Perhaps as much as any other indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of North America possess an affinity with the flora and fauna of their continent. Bereft of written languages, Amerindians of all types and persuasions – or, if you like, tribes – relied on iconic imagery to teach and communicate in an other-than-verbal form.
It's common to hear people use the phrase, "American Indians believe…" but a degree of caution has to be exercised here. There are literally hundreds of tribes, each possessing their own culture and belief system. There are commonalities, of course, and some of them – such as their affinity with the natural world – are almost universally present.
However, when it comes to animal totems things can differ from place to place and people to people.
Canines have a special place in the heart of most Amerindians, and in some societies have been seen almost as a template upon which other creatures were based. There is an amusing story attached to some Indian names for the horse, for example. It is generally accepted that horses
were only introduced into North America with the arrival of European settlers. There is some evidence that horses were in the New World much earlier than that, I reckon, but died out long before their re-introduction. Hence, when Indians saw horses for the first time they didn't know what to call them. Out of homage to their dearly loved canines, they named the horse, 'Big Mystery Dog.' It was, from their perspective, a genuine compliment.
Some canines are held in universal esteem by Amerindian peoples, such as the wolf. In Europe, the wolf is often seen as a symbol of power and authority. This isn't at all inaccurate, but the Indian perception is often more subtle. Whilst recognising the power of the wolf, many Indians also see it as a symbol of wisdom. Some tribes refer to the wolf as "the teacher." The colour of the wolf in question can be important regarding its iconic usage, but interpretations differ from Indian nation to Indian nation. White, often a sign of purity and/or insight, may give the white wolf a special status. However, when tribal members are named the colour (and indeed the animal) may simply be the result of providence. For example, if an elder 'dreams' someone's name for them, then they'll be given the name Grey Wolf if it was indeed a grey wolf that appeared in the dream.
Foxes are also important in some Amerindian cultures, the fox often being seen as symbolic of shrewdness, industriousness and creativity. White foxes may (although not always) possess somewhat negative associations and in at least one tribal perception signify violence, anger and/or aggression.
Perhaps the coyote is the most controversial canine in Native American lore. The perception of the coyote is often negative, signifying deceit, cunning, lying and slyness. I once carried the coyote name, and it caused a degree of consternation with some members of certain tribes who
saw it as "bad medicine". I didn't see it that way, however, and drew from the coyote much in the way of positive imagery and lessons. Animal totems are, in the final analysis, just what you make of them.
One thing that many people don't realise is that, in many Indian cultures, 'medicine names' are not fixed for life. In Europe, if you're called John, Sally or Fred at birth, then the likelihood is that you'll die with those names. In some Indian cultures a person's name may change with the advent of a life-changing event. In 2006, when I had a near-death experience due to an undiagnosed heart condition, I was very lucky to be revived. It was then suggested to me that my 'coyote name' might no longer be appropriate. I had graduated, if you like, and was
given a wolf name instead to mark the change that had been wrought both in my circumstances and perceptions.
Although canines in Amerindian cultures – collectively speaking – are generally imbued with positive attributes such as loyalty, courage, strength, etc; it is the bearer of their name that must make of it what they will. However, the adoption or bestowal of a 'medicine name' is not something that should be entered into lightly.
When living on a reservation for a short while some years ago, I was told a story about a man who got above himself and fancied himself as a shaman, teacher, elder and just about anything else that, in his mind, carried any kudos. He carried the wolf name, but decided that it wasn't
enough. He renamed himself 'Ten Wolves', or something like that, to boost his authority. Now in some tribal cultures a name like Ten Wolves may be perfectly acceptable, but in the culture of the tribe that he belonged to it was seen as incredibly arrogant. To call yourself Ten Wolves indicated that you actually believed yourself to have the insight and power of not one wolf, but ten.
A chief told him, "You shouldn't do that. You can't handle the medicine of ten wolves. Abandon the name, or it will consume you. The name Ten Wolves is too much for you; it will destroy you."
The man ignored this timely advice, and almost overnight a sudden change was wrought in his character. He degenerated into drug addiction, alcohol abuse and a whole world of negativity. Within six months he died of a drug overdose in a trailer park.
Prefixes to medicine names involving canines (and other animals) can often be misunderstood. The prefix 'Crazy' for instance, as in Crazy Wolf or Crazy Dog, does not mean what it implies in European cultures. To the Amerindian, the term crazy means something like 'heterodox',
'strange', 'unconventional' or 'unusual.' It doesn't mean weird, loony or psychopathic as we would probably interpret it, and is actually a sign of rugged individuality. 'Crazy' then, is a compliment in a medicine name when suffixed by Wolf, Dog or Fox, but may indeed carry
negative connotations if tied to the much-maligned and much-mistrusted Coyote.
Because 'dog medicine' is very powerful, it should never be mixed. I once knew an English woman who gave herself the grandiose medicine name of Eagle Wolf. This is a risky business, for two powerful forms of medicine are being mixed together and will almost certainly conflict.
Almost all Indians have a special place in their culture for canines.
Even now, the relationship between an Indian and their dog is something to behold. A chief once divulged to me the way in which a wolf can be tamed within several days, thus allowing a bond to be formed with its Indian companion that will never be broken. For a number of reasons I do not wish to recount the details of the technique here, except to say that I believe it works.
When I was in Louisiana, I almost had an encounter of the too-close kind with a nasty, vindictive little spider called the Brown Recluse. (If you want to know exactly what damage this little bastard can do, just Google Image "Brown Recluse Bites" and then get ready to throw up).
Anyway, my canine companion Little Wolf started to bark furiously and dragged me away by the trouser leg from its habitat. It wasn't till later that morning than a friend showed me exactly what Little Wolf had been protecting me from.
I just love "dawgs' now, especially those on reservations…