Native American Oral Tradition: The "Animal" Nations
At least four identifiable themes or perspectives are evident and include regarding animals as relatives, spiritual mentors, instructors in the practicalities of life or more broadly as critical strands in the symbiotic web of life.
Animals as Relatives
According to the Lakota worldview, all living beings are considered equals or relatives and possess a mind, language and spirit. Lakota elder Francis Cut indicated in his interview, “Beginning with the Creator, there has been a relationship (mitakuye oyasin). Everything is created by blood, everything is a relative.” This belief is also reflected through language, as Albert White Hat has explained that there is no word for “animal” in the Lakota language. Instead, these beings were referred to as either Wamakaska (living beings of the earth) or Oyate (nations). Each animal belong to oyate and are addressed as people would refer to another nationality. For example, the German nation is equivalent to the Elk Nation. These different nations are represented by the Chagaleska (sacred hoop, commonly known as the medicine wheel). According to Bryant High Horse Jr., the four parts of the Chagaleska are represented by the Bird Nation, the Four-legged, Turtle Nation, and Wamakaska. This view of animals as equals figures into the way that animals are portrayed in many oral narratives because they have human characteristics, such as the ability to speak and understand human language. In this way, the philosophy of the Lakota way of life pervades its treatment of animals in oral tradition.
Image from shamnicdrumm.files.wordpress.com
“We don’t have a word for animal in our language. Animal, as I understand, means a second-class citizen that doesn’t have a mind…In our philosophy and spirituality, all creation has a mind, has a communication system, and we call them Oyate-Nations. We call them Wamakaska, living beings of the earth.”
~ Albert White Hat , Sicangu Lakota educator, author, linguist, tribal & spiritual leader, and respected elder
Animals as Spiritual Mentors
Animals often assist humans as spiritual helpers, which often come into a Native person’s life through a vision. For example, Two Leggins, a Crow chief, was protected by the medicine of an eagle feather painted with six white spots. In his dictated autobiography, he indicated that the feather gave him the power to direct the wind. “After the proper ceremony, the wind would blow from the direction pointed by the feather in my hair,” he said. “The six spots meant the owner could cause a sudden hailstorm between myself and a pursuing enemy. Later I used the feather many times and it always worked.” Other than protection, animals had other spiritual designations and powers. For instance, by offering tobacco to the badger spirit, this may help one to have a successful hunt. This corresponds with Lakota oral tradition, as the badger is portrayed as an excellent hunter and provider in the story “The Badger and the Bear.” As part of their spiritual role, several animals and insects are regularly included in Native ceremonies.
Animals as Instructors in Life Lessons
In Native oral tradition, animals are also often considered to be teachers, sharing with humans lessons about life and survival. In an Okanagon legend about the creation of the Earth, Old One (the Creator) bemoaned the state of creation and sent Coyote to kill all the monsters and evil beings and to teach the Indians how to do things. In the story, Coyote traveled all over the earth, teaching and performing deeds that made life easier and better for the humans. While Coyote assumes a helpful role in this story, he is most often known as a trickster, which is the most popular character in Native American storytelling and most is an animal. The trickster character serves as a teacher because their tricks have a purpose. Tricksters will often violate societal norms and rules, often ending in calamity. However, the stories serve to instruct humans by helping them see past limited ways of thinking. Above all, the animal trickster figure would help Native Americans to use their wits and creativity to be flexible and adapt to survive in a harsh world in which circumstances were constantly changing. Finally, our speakers also pointed out that animals are also able to teach us things if we listen closely and observe their behavior. For example, birds are able to tell us when the sun is up with their calls.
Animals as Symbiotic Partners in Life
Animals have a place in the Native view of the symbiotic relationships of life, i.e. insects were created so birds could eat. Indigenous peoples have long understood that survival in the animal kingdom is an interwoven affair, with different species dependent on one another. An example of this is found in the oral tradition of the Tlingit and Inuit tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, who have several tales about hunting interactions between raven, wolf, and human. Many Native peoples believe that different animals have been designated with different powers and responsibilities. In the Tlingit and Inuit stories, ravens are often portrayed as shape-shifters, wise guys, and tricksters, who take advantage of both people and wolves. Long before modern science had confirmed it, these Tribes knew that ravens are one of the most intelligent bird species. They had also observed that ravens will often follow wolves as they hunt and scavenge prey. Ravens will often steal up to one third of a carcass by carrying away meat and caching it in a hiding place. One study even suggests that the reason wolves hunt in packs is to minimize their carcass loss to ravens. Although the advantage may go to ravens, even this relationship is symbiotic, as ravens will sometimes lead upwind wolves to potential prey and wolves and ravens have been observed playing together, with ravens pulling on wolf tails and wolf pups chasing after ravens. Another facet of this symbiotic relationship includes human needs being being met by animals. Some oral tradition describes circumstances in which animals sacrifice themselves for the life of man. According to Burt Medicine Bull, many times animals will offer themselves when such sacrifice is requested by and prayed for by humans. Native teachings indicate that one should give thanks to those animals that give their lives.
Albert White Hat Sr. & Francis Cut [interview]. Winged Messenger Nations: Birds in American Indian Oral Tradition.
Jace DeCory [interview]. Winged Messenger Nations: Birds in American Indian Oral Tradition. Retrieved from
Gene Thin Elk [interview]. Winged Messenger Nations: Birds in American Indian Oral Tradition. Retrieved from
Burt Medicine Bull [interview]. Winged Messenger Nations: Birds in American Indian Oral Tradition. Retrieved from
Bryant High Horse Jr. [interview]. Winged Messenger Nations: Birds in American Indian Oral Tradition. Retrieved
Living Myths: Native American Myths. Retrieved from
The badger and the bear: A Lakota legend. Native American legends. Retrieved from
Thackeray, L. (2012, March 18). Eagles historically called on to aid people of the Northern Plains. The Billings
Gazette. Retrieved from
Creation of the animal people: An Okanagon legend. Native American legends. Retrieved from
Wolves, Ravens. Retrieved from
Storytelling Traditions of Native Americans. Retrieved from