Without a doubt, animals are a huge part of Native culture. They are considered our brothers and sisters, among our winged, four-legged and swimming family members. They are part of our creation stories, they are messengers to the ancestors and the Creator, and they are our teachers on this world.
In an attempt to give a bit of respect to our sacred animals, we have compiled a bit of cultural information about our brother and sister brethren. Here are six sacred animals and what they mean.
Because the eagle is the animal that flies the highest in the animal kingdom, many tribes have believed they are the most sacred, the deliverers of prayers to the Creator. Additionally, the eagle feather as a gift is considered the highest honor to be given.
The eagle is an animal of leadership, and in most cultures it is considered a dishonor to kill one. As a certain Cherokee legend demonstrates, you simply don’t mess with an eagle. One night, according to The Eagle’s Revenge as recounted on the website FirstPeople.us, a hunter kills an eagle that he finds eating a deer hung on the drying pole. The following day seven warriors are felled mid-dance by seven whoops from a warrior who enters in the middle of the ceremony. The tribe later learns that it was the eagle’s brother, come to avenge the death.
Most commonly viewed as the trickster by many tribes, the coyote figure is also called Isily by the Cahuilla, Yelis by the Alsea and Old Man Coyote by the Crow Tribe, which views the animal as both creator and trickster. Regarded by some tribes as a hero who creates, teaches and helps humans, the coyote also demonstrates the dangers of negative behaviors such as greed, recklessness and arrogance in other tribes.
Overall, the coyote is often referred to as a creature of both folly and intelligence that seeks to fulfill its own needs at the expense of others. The coyote is also known as a master of disguise.
As one of the most important life sources for the Plains tribes, the American buffalo, or bison, is a sacred and strong giver of life. Their horns and hides were used as sacred regalia during ceremony. They are also tied to creation, medicine and bringers of sacred messages by the ancestors such as White Buffalo Calf Woman, the bearer of the peace pipe to the Lakota people.
In an Apache story, a powerful being by the name of Humpback had always kept the buffalo from the tribes of Earth, thanks to Coyote, who tricked Humpback and his son into believing that he was a dog, waited for them to fall asleep and then barked to scare the buffalo. The buffalo in turn trampled Humpback’s house flat, which allowed the bison to roam the Earth and feed the people.
Another trickster, the raven is a big part of many tribes including the Tlingit of Alaska, who tell many stories about how the raven created the stars and the moon. The raven is the creator god of Gwich’ in mythology—mischievous and loud, and in many ways a sarcastic troublemaker, he is also known as a thief.
In one Tlingit story the raven changes himself into a small piece of dirt, and a young girl, the daughter of a rich man, swallows the transformed raven in a drink. The girl has a child, who cries until bundles are opened to create the stars and the moon. Finally the child takes the bundle, which is in fact daylight, and the raven is revealed.
In the trickster vein, this one hilarious, the Raven places dog feces near the rear end of his brother-in-law in order to trick him. While he is distracted, the Raven takes all of the water in his brother-in-law’s nearby spring.
Known as the carrier of Turtle Island by the Great Spirit, the turtle plays a fundamental role in the creation stories of many East Coast tribes. The name Turtle Island is literal: Having placed a large amount of dirt on a great turtle’s back in order to create North America, the Creator designated the turtle as its eponymous caretaker.
While Plains tribes associate the turtle with long life and fertility, other tribes associate the turtle with healing, wisdom, spirituality and patience. The Hopi know the turtle spirit as Kahaila, while it is Mikcheech to the Micmac and Tolba to the Abenaki.