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Plains Indian and the Wolf: The Pawnee

Pat O'Neil / Wolf Song of Alaska Volunteer

The wolf had a major impact on the societies of many Native American tribes. Rubbing wolf fur on arrows was to bring fortune in hunting for the Cheyenne. The medicine men of many tribes would wear wolf skins in order to duplicate the powers of the wolf. For many tribes, animals represented the four cardinal directions; the wolf was east. The reasons for a wolf howling varied, from calling scavengers to eat after wolves had finished to being the cries of lost spirits trying to return to earth.

One of the tribes that identified most strongly with the wolf was the Pawnee of the central United States, in what are now Kansas and Nebraska. The hand signal for the wolf was the same as the hand signal for the Pawnee. The signal is a "V" formed by the index and middle finger of the right hand, held beside the right ear, then brought forward. Other tribes referred to the Pawnee as the Wolf People who were respected for their wolf-like ability; traveling all day and night, making long journeys living on carcasses they found or on no food at all. While traveling, they would not move in a direct line, but would follow an ever-changing course. Their eyesight was said to be so good that they could see "two looks away", and their hearing so good they could hear a cloud pass overhead.

To the Pawnee, the wolf moved silently and effortlessly across the plains, alert to the smallest change. Upon entering and enemies territory, the Pawnee would strive to move in the same manner, "to sense things like the wolf, to be the wolf". While exploring enemy territory, they would wear wolf pelts with the head coming up over their heads, the wolf's ears standing erect. Upon approaching an enemy camp, if the dogs detected them, the Pawnee would howl. They were so convincing that the dogs soon became quiet.

In the daylight, if they wanted to go to the top of a hill to view the surroundings, they would wear a white wolf skin. Dropping on all fours, they would trot to the top of the hill, smell the ground, lift a leg as to urinate, and sit on their haunches. From a distance, they would be taken for a wolf.

They named their war parties the Society of the White Wolf. Besides wearing the wolf skins, the warriors would often paint their faces and limbs white. Two eagle feathers worn in their hair would resemble wolf ears.

The wolf was respected for its hunting skills, endurance, and stoicism. A wolf's devotion to family and pack, providing food for all, paralleled that of the Native American to the tribe.