, buffalo and all other animals would make their appearance, all vegetation would be renewed, and there would be an end to famine….

“[T]hey journeyed for several days until they saw before them a forest, from whose midst there arose a mountain to the sky; beyond they saw great waters…. On a beautiful morning they came to a large rock in front of the mountain. They rolled the rock aside, and found a passage, which they entered. When they had entered the rock rolled back in its place and closed them in. They were in the great lodge of the mountain. The spectacle was wonderful. To-day the lodge is arranged in the same way. There the medicine-man and the woman received ceremonial instruction from the Great Medicine, and from the Roaring Thunder, who talked to them from out the top of the mountain peak…. For four days the Great Medicine taught them, and thus he spoke:

“‘From henceforth, by following my teachings, you and your children shall be blessed abundantly; follow my instructions accurately, and then, when you go forth from this mountain, all of the heavenly bodies will move. The Roaring Thunder will awaken them, the sun, moon, stars, and the rain will bring forth fruits of all kinds, all the animals will come forth behind you from this mountain, and they will follow you home. Take this horned cap to wear when you perform the ceremony that I have given you, and you will control the buffalo and all other animals. Put the cap on as you go from here and the earth will bless you.’

“The medicine-man and the woman came forth from the mountain, and as they stepped out the whole earth seemed to become new, and there came forth buffalo that followed them…. As they marched on, preceded by their dogs, the other animals moved along behind them, and they watched the man and the woman continually from the rear. When they camped at night the animals lay down to rest. In the morning the medicine-man put on his horned cap, and sang the sacred songs taught him while in the mountain, and then he began the journey home, and the animals followed. For many days they traveled, until the medicine-man knew that they were near the camp of his people, who were still by the beautiful stream. Then he halted, took his horned cap from his head, and all the animals halted. In the morning he went to the camp of his people, and told them that he had returned with the buffalo, so that they should no longer suffer from hunger. He at once ordered that the Great Medicine-Lodge dance should be' performed, exactly as it was taught him in the mountain. When the Cheyenne saw the medicine-man wearing the horned cap, they named him ‘Erect Horns,’ for when he wore the cap the horns stood erect.”

Dorsey’s sketch shows the medicine-man and the woman leaving the mountain, with the dogs dragging travois. Cummins similarly reports that legends about how game came to a people often involve dogs.


Dog cultures change from many of the same pressures that alter human cultures. Molossians, for instance, may have arrived in Mesopotamia through war or trade, and likely reached Egypt centuries later through such cultural interactions. Blending can be violent, and wholesale, as happened with the European conquest of the Americas. There is no single story here, however, since what happened in North American was very different from what happened in Central and South America.

As noted in a prior blog, partially domesticated fox-like canids used by some cultures in South America were completely displaced by the arrival of the conquistadors with their war and hunting dogs. Yet hunting dogs became a part of daily life by the 17th century as Spanish and native cultures blended. In North America, horses that escaped from the explorers were soon being used by the native Americans, and began to replace the dog as the primary beast of burden, though some tribes long continued to use the dog travois. European dogs also interbred with the native dogs, so that even early travelers were told that the dogs did not look as they used to.

When reading the accounts of the travelers and anthropologists who traversed the Great Plains while the native cultures still thrived, or carried recent memories of thriving, it must always be remembered that these reporters brought their cultural assumptions about dogs with them. In the Old World, the dog had in most places ceased to be ergonomically necessary for survival, and hunting had for millennia been more often a luxury than a necessity. Sighthounds in prehistoric times in the Near East and Europe may have been important for survival (perhaps, for instance, driving great numbers of gazelles into desert kites), but by historic times dogs provided advantages in protection and war that became more important for the survival and success of a goup than their value in hunting. American dogs were never significant in war beyond alerting to intruders. The dogs of the Great Plains were, on the other hand, essential to the survival of the tribes that followed the buffalo, and a group could have only tolerated hundreds of dogs, which must share in the meat, because they could not have lived without them.

Thanks to Richard Hawkins, Brian Duggan, Kim La Flamme, L.E. Papet, and Eric Krieger for sources and suggestions.

1. Allen, G.M. (1920). Dogs of the American Aboriginees. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Harvard), 63, 429.
2. Audubon, J.J. (1854). Quadrupeds of North America, III. V.G. Audubon, New York.
3. Brackenridge, H.M. (1816). Journal of a Voyage up the River Missouri: performed in 1811. Baltimore.
4. Brown, S.K., Pedersen, N.C., Jafarishorijeh, S., Bannasch, D.L., Ahrens, K.D., Wu, J.-T., Okon, M., and Sacks, B.N. (2011). Phylogenetic Distinctiveness of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian Village Dog Y Chromosomes Illuminates Dog Origins. PLoS ONE, 6(12), e28496.
5. Catlin, G. (1841). Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the Noarth American Indians. Published by the Author, London.
6. Callahan, R. (1997). Domestication of Dogs and Their Use on the Great Plains. Nebraska Anthropologist, Paper 103.
7. Coues, E., and Yarrow, H.C. (1874). Report Upon the Collections of Mammals. Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology, Chapter II.
8. Crockford, S.J. (2000). A Commentary on Dog Evolution: Regional Variation, Breed Development and Hybridisation with Wolves. In Dogs Through Time: An Archaeological Perspective: Proceedings of the 1st ICAZ Symposium on the History of the Domestic Dog. BAR International Series 889.
9. Cummins, B.D. (2002). First Nations, First Dogs. Detselig Enterprises. Calgary, Alberta.
10. Dorsey, G.A. (1905). The Cheyenne. Field Columbian Museum, Publication 99, vol. IX (1).
11. Harmon, D.W. (1904). A Journal of Voyages and Travels in the Interior of North America. George N. Morang & Co., Toronto.
12. Hind, H.Y. (1860). Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858, vol. II. Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, London.
13. Köhler, E.M. (1896) Hunderassen Chinas und der Mongolei. Zool. garten, 37, 257-263.
14. La Flamme, K. (personal communication, January 23, 2012). See the American Indian Dog website for numerous articles on this dog.
15. Mandelbaum, D.G. (1940). The Plains Cree. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 37(2).
16. Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1843-4). Maximilian Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834. Achermann & Comp., London (quoted from vol. 1, 316-8, vol. 2, 273 by Wilson).
17. Morey, D. (2010). Dogs: Domestication and the Development of a Social Bond. Cambridge University Press, New York City.
18. Olsen, S.J. (1974). Early Domestic Dogs in North American and Their Origins. Journal of Field Archaeology, 1(3/4), 343-5.
19. Pang., J.F., Kluetsch, C., Zou, X.J., Zhang, A.B., Luo, L.Y., Angleby, H., Ardalan, A., Ekström, C., Sköllermo, A., Lundeberg, J., Matsumura, S., Leitner, T., Zhang, Y.P. and Savolainen, P. (2009). mtDNA Data Indicate a Single Origin for Dogs South of the Yangtze River, Less Than 16,300 Years Ago, from Numerous Wolves. Biological Evolution, 26, 2849-2864; C.A. Driscoll and D.W. Macdonald (2010).
20. Pferd, W. (1987). Dogs of the American Indians. Denlingers Pub Ltd.
21. Richardson, J. (1829). Fauna Boreali-Americana; or the Zoology of the Northern Parts of British America. John Murray, London.
22. Savolainen, P., Shang, Y.P., Luo, L., Lundeberg, J., and Leitner, T.(2002). Genetic Evidence for an East Asian Origin of Domestic Dogs. Science, 298, 1610-1613
23. Schwartz, M. (1997). A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. Yale University Press, New Haven. See particularly her chapter, The Edible Dog.
24. Seger, J.H. (1934). Early Days Among the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma.
25. Smith, C.H. (1840) Dogs, vol. II, in the Naturalists Library, Mammalia. Hengry G. Bohn, London.
26. Wayne, R.K., and Vila, Carles, V. (2001) Phylogeny and Origin of the Domestic Dog, in The Genetics of Dogs (Ruvinsky, A., and Sampson, J., eds.), CAB International.
27. Wilson, G.L. (1924). The Horse and the Dog in Hidatsa Culture. American Museum Press. New York.
28. Winship, G.P. (1896). The Coronado Expedition 1540-1542. Government Printing Office, Washington.
29. Wissler, C. (1920). North American Indians of the Plains. American Museum of Natural History Handbook Series No. 1 (2d edition), New York.

1 comment:

  1. Wow,
    Great info...this will be my new read for today...keep up the good work!