Dogs are often called man’s best friend, and have been part of human societies around much of the world from ancient times, including in the Americas. Given their ubiquity, it is curious that dogs in American Indian cultures hasn’t been written about more. But in the last century there has been just a little written about it – George Allen’s “Dogs of the American Aborigines” in 1920 [here, as pdf], Kroeber’s “Salt, Dogs and Tobacco” from 1941, and “A History of Dogs in the Early Americas” from 1998 by Marion Schwartz.
Most Indian tribes had dogs, with a few exceptions – tribes around parts of the San Francisco Bay (who only got dogs on occasion in trade) and the Amazon. Elsewhere in the Americas, some tribes kept dogs for hunting, some just as pets. Some cultures ate dogs regularly or at ceremony, others never ate dogs. Only a handful of tribes – Coast Salish, Zuni, and Chono (southern Chile) – had dogs they gathered fur for weaving.
I have gleaned a little bit of information about dogs in western Oregon. In short, in our region dogs were raised to help hunt, and were not eaten. In Hanis and Lower Umpqua, dogs were called k’wyuus. The Siuslaw dialect word for dog is closer to the Alsea word, shqaxch. In Milluk dogs were called yek’luu or lek’luu, a word meaning literally ‘big eater’.
We don’t seem to have many origin stories about dogs. Lottie Evanoff (Coos) said that long ago dog was a person. “Everything he knew he told it, he couldn’t keep nothing to himself, that’s why he is a dog. You see his straight mouth – that’s buckskin. He can bark, but he can’t talk anymore. That if he talks, it is a bad sign, there is going to be a war. Indians feel bad when a dog talks, it is a bad sign.” (Harrington 24:556b) Among the Alsea, dog had also once been a person, but dog spoke so obscenely he was told he couldn’t talk any more. (Drucker 1933) There aren’t many descriptions of what the dogs looked like, but the elk-hunting dogs were large. They were also supposed to have short hair, pointed ears and curly tails.
Coos hunting dogs were trained by rubbing condor feathers on its nose. Lottie said “My father said as soon as we would kill an elk out hunting you would see these [condors] circling around… When Indians wanted to have a good hunting dog, they killed [condor] and rubbed the feathers from under the wing on dog’s nose.” (Harrington 24:656b) Spencer Scott said Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua people trained their dogs by singing special songs to them. (Barnet 1934)
Among the coastal people, the local larger breed of dogs were mostly used to hunt elk, sometimes deer. Annie Peterson (Coos) said:
“Sometimes deer and elk were encircled with people and dogs and driven and gotten in the marshes. A chief would take family and dogs; 4 dogs, one ahead, one back, one on either side, and everybody else in light canoes in the water; they’d be shot in the water near the drying-camp and dragged ashore. Bucks mostly were killed, very few cows, in order to save the calfs. Drying platforms were 100 or 200 ft. long sometimes.” (Jacobs 1932-34 98:94)
Annie also thought that Coos hunters preferred male dogs and kept more of them than female dogs. Coquelle Thompson didn’t seem to think there was a strong preference for male or female dogs. He had several memories from his childhood about elk hunting dog.
“We used to have a big dog. Long time ago, when I’m 2 or 3 years old. I pickup meat. I pet dog as he sit up by door, I give him meat. He took my fingers. They had to put it back together. We had big dog with sharp ears. Big as police dog. They don’t bother deer, but they help hunt elk. They track the elk. They wait for dog to bark and know where elk is. The dog would hamstring elk and he couldn’t run any more, but would turn around and fight elk. The dog didn’t bother deer. Didn’t have to be trained, he know. Once in while an elk near kill dog. Always had 2 dogs. Sometimes both males. Sometimes she-dogs. When dog getting old, they went clear to Tillamook to buy elk dog. Pay $50 or $60. They raised dogs. Women feed and take care of them. Right in home. Dog couldn’t go round sweat[lodge]….
[On what dogs look like] Short hair, pretty near kind of wolf, I guess. No more dogs like that, all scrub dogs now. That’s all Indians have.
Go Netucca, Neskowin, they buy them there. They hear about good dogs up there. They buy it. Put rope on it, lead it back. Those dogs just knew. A pup followed his mother on hunt. When pup too little, they had to tie him in camp so he don’t get lost when mother go to hunt. They didn’t chase elk. People kept them tied so they wouldn’t bother elk or deer.” (E. Jacobs 119:59)
Thompson also said his father bought dogs from the Lower Coquille village Kammásdan. “At the mouth of the Coquille River-the Indians there raised these pure Indian breed of dogs known as elk dogs. These dogs grabbed the elks by the hind legs & every time the elk started to run the dog would hold his hind legs…” (Harrington 26:348) He said dogs slept by the door of the main house at night, guarding it from intruders. (Harrington 26:350)
There was a second type of dog that was used to hunt beavers. Lottie Evanoff said “The Indians used to have a beaver dog, small ones like Yuno, but they have to cut their ears off cause when beaver got hold of dog he get ’em by the ear, that made the dogs ugly to cut their ears off. They go into beaver house as Spencer [who was sent by his uncle into beaver lodges to slip nooses around beavers’ hind legs] did. These were small blackish dogs.” (Harrington 24:656b) These dogs would go into a beaver den and drag them out by the tail. (Harrington 24:269b)
Annie Peterson said some people had dog power, and it was a good one:
“If you have a dog power, dog would lick away all disease from the skin. Maybe to yourself, maybe to others. You dream you see a dog-then later you dream, you see, it is a person, a human- If a person with a dog power is dying, others hear dog barking, then they know you had a dog power. Dog is good for healing power. A person with this sort of dog power is pleasant…..
Old Alsea John had a dog power. When he doctored he had two dogs along with him. When he came in, he’d talk to his dogs, when he was doctoring they’d look animated as if happy and helping, if they looked depressed he’d give up. He also had a doll power, perhaps; anyhow he had two wood dolls, one male, one female; he stood them connected in front of the patient; they’d rattle if his curing was successful, they’d fall down if his doctoring was to be unsuccessful. (Jacobs 1932-34: 112-114)
Leona Ludson (Alsea) said that dog could warn in time of danger. “Old lady who had Dog-spirit – went to mountains to pick berries, took dog along, then when started back, dog acted strangely, when parted way back, dog circled around whining. Old lady told sister “That dog tell me we forgot to get halter”, so they went back & there it was. She was very strong doctor – could kill you easily – everyone afraid of her.” (Drucker 1933).
Across the region dogs were given names that often descriptive names. Common names were Hanis and Milluk q’alyau “(white) around the neck”, ba’mis (salal, as in black like the berries). Among the Upper Coquille, dogs had names like ‘big ear’, ‘white collar neck’, and ‘flower tail’.
Allen, George. 1920. Dogs of American Aborigines. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University 63:431-517.
Barnett, Homer G. 1934. Indian Tribes of the Oregon Coast. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Jacobs, Elizabeth. 1935. Upper Coquille notes, Notebook 119, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle.
Jacobs, Elizabeth. 2003. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography, edited by William Seaburg. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.
Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.
Kroeber, A. L. 1941. Culture Element Distributions: XV. Salt, Dogs, Tobacco. University of California Anthropological Records:1-20.
Schwartz, Marion. 1998. A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. Yale University Press, New Haven CT.