The Wolves and the Navajo People of North America

Here is one of the papers I submitted for my Masters in Anthrozoology which I wanted to share with you all:

 

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) of North America has played a key role in the creation stories and culture of the Navajo people of the Southwest of North America (Pavlik, 2014). Not only did the Navajo people have a complex spiritual relationship with wolves, they also lived closely together in the physical realm and endured comparable hardships:

“The European labeled the first peoples Indians and he carried with him an ancient, misbegotten hatred and fear of the wolf. He stepped onto our lands and brought with him the beginning of the end for both the first peoples and the wolf” (Marshall, 1995, p. 16).

How did the settlers’ concept of the North American wilderness, particularly in the nineteenth century, alter how they treated wolves and the Native American peoples of North America, specifically the Navajo people? This paper will examine the relationship between wolves and the Navajo people, explore how settlers viewed them and the “wilderness” they lived in, as well as how they treated wolves and the Navajo people due to these perceptions.

 

It is essential to address the terminology used, namely the word “wilderness”. Most humans have varied understandings of not only wilderness, but what and who belongs or does not belong amongst it. These definitions affect how humans treat one another and other living beings:

“To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like” (Cronon, 1995, p. 11).

 

Many settlers romanticized wilderness as being untouched by humans or as a place far from civilisation where they must travel to (Vining, Merrick, and Price 2008; Adams, 1995) as a visitor (Van Horn and Hausdoerffer, 2017; Colbourn; 1988). Wilderness or nature, if natural, are often defined as pristine spaces (Cronon, 1995; Whatmore and Thorne, 1998; Singer, 2014; Bowden, 1992; Denevan, 1992; Robinson-Welsh, 2015). Defining wilderness as being pristine often assumes that the ecosystems are able to exist in, as well as return to, states free of any human disturbance (Orlove and Brush, 1996). This fails to acknowledge that native peoples, the Navajo people for example, lived on the land long before settlers discovered it for themselves (Marshall, 1995; Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). The belief that wilderness is and should be far from civilisation also affected how Europeans treated Native American peoples (Marshall, 1995). Living amongst wilderness was, and is often still to this day, seen as “unclean” and dirty (Douglas, 2002) – a concept which separated the Navajo people and wolves from settlers. General Carleton referred to the Navajo people as: “…those wolves in the mountains…” (Locke, 2001, p. 348) and told his men that force was necessary to control them, because they could not be trusted any more than the wolves (Denetdale, 2007, p. 39).

 

Referring to wilderness as something based on human absence or disassociation from it is quite anthropocentric (Marshall, 1995), because it suggests that the definition of natural environments must relate to human presence. Phrases such as “man against nature” and “the cruelty of nature” highlight that humans have also placed themselves in opposition with it, given themselves a higher status and invented these artificial domains (Marshall, 1995). As settlers saw themselves in opposition with wilderness, they also perceived themselves in opposition with the Navajo people and wolves. Many settlers:

“… made the land synonymous with the Indian … that pitted savagery and wilderness against the white man and civilization. … The land and the Indian were inseparable” (McPherson, 2001, p. 146).

Nevertheless, settlers persisted on separating the Navajo people from the land they lived on. On the one hand, although they often saw the Navajo people and wolves as being part of the wilderness, this wilderness was the very thing which settlers wished to eliminate or dominate in order to promote “progress” (Marshall, 1995) and personal gain. On the other hand, their concept of wilderness as being a pristine creation of God and their wish to preserve its “original (human-less) state” (Cronon, 1995), meant that: “… For wilderness to exist, the native peoples that cluttered the imaginary North American landscape first had to be eradicated” (Wright, 2010, p. 11).

 

Many Native American peoples believe that settlers brought this understanding, or misunderstanding, of wilderness with them from Europe (Marshall, 1995). While there are surely a myriad of reasons which influenced how settlers viewed wilderness as they did, some factors seem to play a strong role: religion, as well as economic progress and wealth (Cronon, 1995; Marshall, 1995) are a few examples. As Marshall (1995) observes: “Wilderness is minerals, water, timber, hunting, recreation, undeveloped land, jobs and maybe a vacation or a retirement hideaway” (pp. 234-235). Another reason for why both the Navajo people and wolves were killed in large numbers becomes clear: There was a fear that wolves would hunt the animals which settlers wished to hunt for themselves, as well as kill their livestock. The Navajo people, then, were also seen as a threat to the settlers’ progress and acquiring of land, as well as the resources which could be extracted from the perceived wilderness where the Navajo people lived. Additionally, religion and spirituality is also crucial to how wilderness was and is understood: “… The language we use to talk about wilderness is often permeated with spiritual and religious values that reflect human ideals far more than the material world of physical nature” (Cronon, 1995, p. 10).

 

While this is true for many, some viewed the wilderness as a godless environment. General Carleton, for example, perceived the Native American peoples as being almost sub-human due to their close relation to wilderness, wolves and “godlessness”:

“In the Bible, wilderness is defined as the place without God – a sere and barren desert. This twined sense of wilderness as a place innately dangerous and godless was something that attached itself, inevitably, to the wolf – the most feared denizen of gloomy wilderness” (Lopez, 1978, p. 141).

With this definition, settlers likely assumed that the Navajo people must fear wolves, just as settlers did. To this day, many “Western” scientists, along with their adherents, declare that: “… early modern humans lived in a constant state of terror, huddled around fires at night, trembling if they heard a wolf howl or a lion roar” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 5; see also Francis, 2015). This is generally not how the Navajo people and indigenous peoples around the world perceive their surroundings (Sale, 1991). Living amongst fellow predators, such as wolves, was not necessarily a threat or competition (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Developing mutual respect, coexisting and operating cooperatively together was important for survival, spirituality and learning new hunting techniques (Marshall, 1995; Schlesier, 1987; Pierotti and Fogg, 2018).

 

While settlers may have feared wolves’ hunting abilities, the Navajo people, as well as the Great Plains peoples such as the Blackfoot, Lakota, Cheyenne (Tsistsista) and especially the Shoshone (Hampton, 1997) who lived east and west of the Great Basin, state that they learned much of what they know about hunting from wolves (Hernandez, 2014; Schlesier, 1987; Marshall, 1995). It is believed that wolves taught early humans cooperative hunting, which is a sentiment also told in many Navajo stories (Schlesier 1987; Fogg, Howe, and Pierotti 2015; Shipman 2015). “Indeed, the Navajo use the word naatl’eetsoh – which literally refers to wolves – for all hunters and predators, including man” (Pavlik, 2014, pp. 79-80; see also Luckert, 1975). The Navajo people felt, and may still feel, indebted to wolves and other animals – and would leave remains from their kills to thank their guides and mentors (Buller, 1983; Schlesier, 1987). This was not due solely to wolves’ hunting abilities, however: many Native American peoples believed that they could learn from wolves – the art of perseverance, as well as strong and protective familial bonds, to name a few (Marshall, 1995). Wolves were greatly respected, because they were the companions of humans and possessed a spirit, as well as consciousness (Bastien, 2004).

 

Although cooperative hunting played an important role in the relationship between the Navajo people and wolves, it was merely one aspect of a complex coexistence (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). In contrast with Judeo-Christian tradition, Navajo creation stories do not place humans in a superior role:

“They [humans] are simply one being – the “Five-fingered People” – that live among many. … Animals do not exist solely for the exploitation of humankind” (Pavlik, 2014, p. 41).

Humans who closely co-exist with wild animals, such as wolves, often develop strong relationships based on mutual trust and understanding (Smuts, 2001). Therefore, the Navajo people were not the only ones who felt a close connection with wolves: Tsistsistas claim to understand the “speech” of wolves, which allowed them to: “(…) anticipate events to come and warn or prepare their fellows” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 149). The Koyukon people of central Alaska admire the intelligence, strength and keen senses of wolves (Nelson, 1983). Similarly, the Nuhmuhnuh of the Comanche Nation of the Great Plains thought that all animals, including insects, were given powers (Wallace and Hoebel, 1948).

 

Nevertheless, some perceptions of wolves, specifically werewolves, who were believed to be witches wearing wolfskin (Lopez, 1978), was not always seen positively. “The Navajo … feared wolves as human witches in wolves‘ clothing, and the belief in werewolves provides them with explanations of otherwise inexplicable phenomena” (Bath, 1997, p. 32). Navajo witches, it was believed, would transform into werewolves and to keep their supernatural power away, humans kept some wolf gall, the contents of the gallbladder, in their pockets (Utah Office of the State Auditor, 1852-98). “… The comparison between Indo-European and native North American mythology showed that there are very similar images of the wolf in different parts of the world” (Bath, 1997, p.32; see also Coleman, 2006).

 

What separated Native American peoples’ relationships with and beliefs about wolves from that of settlers, was that they also wore wolfskins as a way to “become” and benefit from wolves (Lopez, 1978). They studied them, as well as revered (Marshall, 1995) and imitated wolves (Coleman, 2006). When their children were born, especially during difficult labor, women might rub wolfskin on their abdomen in order to absorb the wolf’s stamina and power (Nelson, 1957). While the Navajo people also had beliefs about wolves that seem comparable to that of some settlers and surely not all of the Navajo people loved wolves, what separates them is that these superstitions did not cause the Navajo people to despise or fear wolves (Marshall, 1995). Settlers generally feared wolves as they represented wilderness, a hazard and a power beyond their control. Marshall (1995) writes: “When the European came to Turtle Island [North America], he brought with him his fear of the wolf” (p. 231).

 

Observing the connection which the Navajo people had with wolves was quite a surprise for many settlers. Smith recalls one of his own experiences of shock when he joined a Native American family for dinner. He watched as a human toddler began nursing from a wolf:

“I was astounded at seeing the man child suck a she wolf. This brought about many gleeful chuckles from the entire family and my host said ‘Wolf milk very good, do it all time. See how fat child is’” (1978, p. 85)?

Hearne also tells of an eighteenth-century explorer who was surprised to observe that: “Few Northern Indians choose to kill the wolf, under a notion that they are something more than common animals” (1958, p. 224).

 

While some settlers might have admired this connection as a whole, neither wolves nor the Navajo people were generally viewed positively. Therefore, it is important to address the role of racism and speciesism (Singer, 1975) when speaking of the injustice both the Navajo people and wolves received from settlers. To clarify, speciesism is the unjust discrimination against individuals of other species (Lafollette and Shanks, 1996; Singer, 1975). As Chiro highlights on the point of racism:

“… particular Euro-American romantic constructions of nature … have been and continue to be problematic and even genocidal for people who have been characterized as being more like nature and thus less than human” (Chiro, 1995, p. 311).

While both wolves and the Navajo people suffered at the hands of settlers, partly due to these beliefs, this does not lay the foundation of the relationship the Navajo people had and continue to have with wolves. It did however, at least for the Navajo people, give them a sense of “brotherhood” with wolves in the face of extreme hardship (Marshall, 1995).

 

How the Navajo people and wolves were perceived due to their proximity to “wilderness” can be traced back to Europe. Humanlike “others”, such as werewolves, vampires, and zombies, were often labelled as monsters which western Europeans believed were found in eastern Europe: “Locating monsters in forests and mountains seems to be a result of the western European fear of nature and the need to destroy forests to promote ‘progress’” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, pp. 105-106; see also Sale, 1991; Pierotti, 2011). Herodotus, a fifth-century historian, highlights this way of thinking in his observations of  “dog-headed men” who lived in the mountains where: “… they wear clothes made from animal skins and speak no language but bark like dogs [Canis lupus familiaris] and recognize one another by these sounds” (White, 1991, p. 49). He also mentions that they: “… do no work; they live by hunting, and when they have killed their game, they bake it in the sun …” (White, 1991, p. 49). The implication that hunting, gathering, as well as preserving food is not work, is similar to how settlers perceived the Native American peoples’ work or, in their opinion, the lack thereof (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018).

 

Many settlers seemed to believe that the Navajo people were “lazy” and “uncivilized” (Kercsmar, 2016; Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). This was partly due to their differing lifestyles, as well as what settlers perceived as the Navajo people’s inability to tame the perceived wilderness, e.g. wolves, around them. Settlers felt that the Navajo people were:

“… unable to improve nature, to turn wild and unproductive beasts into tame and useful ones. Colonists throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lambasted Indian dogs [which were wolves and wolf-“hybrids”] as wild and ill-mannered, lupine and gaunt, the inevitable products of ignorant and neglectful Indians” (Kercsmar, 2016, p. 523; see also Anderson, 2006).

This further solidified the settlers’ belief that the Navajo people were distant from civilization, as well as unable to civilize and tame the wilderness around them. As Ritvo observed: “In the nineteenth century, racialist thinkers sometimes … used the absence of domesticated animals or even the failure to domesticate a particular kind of animal, as a way of denigrating human groups” (2004, p. 211). The settlers’ domesticated dogs, however, were believed to reflect the obedience and civility of their cities and towns (Barton, 1803). This led them to view the “savage” dogs (which were actually mostly wolves; see Pierotti and Fogg, 2018) of the Navajo people as being no different than their “savage” masters (Barton, 1803). In addition, some settlers feared that their dogs: “… would lose strength and civility when transplanted to the New World” (Kercsmar, 2016, p. 525), due to being around the Navajo people and interbreeding with wolves.

 

Many North Americans to this day view the wolf as a dangerous animal which should not be tolerated (Adams, 1995). Others have an overly romantic idea of wolves, the Navajo people and the American wilderness as a whole – operating within a romantic philosophical tradition (Berlin, 1999; Pierotti and Wildcat, 2000; Pierotti, 2011). Some Euro-Americans may identify themselves as being “pro-wolf”: “… when faced with actual flesh-and-blood animals that want to live their lives on their own terms, however, they become fearful and helpless” (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018, p. 237). Although they romanticize wolves, wolves are generally not welcome in their daily lives – a fear which may often stem from early settlers’ perception of wolves.

 

As mentioned earlier, the Navajo people lived very closely with wolves in a spiritual, as well as a physical sense (Pavlik, 2014). Perhaps they extended this sentiment, at first, towards the domesticated dogs which the settlers brought with them. Eventually, however, their relationship with settlers and their dogs became not only more complicated, but dangerous. The domesticated dogs, once a part of wilderness which were then “conquered” and domesticated, became a tool the settlers used in order to dominate the North American wilderness, wolves and the Navajo people. Settlers used bloodhounds to track the Navajo people through unfamiliar territory, as well as Mastiffs who chased and killed Native Americans upon discovery (Campbell, 2006; Hubbard, 1677; Coleman, 2006; Kercsmar, 2016). For the Navajo people, as well as many other Native American peoples, this: “… offered a vicious lesson in how human-dog relationships might go awry” (Kercsmar, 2016, p. 522). Naturally, this was a devastating and dangerous time for the Navajo people. In addition, it likely complicated the ancient relationship the Navajo people had with wolves and, eventually, domesticated dogs.

 

This urge to control wilderness was brought from Europe to North America where, some may argue, it is still present today (Marshall, 1995; Adams, 1995). When first encountering the North American wilderness, Elliot (1992) proposes settlers were so overwhelmed that they insisted on viewing wilderness, including the Navajo people and wolves, through a European lens: This is now referred to as Euro-bias (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Euro-bias was clearly observable when, for example, the English empiricist John Locke (1952, p. 21), told his “God-fearing men” that they must “subdue” the North American wilderness. Often, it is the “invasive species” or the newcomer to a land, whether human or nonhuman, which is considered “alien” or “exotic” (Subramaniam, 2001). When settlers came to North America, however, they reversed roles in their narrative of events and the Native American peoples were portrayed as being the “exotic aliens”.

 

This led to the settlers’ wish to distance themselves from wilderness, along with anything perceived as uncivilized and unclean (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Apparently, there is a story amongst many Native American peoples that the first action settlers took upon arriving was to establish a bounty on the wolves and, soon after, they did the same with the Native Americans (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018; see also Coleman, 2006; Pierotti, 2011). Lopez (1978) believes that celebrating wilderness often goes hand in hand with celebrating wolves and that wishing for an end to wilderness and everything it stands for also means wanting the wolf’s head. The same could be said for the Navajo people: “In the 1600s … bounties were offered and paid for both dead wolves and dead Indians” (Marshall, 1995, p. 16). Consequently, wolves and the Navajo people faced wars of eradication (Pavlik, 2014; Marshall, 1995).

 

These killings were perceived as sport to many settlers. Boncraft, for example, viewed the eradication of the Navajo people as a “great sport” and wrote the following in the mid-1840’s: “… to shoot buffalo was rare fun; but men were the nobler game, whom to search out in the retreat and slaughter and scalp were glorious” (Locke, 2001, p. 313). Similarly, to some extent, hunting wolves was glorified and by 1850 the price of wolf pelts had doubled (Lopez, 1978) and quintupled by 1906 in Montana (Riley, et al., 2004). Unfortunately, the killing of wolves continued: By the twentieth century, wolves were being shot from snowmobiles and aeroplanes for sport (Lopez, 1978; see also Mech, 1970). Many felt this was the “ultimate sport”, while some observers and conservationists found it to be a very low form of recreation (Mech, 1970; Busch, 1995). From 1875 to 1895, ranchers used strychnine, which is highly toxic and often used as a pesticide, to lace the corpses of buffalo (Emel, 1994). Unfortunately, this not only killed wolves, but Native American peoples died: “… range dogs died, children died, everything that ate meat died” (Emel, 1994, p. 714). Mowat captured the irony of humans killing wolves in large numbers for being killers: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be – the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourselves” (2001, p. VIII). The same could be said for how the Navajo people were viewed as “savages”, although they were the ones being killed in colossal numbers and restricted to reservations (Kercsmar, 2016; Marshall, 1995).

 

One of the reasons wolves were killed to such an extent was because settlers, specifically ranchers and sheepherders, viewed them as a serious threat to their livestock which they needed to protect (Fogleman, 1988; Fritts, et al. 2003; Renee, 2002; Carhart, 2017; Pavlik, 2014). The Navajo people and wolves “roaming wild”, not aligning with the settlers’ lifestyle and wolves at times killing their livestock, led settlers to feel that they needed to control them. In other words, they attempted to dominate the wilderness, including the Navajo people and wolves they associated with it. This entailed not only attempted eradication, but also restricting both the Navajo people and wolves to certain territories. Today, the Navajo people: “… inhabit a 27,000-square-mile reservation in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest” (Pavlik, 2014, p. 27). In 1887, Native American peoples as a whole lost 86 million of the 138 million acres – leading to a devastating loss of Native cultures and traditions (Kercsmar, 2016). Similarly, wolves could continue to thrive only in isolated territories due to mass eradication – Navajo reservations, interestingly, being a “refuge” where they could live relatively safely (Bailey, 1931; Brown, 1983; Pavlik, 2014).

 

Due to a lack of economic opportunities and income, many Navajo people were and are unable to properly care for their dogs, making it more convenient to allow them to run free in packs (Kercsmar, 2016). This caused an exponential growth in feral dog populations (McPhee, 1937; Daniels, 1986). Dogs on Navajo reservations have become free-roaming scavengers (Daniels, 1986), as is also common amongst other Native American reservations (Daniels & Bekoff, 1989; Jervis et al., 2018). They experience rabies outbreaks (William, et al., 1971; Daniels, 1986; Bergman, et al., 2008), spread disease, kill young children and bite humans (Kercsmar, 2016) – the bites alone resulting in about one thousand hospital visits per year (Daniels, 1986). “These factors combine to create dysfunctional ecologies in which dogs and humans, reversing millennia of cooperation, are often enemies rather than allies” (Kercsmar, 2016, p. 533). What settlers often labeled as dogs, belonging to the Navajo people and other Native American peoples, were often wolves or dogs with high-percentage direct wolf lineage (Pierotti and Fogg, 2018). Ironically, as both were constricted to reservations where the dogs suffered from rabies and malnutrition and the Navajo people, amongst a myriad of other severe hardships, were faced with dangerous dogs – an animal whose ancestors had played such a vital role in their culture (Kercsmar, 2016). An attempt to control and perhaps eradicate all that seemed to symbolize wilderness, by restricting their territories, for example, caused great pain and suffering amongst both wolves and the Navajo people. Despite this: “… some Indigenous Americans are still trying to protect wolves, which they still view as companions” (Fogg, Howe and Pierotti, 2015, p. 282).

 

The history and hardships both wolves and the Navajo people faced is quite complex and discussing its many aspects in greater detail would exceed the format of this discussion. However, returning to the question posed at the beginning of this paper, namely whether the ways in which settlers perceived wilderness affected how they treated wolves and the Navajo people, it becomes quite clear that it did play a large role. Wolves and the Navajo people signified the epitome of wilderness to many settlers, which led to their attempted eradication and domination in the name of religion, progress, economy and fear: As a result, they shared numerous comparable hardships. Marshall (1995) states that the fear of wilderness stems from lack of knowledge and awareness of what is encountered in these environments:

“Depending on our level of knowledge and awareness, once on the other side of the valley we would pause to look back – and either breathe a sigh of relief for having emerged unscathed or voice a reluctant goodbye. We have either walked through the valley or we have escaped the wilderness” (Marshall, 1995, p. 234).

 

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