Scholars believe that roughly 50 million Native Americans lived in North America by the time European settlers arrived. A well-known aspect of Native American culture is the connection that they have with animals. To Native Americans, animals are revered as spirits, but for humans to survive, animals still have to be hunted and killed. In the past, animal skins and hides were used as clothing and drums, and their meat was surely never wasted. Most importantly, their spirits were said to have always remained in the minds of Native Americans.
“I do not see a delegation for the Four Footed. I see no seat for the Eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior. But we are after all a mere part of Creation. And we must consider to understand where we are. And we stand somewhere between the mountain and the Ant. Somewhere and only there as part and parcel of the Creation.” – Chief Oren Lyons
The totem pole is considered to be one of Native Americans’ greatest cultural emblems and is a symbol of their ideology. Totem poles display the relationship that Native Americans have always had with animals. They believe that every person is connected to the spirit of an animal and that in death, the spirit is absorbed into the animal. The wooden carvings portray various animals, each of which represents a family member of loved one has passed on.
Because of their relationship with animals, Native American hunters had an appreciation for their food and eventually developed rituals to honor that. For instance, those who became buffalo hunters explored cultural practices which were often depicted in drawings. The drawings show that hunters had ceremonies that included dances such as the Sundance, which was performed to spur the renewal of animals.
While some tribes had farming lifestyles, others were semi-nomadic and relied on hunting and gathering for food. From fishing to big game hunters who followed herds of bison or caribou, to deer, and rabbits, food was always a source of survival. Most Native Americans believed that all animal life was to be cherished. Animals were to be respected because they were considered to be equal to humans. Hunters would show respect and honor animal by asking for permission of the animal spirit before taking its life.
The spiritual connection that Native Americans have always had with animals may be the most profound human-animal relationship documented by historians. Also, how Native Americans relate to animals is part of their tribal mythology.
There are many legends in Native American culture, such as human children being adopted by animals, spirit animals bringing medicine to the people, animal monsters, folklore about humans being punished for disrespecting animals, and tales about either god turning people into animals, or gods turning animals and people. The mythology and spirituality that connects Native Americans to animals have always painted a bigger picture – one which is transcendent. Some even thought that animals were originally human and that they shared the same ancestors.
As time went on, European settlers arrived and introduced new animals that didn’t exist in the Americas, such sheep, and cows. Some tribes were forced to change their lifestyle as the Europeans killed off most of the Buffalo. Those tribes that used to follow buffalo herds had to find a new way to life. Land began to be cleared which made it harder for many to hunt. Some Native Americans today still raise buffalo on ranches and continue to hunt and trap in certain areas, but it’s becoming rarer to find.
Today’s Native Americans continue to share their culture and history with us. They have faced many challenges when it comes to sovereignty, economic development, and revitalizing their native cultures. However, their spirituality and cultural traditions, especially that which highlights their relationship with animals, tells an important story about people who believe in much more than themselves.
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