Our Wildlife – People and the Fauna of the American West

Our Wildlife – People and the Fauna of the American West

(With an emphasis on the Southwest and Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, and the significance of these animals to the indigenous cultures of the West)

Part I.)


Throughout the nineteenth century, the American West was the destination of an astoundingly tremendous number of people: The east experienced an economic recession in 1837 that prompted many pioneers to head west, looking for better opportunities and a new life; gold was discovered in California in 1848, and when the rumor spread the following year, the “’49ers” flocked to the goldfields there, in what has been said to have been the largest human migration since the Crusades; then, after the Civil War ended in 1865, many disenfranchised Southerners decided to leave their devastated homelands and head in the same direction as the pioneers and prospectors before them.

It all began in earnest at the beginning of that century, after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the subsequent Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806). This ‘Corp of Discovery’ was launched to assess and take inventory of this 828,800 square mile tract of United States land newly acquired from France, most of which had not been documented (and also to keep foreign interests such as England from intruding by establishing an American presence upon it). One of the major tasks assigned to them was to record and classify what would prove to be an amazing array of animals previously unknown to science, which then President Thomas Jefferson had a passionate interest in.

The later arrivals were arguably just as impressed by both the creatures themselves and their shear, incredible numbers; the bison herds were especially impressive in the latter sense.

Unfortunately, while the waves of newcomers were indeed awed by these animals, these very same people were actively and rapidly depopulating the wildlife. Many of these populations, such as the bison, beaver and wolf, have never entirely recovered.

Yet these new emigrants were not the only ones to blame for this devastatingly severe reduction in the numbers of these species. In fact, the Native American Indians became involved and were also actively participating in the devastation. Many of ‘The People’, as they have commonly called themselves, had become increasingly dependent upon trade goods and thus more indebted to the traders; the latter reacted by demanding more pelts and hides from the former, in exchange for debt relief and items the Natives couldn’t manufacture themselves nor acquire elsewhere.

Most people usually think of the Great Plains horse culture when they think of the indigenous people of the West. Yet, there are other cultural regions in the American West, each with it’s own unique customs, languages, cosmologies, stories, ceremonies, and spiritual practices. Furthermore, within each region is a variety of groups, whose diverse customs were and are similar, but not exactly the same.

In the traditional beliefs and world-views of The People, the animals all around them have been perceived as being spiritually potent, each creature possessing their own unique and individual powers.

The region now known as the American Southwest is rich in both native fauna and the diverse habitats of this wildlife, in spite of the ecological destruction of the past and, unfortunately, also that which continues to some extent into the present. Despite popular opinion, this area is not merely barren desert, but includes a wide variety of different environments; even the deserts aren’t the wasteland that people might believe them to be, differing greatly from each other in their diversity. There are, in fact, forests and other ecological zones in the great Southwest.

Interestingly, the largest Ponderosa Pine forest on earth, at over 3.9 million acres, is located in Arizona, the very state with an undeserved reputation of being absolutely nothing but cactus, sand and heat. This conifer forest is found in the North-Central part of the Grand Canyon State, along the base of the Mogollon Rim, which is the southern boundary of the130,000 square mile Colorado Plateau. Geologists say that the Rim was created by seismic uplift 600 million years ago, along with the forces of erosion.

The Ponderosa Pine habitat along the 200 mile long Rim stretches from the vicinity of Flagstaff in the west all the way to the White Mountains far to the east. Within these woods are forests within forests, including the increasingly rare riparian, or stream-side woodland, habitats. There is also the mixed forests of comparatively small Pinyon Pines and Juniper which encroach upon, and intermingle with, the giant evergreens. The predominate, great Ponderosa Pines can grow to an average height of 165 feet tall and four feet in diameter when fully mature. Immature Ponderosas are blackish, but the bark turns to more of a rust color once they reach maturity, which can be up to four inches thick.

Although the Southwest may not be entirely desert, this reputation is somewhat justified. The aforementioned state of Arizona is two-thirds desert, only a third of it comprised of other environments such as the forests described above. The Grand Canyon state itself is the only one in the country where four deserts converge: the Sonoran Desert in the south; the Mojave in the west; the Great Basin Desert in the northwest; and a portion of the Chihuahuan in the far southeast corner of the state, most of which is in present-day Mexico. But whether desert, conifer forests or streams, this all adds up to a great abundance of wildlife habitat, not only in Arizona, but all throughout the entire, immense Southwest.

The term ‘animal’ doesn’t only include fur-bearing mammals, but is used to classify any living thing from an the tiniest insect to a fully mature, male Blue Whale. There are approximately an astounding two million animal species worldwide; Arizona alone has an estimated 900 different varieties of wildlife.

Animals are divided into two main groups. The first are the numerous invertebrates, which lack backbones, and would include anything from a worm to an insect. Vertebrates, then, are the group of animals that do possess spinal columns, any creature from fish to mammals. In total, there are estimated to be only 43,000 species of animals with backbones on the planet. This is a fraction of the life on earth when compared to the various types of invertebrates such as insects.

Mammals, such as bears and us humans, are what most people think of when they think of animals. These two terms are often used interchangeably. But while all mammals are animals, not every animal is necessarily a mammal, since there other types of animals ranging from insects to birds. Typically, mammals are fur-bearing, maintain a constant body temperature (a condition commonly known as being ‘warm-blooded’), with the females giving live birth and producing milk for their young. This is unlike, if not the opposite of, other animal groups, such as reptiles for example.

One way to categorize mammals is by their different behaviors and habits. A very common behavioral trait among many mammals is nocturnal activity, meaning that they are primarily, although not necessarily exclusively, active at night. A nocturnal mammal usually depends more on their senses of smell and hearing than sight. These animals have adapted such acute senses not only because of the darkness, since many do actually have night-vision, but also because sounds and scents travel better on the cooler, damper nighttime air. Most mammals are nocturnal, including some of us humans, such as the majority of us living in a college town, for example…

Humans and a few other mammals are diurnal, meaning that they are primarily active during the daytime. These are a minority, however, and in the Southwest would include coyotes, squirrels and chipmunks, the majority of people with the exception of college students, and few if any others. Most birds, incidentally, are diurnal too, with owls being the most notable exception.

A third type of behavior is crepuscular, a less well-known but common habit among mammals. This term simply means that the animal is most active at dawn and dusk, which is sensible because temperatures are usually more moderate and less extreme at these intermediate times of day. Many of the Southwestern High-Country wildlife demonstrates this behavior, such as elk, deer and even coyotes sometimes.

Although not an everyday year-round habit like those mentioned above, some mammals hibernate. This winter behavior isn’t really sleep in the usual sense, but is more like a very deep sleep or stasis, almost like a coma state; most people are less familiar with the opposite term, ‘estivation’, a summer stasis practiced by creatures who bury themselves during the hot, dry months, such as the Sonoran Toad. The raccoon is said to be a partial hibernator, as is the first animal to be discussed here. Many assume this creature hibernates throughout the entire winter, but typically doesn’t:

Black Bear, Ursus americanus:

‘Black Bear’ is only this animal’s common name; Ursus americanus can be found in colors ranging from blonde to cinnamon to various shades of brown, as well as black. There is even said to be a white ‘Black’ Bear in Western Canada; this ‘Spirit Bear’ represents power and prestige to the Coast Salish people of the region.

Approximately five feet long, three feet high and up to 300 pounds or more, the crepuscular Black Bear is actually the smallest of the bears native to North America and the only one now found in the wild Southwest. These other bears include the much larger Grizzlies (up to 850 lbs.), Polar Bears (600 – 1,1,00 lbs.), and Kodiaks, or Alaskan Brown Bears (up to 1,500 lbs.)

Like the Black Bear, Grizzlies have been culturally significant to Native American Indians. The Nootka, or Nuu Chal Nulth, a Northwest Coast people of Vancouver Island, Canada, would personify this bear during their annual Winter Dance ceremony. The Grizzlies once occupied and competed for the same territory as the Black Bear, but Grizzly Bears have been eradicated from much of their former range. It is, significantly, a Grizzly that is depicted on the California State flag, a state where none of them roam in the wild anymore; this is also true of most other western states, with Montana and Alaska being notable exceptions. Black Bears, however, have adapted and survived.

Even at such a relatively large size when compared to many other animals, the Black Bear can run at speeds of up to thirty miles per hour. This is due in part to the fact that these bears are structured much like humans, since their hind limbs are longer than their front limbs, giving them extra torque. This also makes them excellent climbers and better at running uphill than down. Their one-and-a-half inch long claws also help with their climbing ability, not to mention making them rather dangerous. Remember: “If you’re too close, it’s too late!” Yet despite their dangerously long claws and fangs, these bears are, surprisingly, mostly vegetarian.

The males are known as ‘boars’ and females as ‘sows’. Like some humans, male and female Black Bears only tolerate each other during breeding. Both sexes only partially hibernate, as previously mentioned and despite popular opinion to the contrary. They will spend about three months of the winter in their dens instead of the full six or more, living off of their own accumulated body fat during this time.

In the Athabascan language of the Southwestern Apache, the Black Bear is known as maba. Among American Indian cultures of the West in general, the Black Bear is traditionally believed to have healing powers, or spiritual ‘Medicine’. This is probably because of the bear’s alleged ability to know exactly which medicinal plants to eat when they are sick. The Zuni of New Mexico, for example, still carve stone figures popularly known as ‘fetishes’, said to actually possess something of the spirit and characteristics of the animals they depict. The bear is known to the Zuni as ‘Clumsy Foot’, the animal of the Blue West, whose fetish has been used to promote healing. Among certain Pueblo people, of whom the Zuni are one of many, bear paws would be used in curing rites. The Omaha and Pawnee people of the Plains were known to have had elite Bear Societies, with membership restricted only to those who had dreams and/or visions of bears. These members were not only warriors, but were also said to have been great healers, as one might expect of a group named after the bear.

The Pomo people still reside in the northern coastal region of California, and they were once tormented by ‘Bear Doctors’. These individuals were said to be possessed by the spirit of the bear and would wear entire bearskins, complete with the head worn like a hood. Reportedly, they spent their time exhibiting a bear’s worst behavior rather than healing others with their alleged powers. However, bear dances which are intended to heal are still performed, and the Ute people of Southwest Colorado have a social dance by this name. Bears are so revered, if not feared, that among certain Subarctic peoples, bear skulls were decorated to honor the powerful spirit of the bear, still said to be residing within it.

[If it seems that these peoples have been preoccupied with treating illness, perhaps it is because they were and for a valid reason. Originally The People of North America had only two domestic animals, namely the turkey and the dog; unlike the encroaching Caucasians, they had no immunity to the diseases which livestock transmit to humans such as chicken pox and swine flu. It is very likely that their emphasis on healing rituals was a post-contact development due to the spread of epidemics, which they contracted from Europeans and their descendants.]

In the Southwest, the bear paw is a symbol of good luck, which is why this design is found in so much Native artwork, such as jewelry and pottery. The reasoning might be that the Black Bear is said to always know where the water is; seeing their tracks may be considered lucky indeed in the arid Southwest, since it is probable that they could actually lead one to a scarce water source. This may very well be true, because these bears have an excellent sense of smell, which compensates for their apparent nearsightedness. They would be able to not only smell food, but also life-sustaining water, for quite some distance.

Tribal clans have been named after this bear; the Bear Clan still exists among the Hopi of Arizona and amongst other peoples, too.

Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus:

The ‘Mule’ Deer, or ‘Muley’ as the animal is sometimes called, has been given this particular name due to their extra long, mule, or donkey, -like ears; these can be up to nine inches long! They are a very common deer throughout the west, ranging throughout a wide variety of habitats, from deserts, to woodlands to high-country forests. Mule Deer will feed on a variety of diverse plant-life in these areas.

The Mule Deer are approximately six feet long, three and a half feet high and can weigh anywhere from 125 to 200 pounds. This makes them a mid-sized ungulate, or hoofed animal, much larger than the little Coues White-tailed Deer (only sixty-five to100 pounds), but a lot smaller than the Elk which can grow up to 1,200 pounds; both may be found in the same areas as Mule Deer. All of these animals grow antlers, which are shed or dropped annually, as opposed to horns, which are an attached part of the skull as with Bighorn Sheep, bison, or ‘buffalo’, and Pronghorn Antelope. Among Muleys, the antlers are shed in the winter.

[Pronghorn Antelope do shed the outer cover, or sheath, of their horns annually. Horns such as these are to be found in the material culture of The People: Antelope horns were sometimes used in the headdresses of the Southwest’s Apache people; designs incorporating horns, found on items such as their shields, were said to provide power to the owner, since horns understandably represent strength; horns would also be used in Pueblo headdresses and masks, and deer antlers are also used in this same manner. The Pronghorn Antelope is, incidentally, the fastest mammal in North America, reaching speeds of up to sixty miles per hour.]

Mule Deer are probably the most commonly sighted of the larger mammals of the American West. Visitors to the high-country are especially delighted by a deer sighting, as they are very beautiful animals (hunters are, of course, happy to get the deer in their sights…). Despite their docile appearance, however, deer are still wild animals and can be dangerous, especially when cornered; they will normally give a fair warning by spreading all four of their legs apart in a position known as ‘stotting’. But, if you’re too close, it’s already too late.

Partly because they are so widespread, this species has been especially useful to American Indian peoples throughout the west, and not only for the meat: Leather could be used for clothing, of course, and other items including sports balls used in the popular game known as ‘shinny’; the antlers could be made into a variety of different tools; the scapula, or shoulder blade bone, with serrated edges were used as effective plant cutting tools in the Southwest; tendons were used in the manufacture of bowstrings and to reinforce the bows themselves, and also as sinew twine for sewing; and even the brains were used for tanning the hides.

Various parts of the deer have been used not only for everyday utilitarian purposes, but also to manufacture ceremonial items. Dance rattles have been made by various groups by hanging bunches of dried deer toenails, or ‘dew-claws’, from the end of either a deer bone or a stick. Rattles made from hooves are common among the Pueblo groups. The Zuni and others have used bundles of deer scapula strung together and shaken as a sort of rattle during ceremonies, such as the Kachina, or katsina, dances. This is evidently a very old custom: Scapula with painted geometric designs were found at an archaeological cave site known as Cueva Pilote in northern Coahuila Mexico, apparently for the same purpose; occupation of the site has been dated from 1000 – 1400 A.D.. Among certain Paiute bands of the Great Basin, rattles would be made from two deer ears sewn together and filled with gravel, ready to use once they had dried into rawhide. The Navajo, or Dineh’, and other groups of the Southwest such as the Hopi are known to make ceremonial masks from deer-hides. The Kiowa of the plains made deer tail charms known as tatonto. The Uncompagre Ute also utilized deer tails, but merely as one of several items used to decorate their babies’ cradle-boards.

To the Hupa, Yurok, and the Karuk people further inland, where the southern Northwest Coast and California regions converge, deerskins have been both practically useful and spiritually symbolic. Unusually colored hides are displayed as status-symbols in annual Deerskin Dances, and very rare ones such as albino, or white-deerskins, are still considered especially prized and valuable to these people (Although part of the larger Northwest Coast culture, the Hupa of northern California traditionally speak an Athabascan language, which they have in common with both the Navajo/Dineh and Apache of the Southwest region; their Karuk and Yurok neighbors have Hokan and Algonquian languages, respectively). Deer dances are also held elsewhere, such as among the various Pueblo villages of the Southwest, like that of Taos and Acoma of New Mexico. Elsewhere in New Mexico, the people of Cochiti Pueblo maintain the yaphashi shrine, composed of a twin set of stone mountain lion effigies, where they leave offerings of deer antler.

Although very useful, the Mule Deer were never necessarily easy to kill. Because of this, the People have resorted to a variety of hunting strategies, including snares and other methods. Dead-fall traps can be created by camouflaging deep holes with branches, sticks and other debris. These were once commonly used in the eastern Mount Shasta region of the Far West; they were so common, in fact, that the name ‘Pit River’ was applied to both the predominate waterway and the Achumawi peoples of the area who created these traps. If hunting with bow and arrow, individuals might disguise themselves in entire hides including the head, sometimes complete with antlers. Also, various poisons might be added to arrowheads, made from everything from Black Widow or rattlesnake venom to rancid meat, which would reduce the speed of their shot but still fleeing prey.

The People would also seek spiritual aid in hunting Mule Deer. The Southwestern deer dances mentioned above, along with the accompanying songs, were originally intended as a prayer to the deer, asking them to offer their lives so that The People may have them for food (similar hunting rituals would have been done in other regions also). These dances are now performed, it seems, more to honor those deer that fed their ancestors than to attract the deer, although certainly some of these people still hunt for venison. The Zuni paint pottery with a deer motif that has a distinct ‘heart-line’, a red line running from the mouth to the heart and ending in a sort of arrowhead point (fetishes often have heart-lines, too). Sources say that the very act of painting these deer was once meant as a form of prayer itself. This was intended for good luck in hunting, possibly in the belief that the deer might be attracted to their own image; interestingly, research suggests that, in many cases, creating rock art may have been a similar act of prayer as well.

Elk, Cervus elaphus:

The Elk probably numbered somewhere about 10,000 individuals in what is now known as North America around the time Colombus landed toward the end of the fifteenth century; it is estimated that they are now ten times fewer in numbers, and there are only this many left due to conservation efforts.

Elk are, in a word, huge: males, or bulls, can weigh in at up to 1,200 pounds; females can weigh about 450 or more; a newborn calf weighs approximately thirty-five pounds, which is around the size of a full-grown raccoon. Despite their size, elk are fast, averaging thirty to forty miles per hour; they could conceivably outrun a Black Bear. The antlers of an adult bull can be up to five feet long with as many as six points, or spikes. Like deer and bison, elk are members of the ungulate, or hoofed, animal family, and like deer they have antlers which are shed annually instead of more permanent horns.

They can do some real damage with those antlers, and in unexpected ways, too. The antlers are used both for display and in ritual combat, but before that can occur, they must be polished during the autumn rut. Since antlers are shed, the vessels for growth are on the exterior, forming a fuzzy material known, appropriately enough, as ‘velvet’. Small sapling trees are often used for rubbing off excess velvet and otherwise cleaning the antlers. This ‘girds’ the young trees and kills them, essentially disrupting the flow of nutrients due to the exposure of the inner layer. In the high-country, individual saplings and even entire little groves can be found dead, yet still standing, with their bark stripped, often around the whole circumference. Typically, only one part of the tree below the lower most branches is targeted for this vigorous rubbing, but even this select exposure is enough to kill the tree. As destructive as this seems, some of the conifer forest is overgrown and some thinning might be healthy for the ecosystem. But the dead fuel could conceivably create a fire hazard and possibly an insect infestation. Either way, it is notable that creatures other than humans can have an impact on the environment, even a detrimental one. In the forested high-country motorists must always be cautious and watch for the wildlife, which will appear in the road unexpectedly; this is particularly true of the massive elk. The cross-traffic often has four legs instead of four wheels, and can occur virtually anywhere along a mountain highway, intersecting roads or not. Furthermore, they are brownish animals with an even darker mane on their chests, which are crepuscular but often active at night. This makes even this huge and seemingly obvious animal very well camouflaged and extremely difficult to see. Once one is too close to them while behind the wheel, it can really be too late; the vehicle and passengers often suffer as much damage as the elk, if not more so, whenever there’s a collision between them.

Elk have been very useful to American Indian people and continue to be a popular game animal still (A popular joke among reservation people of the Plains, such as the Lakota Sioux, is that they do not poach cattle but have been known to hunt down ‘slow elk’ instead). Their importance seems to be reflected by the large numbers of elk depicted as petroglyphs, or rock art carvings, throughout the Southwest. Obviously, these animals, like the comparably sized bison or ‘buffalo’ (at 800 – 2,000 lbs.), would provide people with a lot of meat and hides. However, elk have had other traditional uses also.

The elk antlers were especially useful. For example, peoples such as the Hupa, Karuk and Yurok traditionally had currency with a fixed value in the form of tusk-shaped dentalium shells, Dentalium (Antalis) Pretiosum. In fact, the peoples of California, and arguably the Northwest Coast, were the only ones in all of North America to have had real currency; the well known wampum beads, created from the eastern Quahog clam shell, originally had no true monetary worth. Eventually the value of the currency spread as far as the Dakotas. This particular species of the mollusk was almost exclusively found in Nuu Chal Nulth territory, the shells finding their way south through trade. Thus, they were considered suitably valuable to people like the Hupa due to their scarcity; a small boat was worth an arm’s-length strand of these shells, which were strung on Iris fiber cord. But like anyone with money, they would need something to put it in. So, these people would create containers from hollowed elk antler, complete with a slot and removable lid in the top. These antler purses would usually be ornately decorated and some artisans continue to create them even today.

These same cultures used the antler in the manufacture of spoons, which were also ornate, a practice they had in common with coastal peoples farther to the north and also with the Arapaho of the Great Plains. This utensil was used for eating acorn soup by the Hupa and their neighbors. The Pomo Bear Doctors carried a decorated elk antler dagger as sign of their membership, which was manufactured from the tip. Also, the Utes would scrape a piece of elk antler across a notched stick, which was placed on an overturned basket and used as a rasp instrument known as a morache, played during their Bear Dance. Offerings of elk antler, to ensure success in hunting, were once left by the Blackfeet people of the Great Plains near the Yellowstone River; this eventually created a large pile resembling a pyramid.

Prehistoric elk had extra thick, muscular necks, partly to support the two huge ivory tusks which protruded from the upper lip for fighting, like those of the contemporary mammoths. Over time the elks’ tusks were reduced in size and adapted more for browsing. These became known as ‘ivories’, which have been particularly important to the Great Plains cultures. Evidently, people in this area have valued them for centuries: Located along the Missouri River in North Dakota, the Fort Yates archaeological site has yielded elk ivory ornaments which are approximately 530 years old. At birth, Lakota boys would be given an elk tooth to promote longevity, since this is the last part of the animal’s remains to decompose. The roots of these elk tusks were typically perforated for sewing and then they were used to profusely decorate the front of women’s dresses, usually sewn on in row upon horizontal row. Since each elk only has two of these types of teeth they are relatively rare, so such a dress would be a real status symbol and the teeth would be quite valuable since they are so scarce. For example, a Crow, or Absoroka, groom would have to pay a bride-price of 300 ivories for his bride’s wedding dress. Ivories were once such valuable trade items that the exchange rate was100 for one horse. These teeth are still popular jewelry pendents and are worn by some as a symbol of love, apparently because of the following attribute of the elk:

Among these Great Plains groups, not only the teeth, but the elk themselves have also been culturally and even spiritually significant. In autumn, the male bull’s loud mating calls are frequently heard. This ‘bugling’ is audible from a great distance, attracting not one, but several females, or cows, forming what is known as a ‘harem’. Young men of the prairies would want to access the spiritual Love Medicine power of the elk, to hopefully attract mates for themselves. They may have enlisted the assistance of a shaman, or ‘Medicine Man’, specializing in Elk Medicine. The image of the bull elk has frequently been depicted on pouches, shields and other Plains Indian items, evidently for this very reason.

In Lakota the elk is known as hehaka, but they are better known by a different American Indian word: Wapiti, another common name for the elk, is derived from the Shawnee language of the Eastern Woodlands, meaning, appropriately enough, ‘White-rump’!

Next: Part II.), Smaller Mammals…

By Lee Littler
Copyright, 2011