History Of Wolves by Juanita Amero
Here it is that time again to explore the world of our outlaw wolves. Previously I had recounted the life adventures and defeat of Lobo, King of Currcumpaw and the Custer Wolf. For this entry I thought an overview of the wolf throughout history, as both villain and kindred spirit to some would be interesting. As with human outlaws even the wolf had and still has its faithful supporters.
Wolf legends of the native peoples of North America show that the wolf was revered because of its devotion to its family and its pack. A devotion, which compares very closely to the relationship between a Native American and his tribe. Because native peoples, like wolves, defended territory and hunted and killed to survive. They admired the wolf’s prowess and ability in doing so.
The Sioux name for wolf is shunk manitu tanka, meaning “animal that looks like a dog but is a powerful spirit.” A number of Native American tribes had medicine men that donned wolf skins in order to duplicate the powers of the wolf.
The two tribes that identified most strongly with the wolf were the Pawnee and the Cheyenne. The Pawnee identified so closely with the wolf that their hand signal for wolf was the same as the hand signal for Pawnee. Other tribes referred to them as the Wolf People.
Cheyenne medicine men rubbed wolf fur on arrows to bring them good fortune in hunting. Cherokee Indians would not kill a wolf. They believed that the brothers of the slain wolf would avenge its death and the weapon used for killing the wolf would not work again unless it underwent exorcism by a medicine man.
The Mandan wore wolf tails on their moccasins as a badge of success in battle. Assiniboine Indians wore white wolf skin caps into battle for luck. Hidatsa women experiencing difficult childbirths rubbed their stomachs with wolf skin.
Some tribes believed that killing a wolf would cause the big game to disappear. This view was completely opposite to that of some modern hunters.
A number of tribes thought that the wolf howls after eating in order to invite scavengers such as birds and rodents to come and eat. Many tribes believed that wolf howls were the cries of lost spirits trying to return to Earth. The Cree believed that heavenly wolves visited the earth when the northern lights shone in winter.
However on the complete other side of the coin, during the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that a horse that stepped in a wolf print would be crippled. Many people refused to eat wolf meat, believing that it was poisonous. Others believed that the breath of a wolf could cook meat. Naturalists of the day believed that wolves sharpened their teeth before going out on a hunt. Dead wolves were buried at village entrances to keep other wolves out. Farmers who continue to shoot predators and hang them on fence posts to repel other predators echo this belief today.
Stories of actual man-eating wolves were not uncommon. These tales have been very common in Europe. A story has been passed down of the wolves of Gevaudan. Between 1764 and 1767, two large wolves were blamed for the killing of a number of villagers near Gevaudan in central France. The wolves were abnormally large with unusually colored coats. One had a large, bright white throat patch and the other was reddish in hue, neither of which are color traits of true wolves. Father Francois Fabre, the parish priest of Gevaudan, recorded their history in 1901. He attributed 64 killings, mostly of children, to the two wolves. One of the wolves was finally killed in 1765. It weighed over 130 pounds. The other, killed the next year, weighed 109 pounds. A few years ago, the Wildlife Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources investigated the killings. It was concluded that the Gevaudan animals were probably not wolves, but “dog-wolf crosses with hybrid vigor.” At the time, huge mastiffs were commonly kept as guard dogs. It is likely that hybrids of these strong and vicious beasts were responsible for many of the killings attributed to wolves. Skull measurements of the two animals confirmed that they were more dog than wolf.
So as you can see, some believe, such as our Native Americans, the wolf to be a sacred, spiritual, being whose soul is intertwined with ours. Others believe or have believed the wolf is a vicious bloodthirsty killer that must be destroyed whenever and wherever possible.
However, I believe, the “true” wolf exists somewhere in between these two extreme views. Although a fearsome hunter the wolf is timid and shy. The wolf is neither a holy messenger of the spirit world nor is he the creation of Satan for evil. The wolf is simply a top-level predator…he is simply a wolf.
See you next time around the campfire where tales are told and legends remembered.