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Chapter One: Native Americans and American Lions
The spiritual center of the universe is located on a high, dry plateau in northeastern Arizona, where land stretches out in a vast meditation of mind, and mountains ring the far horizon wish surrealistic shapes of desire. This is Hopi Land. For nearly a thousand years the Hopi people have raised corn, squash, and beans without irrigation in a place where rainfall averages eight to twelve inches a year. Their success points to the power of Hopi ceremonials. Today, as they always have, Hopis focus their lives on communication with the spiritual world. Throughout the year they dance and pray in ritual celebrations. Hopi culture is one of the most intact Native lifeways left in North America, and mountain lions play a strong symbolic role in it. Hopi Land was the first place I visited to try to understand how the force of the sacred guides the routine of everyday life. I wondered how real mountain lions fared in the secular world of human ego.
Mountain lions are not the largest predators in temperate North America, being far outweighed by grizzly and black bears, but bears are omnivores and rely more on plants than on meat. In this, and in the way they use their hands and feet, bears are like humans. Mountain lions are true carnivores, living almost exclusively on animals--preferably deer--that they themselves kill. Wolves have a similar diet, but they procure it through family cooperation in a way that is easily observed and appreciated by humans. Lions live and hunt alone, except for mothers with young. They seem magically elusive, able to remain invisible even when the landscape is clearly imprinted with signs of their passing. They are agile enough to traverse the roughest country, and strong enough to kill animals much larger then themselves. When European arrived in the Americas mountain lions ranged from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, from the coasts of both oceans to the peaks of the Appalachians, Rockies, and Andes. The only large mammals more widely distributed throughout the western hemisphere were humans, so every Native culture except those in the Arctic encountered lions--a fact that contributed to the long list of names by which the animal became known to European settlers. Coping with a creature so alien to humans, so physically powerful and potentially threatening, and above all so mysterious must have been a serious exercise from the human psyche.
Not all Natives revered mountain lions. Thousands of cultures have come and gone in the Western Hemisphere, each with its own language, myths, traditions, and beliefs. Only in stereotypes is there a universal American Indian and a standard, nature-loving religion. Indians of the Pacific Northwest, for example, disliked the mountain lion. A Nootka Indian from the area, interviewed in 1955, called the lion the one animal the Indians did not understand. Lions are still relatively numerous today in Washington State and British Columbia and it's likely they have always thrived there, but they are largely absent from local Native imagery. When they do appear it's usually for a disreputable performance, as in the story of how the whaire's body came to have slits from chin to breastbone--a mountain lions clawed him.
To the south, toward the Plains, mountain lions kept Indians in a constant state of uneasiness. Charles A. Eastman, a mixed-blood Lakota from Minnesota who graduated from Dartmouth around the turn of the twentieth century, called the great cats "unsociable, queer people. Their speech has no charm. They are very bashful and yet dangerous, for no animal can tell what they are up to. If one sees you first, he will not give you a chance to see so much as the tip of his tail. He never makes any noise, for he has the right sort of moccasins."
Tribes from the Great Lakes southward feared the Underwater Panther, a composite monster with the body and tail of a mountain lion, ardens of a deer, scales of a snake, feathers of birds of prey, and parts from other animals as well. It lived beneath bodies of water. Water monsters appear in various guises the world over, but in North America the Native images tended to merge the traits of the mountain lion, or in some cases the lynx, with those of snakes. Mountain lions can swim but rarely choose to, and it's curious that they came to be so intimately- associated with water. A friend who is part Potawatomi, (a people indigenous to the Great Lakes region) suggested that the mystery of the animal's hidden life became associated with the unknown underwater world. Potawatomis wove the image of the Underwater Panther, master of underworld forces, into one side of the fiber bags that held medicine objects, and the Thunderbird, master of the powers above, into the other. At least as late as the 1950s, the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians performed their traditional ceremony to placate the Underworld Panther and maintain balance with the Thunderbird.
The Underwater Panther was often a malevolent creature the punished human transgressions by calling up fierce storms to swamp canoes and flood towns, but it could be beneficent as well, leaving meggers of shining copper on the shoreline to reward good behavior. East of the Great Lakes. Algonquian peoples believed the Underwater Panther had the power to heal. Its tail was covered by copper scales, and copper was used in curing rituals. When the first Europeans offered smelted cooper alloys in trade for furs. Iroquoian tribes worked them into spirals and hoops that invoked the panther's long curving tail. Skillfully fashioned and beautiful in their simplicity, these ornaments are among the earliest object made by Natives from European materials. Never was there greater need for help in battling illness than when European arrived, bringing devastating new diseases.
The ancestry of the Underwater Panthers can be traced, dimly, to Central America Artisans from Oklahoma to South Carolina and from Illinois to Florida began to incise horned cats on shell cups and pottery around 800 A.D. That was when the revolutionary technique of growing maize reached the vast Mississippian drainage at the heart of North America. Agriculture meant a whole new way of looking at the world. It apparently began in Mexico, where a feathered and horned serpent and a jaguar with bird's eye and serpent's tongue were fundamental religious images. Their complex meanings embraced both good and evil. The Anasazi, ancestors of the Hopis and of Pueblo peoples, whose language is distantly related to Aztec, seem to have come from the south. The Anasazi painted horned snakes on canyon walls throughout the Southwest. These creatures were rules of water and could make ponds puddle or dry up with their presence or absence. Mountain lions, too, were scratched and painted into the rocks of the Southwest by Anasazi and other Native tribes. Feet and claws are often exaggerated, but the bodies are long and lean, true to life. The trail curves up and backward to run parallel to the backbone. Sometimes the face is grinning fiercely, as all cats do when they engage an organ in the roof of the mouth to sense chemical odors.
As far as lion symbolism goes, the Hopis achieved a classic statement of reverence for nature. "The mountain lion," said Leigh Jenkins, the Hopi cultural preservation officer, "is very sacred to the Hopi. He is a deity, a guardian of the tribe, to whom Hopis look for guidance during certain ceremonies. He is regarded as the strongest and most fearless animal and the greatest of hunters. His name, oha, also refers to the black clays used to decorate particular kinds of prayer sticks. Black represents strength in delivering the prayer sock's message to the homes of the rain gods."
Leigh was a short, stocky man with lustrous black hair cut just below the collar of his blue shirt. His office was in Tribal Hall at dusty Kykotsmovi, down in the hot, windowless basement. I went there to ask his help in entering a foreign country. He was the only access for someone like me, an easterner with no contacts in Indian country. I was nervous and sweating in my wool shirt. Once it was land the whites pirated from Indians; now it's ideas, and on the basis of past experience you can't blame Natives for being cautious about what they give away. And of all Natives, the Hopis are the most secretive. They believe that knowledge is power. To prevent the draining away of their knowledge and their power, Hopis zealously guard the details of their lives. In the Hopi Museum I was asked to stop taking notes on a display based on a Wall Street Journal article about Louis Tewarima, a famous Hopi athlete. Photographs are prohibited everywhere in Hopi Land.
Hopis are very popular with certain kinds of non Hopis, and such precautions don't always work. In August 1987 one of the various contingents of New Age believers who gathered around the world for a global horn-in, a harmonic convergence to save the world from destruction, decided to tap the spiritual force of Hopi Land. They neglected to communicate their plans to any Hopis, who ask that visitors stay on main roads. A Hopi farmer out weeding his corn one morning came upon a group of disheveled white people dancing slowly through his field, chanting, beating drums, planting traditional Hopi prayer sticks, and waving feathers. Hopi means "people of peace." The farmer did not confront the trespassers but called Leigh, whose job is to mediate contact with outsiders.
That was the first story Leigh told me. He was a natural teller of tales. Gruff at first, he slowly loosened up and came to life, smiling, moving his hands in strong descriptive gestures. I could see the billowing scarves of the New Agers and the exasperated shrug of the Hopi farmer. For two hours I sat in Leigh's office and listened to his stories. I had not expected such generosity. Through his stories, he invited me into his world. He opened a window into a different way of thinking and put mountain lions into a rich and living context of ideas. I responded in the most polite way I knew, by listening intently and gazing at the glowing computer screen, the laser jet printer, the framed certificate of appreciation from Harvard Medical School, the piled-up desk, the pictures of his children on shelves crowded with books on Indian art and history --in short, by resting my eyes on everything except Leigh's face. Indians consider it rude and confrontative to stare eye to eye.
Lions were probably always sparse on Hopi Land, and there were few tales to tell about them--Leigh hadn't heard of any sightings since his grandfather's time. There is some cover lions might like along the ragged, boulder-strewn edges of the three long mesas and a few small, truncated pyramids that look like Aztec temples. But there simply isn't much for deer to eat, and land without deer is poor lion country. A wide flat desert of sage and brittle, scattered shrubs unfurls endlessly from the foot of the mesas. The country is so spare that there isn't, actually, much wildlife of any kind. Around the turn of the century, one of Arizona's last jaguars wandered onto Hopi Land. A 1908 photograph of his spotted skin is reproduced in a book, and as far as I could tell, the author's assertion that there were no punctures was true. Hopis and other tribes have traditions of ceremonial killing, in which the skin of the animal cannot be broken. Deer and even antelopes were run down and smothered with sacred corn pollen. No motive for the jaguar's death was given other than to show the bravery and skill of Second Mesa hunters.
A few years ago a black bear meandered onto Hopi Land. She was young and naive and probably had just left her mother to find her own home ground. Someone called the Anglo wildlife biologist who worked for the Navajos, and he arrived to find a small crowd, some carrying rifles but without serious intent to use them, near a den in some rocks where the bear was hiding. The biologist jabbed the bear with an immobilizing drug, and several Hopi helped carry her two miles to the car. As they went they prayed sprinkled sacred corn meal, and tried turkey fathers to the bear's fur. The next day, as the biologist prepared to release the bear in suitable habitat on the Navajo Reservation, the Hopi Bear Clan leader made a visit and performed similar rituals.
What Hopi Land does support, presumably with rodents and small game, is the undauntable coyote. Leigh told several stories about coyotes, who love melons. Just when the fruit is round and luscious, on the day before Leigh means to set out traps, coyotes come and devour them all.
"I trap and shoot them." Leigh said, "and so do most Hopis that have been damaged by them. Some people bury the carcass with an offering, honoring the spirit even when it has harmed them, but others just leave the body he. It's very individual. Dry farming is hard, and I'm proud of my crops. When it comes to protecting them. I'm a human being first and a Hopi second."
The Hopi male ego, Leigh said, is closely tied to being the provider of corn and vegetables. The produce is given to women for storage and preparation, in a reciprocal arrangement. Farming is the link to the past. Hopi Way, the plan for a moral life, depends upon agriculture and reverent, ritual supplication for rain. Leigh still dry-farmed more than ten acres of corn and raised traditional squash and melons for this family.
His father and grandfather were shepherds as well as farmers. "My grandfather," Leigh said. "could recognize his five hundred sheep by their individual faces. I'll never reach that level of intensity because I don't depend utterly on sheep and lan for survival. I have my checkbook," he said, patting his back pocket, "and a job, a savings account."
The grandfather couldn't participate much in ceremonies because he had to stay out with his herd. "But I pray just like you do," he told Leigh. "And I will tell you what is the greatest tranquility in life. On the very hottest day in summer, when the sheep are too hot to walk and lie panting on the sand, when the dogs crawl under the tiniest bush that offers a speck of shade and hang their tounges out, then I sit and feel the serenity of the whole earth."
Heat waves shimmed against the adobe brick wail of the office and the panting of animals filled the room.
"It strikes me that the white way would be to curse the heat," I said, thinking how unpleasant a truly hot day in that landscape would be.
"You know, it's just like the weather reports lately," Leigh said. "The announcers complain about the rainy spell we're having and say, hold on, good weather is coming. But to us Hopis, rain is the best weather. The more dizzly days the better. Just the opposite of the white way of thinking."
Leigh's grandfather was the Hopi to ride a burro to herd sheep; when he stopped in 1972, that was the end of a tradition that starred with the Spaniards, who introduced livestock in the 1500s. Nowadays Hopis use pickup trucks. Cultures are dynamic, charging response to the world around them, but change in Native American cultures has for five hundred years mostly been inflicted by the arrogance of outsiders. The story I remember most vividly, because it was so painful to listen to, was about four Hopi elders who traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1890. Invited by Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrats who wanted to intimidate them into sending Hopi children to a new government school on the reservation, the eldest hoped to plead for justice against persistent trespassing by Navajos. The trip as engineered to terrorize people who had never before left there own remote world. A train carried the Hopis through Leavenworth Prison, and as Leigh spoke I saw the ugly block walls, the thick black bars across the windows, St. Louis was the first city the Hopis had ever seen. At a naval base near Washington, troops paraded before them and ships fired canon shots. When they returned to Hopi Land, the elders met with their people in the lave, the underground ceremonial chamber.
"How many whites are there?" the spokesman for the travelers asked his people theoritically, then answered by scooping handful after handful of sand from the ground. I watched the grains stream from Leigh's palm "How many Hopis are there?" he asked, and he bent down for a tiny pinch of sand. "I have learned that the white man has two ways he treats people who don't do what he wants. He puts them in cages, or he shoots them I don't want that for my people." The elder picked up two strands of cotton; they floared from Leigh's outstretched hands. "Never forget Hopi Way, but also take the best of the white man's way," the eldest said, and Leigh twisted the strands together. From that time on the Hopis were divided, as most Native societies inevitably became, into often bitterly opposed factions. Progressives advocate cooperation with whites and are often propped up through white influences on tribal governments. Traditionals seek to maintain the old ways.
"How do you choose what's best in white culture?" I asked.
"It's hard," Leigh said. "It's very individual. For me it's a tractor to weed the corn with. But I still plant the old way, with a planting stick."
Tractors stood among the cars and four-wheel-drives parked outside the homes in Hopi villages. There were few yards; houses opened right onto the one-lane rutted roads that wound through, but there were flowerpots and flowered curtains in the windows. One- and two-story houses were built of cut and uncut stone, some of them plastered over, some not. In Old Oraibi, the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America, where ground has been packed by bare feet since 1150 A.D., TV antennas rose from the most ancient-looking homes. Wooden doors were splintered by weather. Occasionally a bit of aluminum guttering coursed along the edge of a flat roof. Scattered on the ground were ceramic shards, corncobs, and broken glass winking in the sun. Firewood lay stacked here and there; at the back of the village was a heap of coal, and an acrid smell wafted on the air. A breeze blew up now and then, flapping the plastic sheets anchored by rocks and tires on some of the roofs and blowing up dust devils in the road. A small boy played with a puppy. In Old Oraibi, in 1947, after atomic bombs had exploded in the region and on the other side of the world, clan leaders revealed prophecies they had been taught to keep "until a gound of ashes fell from the sky." Their desperate energy helped spark a slow renaissance of Indian thought and art, which continues to accelerate.
From Old Oraibi the snow-capped San Francisco peaks gleamed pure and alluring across the desert. On those beckoning summits lived the kachinas, the myriad supernatural beings whom the Hopi called on for help from mid-July to the winter solstice. For the other half of the year, the kachinas lived in Hopi villages and manifested themselves as masked dancers. The mountain lion kachina wore a green face mask, a red hair shirt, and yellow body paint.
For a couple of days I stayed at the Hopi Hotel on Second Mesa, ate piki bread and bean and hominy soup and blue corn pancakes at the restaurant, and drove desultorily through the Hopi Reservation. I eaves-dropped on conversations in gift shops and poked around after mountain lion curios. Mostly I wanted to turn my thoughes loose into that simultaneously demanding and quieting landscape, to search for meaning that transcends culture. In a jewelry shop a black-haired woman wore a sweat-shirt that offered, at least for her, a resolution for cultural Angst. It said, "Don't Worry, Be Hopi."
One of the Hopi's long-standing worries is the neighbor that completely surrounds them: the Navajo Nation. Navajos (and their relatives, the Apaches) traveled down from western Canada around 1200 to 1500 A.D., just before the Spanish arrived to give another spin to the cultural mix. By then the Anasazi had been building and abandoning villages throughout the Southwest for millennia. They were fundamentally different from the Navajos and became traditional enemies, although trade was always an important dimension of their relationship. Agriculture was the basis for every aspect of Anasazi life and the lives of their Hopi and Pueblo descendants. The Navajos were hunters and gatherers, although they soon learned to grow corn from the Pueblos. Pueblos live together in communities of hundreds of people of various clans, with formal authority vested in the heads of religious societies. Navajo house; are scattered in family clusters, and authority is informally dispersed among many clans; elders give advice but there were historically no chiefs as whites defined them. This caused no end of trouble to Anglos who thought they had made a treaty with the Navajo tribe rather than with one small, autonomous band. Pueblos were generally nonaggressive; Navajos raided the Pueblos for women and slaves. The growing Navajo population--at 260,000 the Navajos are now by far the largest Indian tribe in America--continually pushed onto Pueblo lands, causing a still ongoing dispute with the Hopi. Pueblos regularly reach outward to the spirits for community blessings. Navajos, too, communicate with the spirit world, but spontaneously, for the inward purpose of healing an individual's illness.
For Navajos, sickness reflects a disruption of the harmony and balance that constitute the normal order among all components, in the universe. Every element in creation has evil as well as good aspects, and when evil becomes dominant--usually through improper conduct by humans--it takes the correct application of mystical knowledge to control it and restore right order. For their curing ceremonies the Navajos adopted and adapted many Hopi and Pueblo practices.
Navajos adapted just as readily to the horses, goats, and sheep brought by the spanish. Before Columbus the Natives of the southwest had domesticated turkeys for the feathers used in prayers, and they and others throughout North America had domesticated does to pull baggage and perhaps to flush small game. But no North American Natives tended livestock; thus the crucial source of conflict with mountain lions and all other predators did not exists. Sheep assumed enormous importance to Navajos after 1868, when the Tribe was allowed to return to its homeland after Colonel Kit Carson had shot Everstock, pillaged orchards and cornfields, and herded all the Navajos he could find to Fort Summer in New Mexico. so deeply scarring was that experience that even today in casual conversation, the "Long Walk" is likely to come up. In partial recompetence, the U.S. government issued thirty-thousand sheep to the remaining nine thousand Navajos. As they worked to rebuild their lives, Navajos counted the number of sheep they owned, regardless of how scrawny pr parasitic, as a status symbol. The ranged was overgrazed and serious erosion resulted, which continuous today. And since the mountainous portions of the seventeen million are Navajo Reservation offer good bear, lion, and wolf habitat, conflicts with predators became a factor in Navajo life. Wolves and bears remained.
In Navajo thought some creatures have particularly dangerous potential for evil, and among them the bear is prominent. His Navajo name should not even be whispered, lest his spirit be called. but the bear also has potential for great good and was once a lovely and kind sister to the first people. In remembrance the Navajo traditionally used bears for food only in direct famine and famine them only in a ceremonial way, although bears lost such protection if they killed livestock. a number of Navajos told me that mountain lions, too, were in the same sacred category as bears, but there was no traditional requirement for ritual hunting as for bears.
To cope with the physical power of these spiritual beings, the Navajo Nation in 1956 borrowed a wildlife manager from the U.S. Fish&Wildlife Service to set up a tribal wildlife department-- the first such entity on any reservation. Its major aim was to reduce the number of predators. In 1961, for the first time, a Navajo was paid a bounty for killing a mountain lion. On the whole, thought, the Navajo have historically suffered few sheep losses to lions. In part this was probably because lion numbers ebbed as deer declined from overhunting. game seems to have been fairly plentiful until about 1990, after which unrestrained hunting to supply inns along the Santa Fe trail reduced the deer herd to less than one hundred head on the entire reservation. One of the first projects of the Navajo wildlife office was to restock deer.
Navajo shepherd usually penned their sheep at night, which deterred the few lions still around. bears didn't mind climbing into corrals for sheep, though. Bears love the small Navajo fields of corn, too, not to eat but, for some inscrutable reason. To traditional Navajos, once a bear has walked a corn field, he has claimed it, and they may no longer harvest it for their own use.
The new head of the Navajo&Wildlife department trained which as well as Navajos (who called themselves renegade agents) to trap bears. Over the next couple of decades, these trappers averaged about ten hears a year. then it began to seem that bears weren't so plentiful as before. It wasn't simply a matter to overtrapping. Navajo population doubted in the 1960s and 1970s, logging as well as coal mining accelerated in the Navajo Nation Forest, and explorations for oil and uranium opened up previously wild areas to human intrusion. The trappers voiced their concern to tribal officials, who hired a young white wildlife biologist named Pat Ryan to assess bear population on the reservation.
When I met Pat, he had been working in various capacities for the Navajo wildlife department for nearly fifteen years. The girlfriend he had met in college, Kathleen McCoy, followed him to the reservation and was hired as the big game manager. Together they had somehow survived innumerable purges, periodic campaign promises to replace all belaganas (whites) in tribal jobs with the Navajos and other assorted political whirlwinds. Pat once returned from a ten-day stint in the field to find all new people in his office. Nevertheless, the Navajo commitment to preserve bears was solid. Pat spent ten years tracking bears he had captured with foot snares and collared with radio transmitters and responding to calls from Navajo families about problem bears. It was Pat who answered the Hopi's call to come get the bear on their land. His stories, like Leigh's helped to put mountain lions in the contest of a different way of thinking about animals. Pat's narrow mustached face was topped by a camouflage that from which unruly curls escaped around the sides. He was very fond of beer but also of skiing, bicycling, and barkpacking, which kept him lean and wiry enough to scramble up rocky slopes and crawl into bear dents. He loved the fieldwork except when a Navajo collegue kept him up all night guarding against skinwalkers, the human witches who assume animal disguise. Pat found that many sheep killing blamed on bears were actually due to dogs, and of those bears that did eat sheep, many were old or crippled.
"I learned to pretty well predict where bear problems will come up," he said, "and that's at the worst overgrazed areas. Bears like to ear a lot of grass, and some of the old ones seem to learn that they don't have enough because of the sheep, so they eat grass by way of sheep." When I asked him how Navajos reacted to bears, Pat shook his head. "It's so varied I couldn't characterize it," he said. "Some would blast a bear on sight. Some would call us out to set traps when they had only seen bear tracks in the area. Once family wanted us to kill a problem bear, but when we did, they refused to help load it on the truck because they didn't want to touch it. They were afraid of spiritual retribution. The older people tend to be most traditional. One grandma said to me. The bear came last night and ate three sheep. I just hope he doesn't want any more. She called her brother, a medicine man, who did a born blowing ceremony and worked. I guess it's just a matter of time until the old ideas fade away.
Even as they fade the old ideas still sparkle with intermittent force. Because the mythical hero Changing Woman named the mountain lion as one of the guardians of the first Navajo clans, lions are considered protectors. When Gloria Notali moved back home to the reservation after working for a federal predator-control agency in New Mexico, she brought with her a mounted lion heard. "My knowledge of Navajo culture is limited," she said, "because my parents didn't feel it important for me to learn about it. But when my father saw that lion mount, we got into a tug of war. He wanted it for his house to guard against bad spirits."
Gloria wanted it because she thought it was beautiful. "I have this dream of a some fireplace with the lion head above it," she said Gloria was director of the Navajo wildlife section and Kathleen McCoy's boss. When I interviewed her at tribal headquarters in Window Rock, she was working through lunch, Phones were ringing, people were hurrying in and out, the entrance door had kickmarks from people with their hands full, and boxes of supplies were stacked in corners because there was no other room for them. Except for the posters celebrating Navajo heritage, the place looked just like every wildlife management office I've ever been in. Gloria had short hair and a broad, attractive face. As a female and member of a minority, she her pick of job when she graduated in wildlife science from the University of Arizona, but she chose to work for the Navajo Nation for a couple of years, until she couldn't stand the politics anymore. Then, after five years in New Mexico,she grew homesick.
"I've been here a year now," she said, "and if they don't run me out. my first priority is to put wildlife on the same level as grazing, logging, strip mining, oil and gas exploration, and all the other development now going on. Planning for fish and wildlife has always lagged behind. An interdisciplinary team has just developed a management plan for the Navajo Nation Forest--that was a milestone for wildlife. With careful planning we can have all those land uses." Use of wildlife was paramount in Gloria's mind. "I'm a strong advocate of consumptive use rather than preservation," she said. "We need to be practical and address both human and animal needs. Like with endagered species--yes, we need to preserve them in some cases, but in others, do we need to save what little's is left of a species and cause great human dislocations?"
Mountain lions are not officially listed endagered anywhere in the West, and I wondered what their future might be on the reservation. "There's no lion hunting allowed now," she said. "We know we have lions but we don't know much about lion populations. I'd like to see a research project to determine whether we could have a sport hunting season. which would bring income from licenses."
Sport hunting was scorned as a disgustingly wasteful white habit by most of the Indians I met, but there is money to be made form it the White Mountain Apache manage their elk herd for trophy bulls and charge white hunters $10,000 a week for guiding and camp services (permits are also sold to white guides for lions and bears). "Navajo are meat hunters." a ponytailed man said during one of the periodic public meetings that Gloria and Kathleen host to discuss hunting regulations on the reservation. "We can eat antler." And yet, at a similar meeting a few years ago, several young Navajo hunters requested a bear sport hunting season. One had been opened in the 1960s but was closed when traditional Navajos protested. Kathleen was amazed when the tribal council her proposal for the bear season without opposition. There permits had been purchased the first year, only one in the current years.
As big game manager, Kathleen was responsible for monitoring the health of the deer herd, now at eight thousand to ten thousand, and for keeping track of elk, wild turkey; and bear populations. She liked to hunt at least every few years for the meat but wasn't avid about it. Kathleen was tall and well proportioned, with large but very feminine hands. Her blue eyes were just a bit lighter then her navy sweater, and in the sun her brown hair shone a burnished red--the effect of iron in her well water. She and Pat Ryan had in common not just an Irish Catholic background but a quiet, reclusive rejection of most things connected with it. Supplying animal parts for use in Navajo ceremonies was a major part of her job. She liked being able to fulfill the requests, because she figured it helped keep poaching down. The biggest demand was for eagle feathers because the eagle was viewed as master of the upper world by many tribes, but federal regulations complicated the dispensing of any feathers Kathleen was occasionally able to obtain from captive birds or birds found dead. Turkey feathers were the next most frequently requested item; the turkey hunting permits she mailed out asked for donation of the plumage. Deer hides were also popular, and she confiscated them from the few poachers caught (Kathleen estimated that deer poaching amounted to roughly five times the legal yearly kill of four hundred to five hundred).
I was in Kathleen's office, just down the hall from Gloria's, when Maria Sagina came in to request parts. An herbalist, Maria is a [UNREADABLE TEXT], jolly woman who seems always ready to laugh. She wanted badger grease to rub on the hands and feet of children to roughen them against falls. "I was a badger skin to throw babies onto." she said, "because badgers are so hard to kill"--and she made motions of clubbing a badger many times. She also wanted lion urine, skin, and claws to use against dizziness, fainting, and other evidences of witchcraft. Like the Pueblo people, Navajos believe that evil arises not from nature but from human witches who use spiritual powers for destructive purposes. Maria worked in concert with her husband, a gentle, kindly man named Albert. When I met Albert, later, he searched through his wallet to give me an elegant if battered business card that read, "Medicine Man." There was no phone number, Albert was self-conscious about his broken English and spoke mostly in Navajo, with Maria translating. He described a stone he had found, n the shape of a cat's paw, which he like to rub on the palms and soles of children to enable them to keep hold of a basketball and leap with agility of the basket. Natural stones in the shape of animals have long been thought to have special powers.
"That's how it works with us," Maria would interject. "That's how it is."
When people saw lion paw prints and were afraid for themselves and their livestock, they might ask Albert to come over. "When we get a problem animal, we talk to it, pray to it, tell it to go away, and it will," he said. "That's how it works. Sometimes when an animal comes around, it wants help from you, just like it sometimes gives you help."
"If you see a bear around, talk to it, tell it not to bother you," Maria added on her own. "Like a child. Sometimes we leave honey on a log for him--not often, he would forget how to take care of himself, got spoiled like a child. But we want to keep him around to guard against the bad spirits.
"People that lose sheep or cattle," she went on, "it's because they are negative. They bring it on themselves. Maybe something is bothering the person, or witchcraft is being done."
"Some bears are bad, they don't listen," Albert said. "Then we call Kathleen. It's like we had a bank robber, who did it a second time. There is no way but to execute him."
"But we try to talk to them first," Maria said. "Like with the buzzard, he owns cancer--you go to his home, tell him to take back the cancer, then we give patients herbs."
"It works," ventured Albert in heavily accented English, "if you believe."
Many Navajos do believe in medicine man. If a medicine man could prescribe and sing precisely the right songs, perform exactly the right dry-painting, he could bring raging forces under control and defeat sickness. This took a lifetime of learning. Although there were fewer and fewer disciples, there were, still, quite a few medicine men, even an association (though it was, not surprisingly, an ephemeral sort of group). Kathleen and Pat directed me to several medicine men they knew. It was Pat who had first met Henry Wallace. Henry had called Pat some years ago about a bear that was eating his corn. The two men stayed up all night, sitting in Pat's tribal truck with a spotlight, but the bear decided to move over to a neighbor's field, where Pat eventually scared him away through the use of a solar-powered electric fence smeared with bacon grease.
No one was home the first time I pulled off the main road into the Wallace compound--several trailers, a small house, a larger house under construction, various outbuildings, and a large unfinished hogan, the traditional seven-sided log house that reflects the circular nature of the cosmic process. From Tony Hillerman novels I knew that I should wait by my car for a while, giving anyone who wanted to a chance to come out, but only the five horses grazing around the yard came over to investigate. The next time, a lanky young man came out as I learned against my rental car, I looked away as I explained who I was and what I wanted, and I noticed he did, too.
"My father's not home," he said. "Come back tomorrow afternoon," Worried by the stories I had heard about Indian time, I mentioned a specific hour, and he nodded so readily my worry wasn't much alleviated. But the next afternoon he was there, although his father wasn't. "He's at sheep camp," the young man said. "Can your car handle some ruts? I'll take you there." He doubled his long skinny frame into the car, and we took off.
Ambrose had a pencil-thin mustache, a slightly pocked skin, and warm brown eyes. He loved Navajo lore and knew a lot of it. "I won't tell you the lion's ceremonial name in Navajo," he said, "because that wouldn't be proper. But it translates as Walking Silently among the Rocks."
This name, and the fact that Ambrose had volunteered it, made me happy. As we drove across a high plateau, past stands of young pines interspersed with caller trees and stumps and past the sign that read "Navajo Nation Forest," Ambrose talked freely and earnestly about Navajo life. He mourned lost traditions and the decline of medicine mend, scolded the younger generation for drinking while hunting, and condemned the violence on TV. Most of all, he was concerned that his young daughter grow up learning to speak Navajo. When I said that I appreciated his friendliness and openness, he said simply, "We like to have company from outside."
We turned off the pavencat onto a good dirt road. Pinyon pines grew more scunted and juniper and sagebrush became more common. The land was gently rolling, the distant horizon blended into long gray clouds and thin blue strips of sky. Miles passed. Occasional green street signs seemed incongruous in the middle of the huge plain, especially since they were lacking in downtown Gallup. Canyons that you couldn't see until you began to descend into them sliced a cross our route. The road to Henry Wallace's place had by now become deeply rutted. It led down into a red-walled canyon, crossed a wide, rushing creek, and started up the other side. Tucked into big old pines just above the canyon wall was the sheep camp. A small band of sheep grazed around an old woman in wide skirts and a scarfiike a Russian babushka, whom Ambrose identified as his grandmother. we pulled into a yard with a hogan and a small, rectangular log-and-mud house. I followed Ambrose in, noting how he bent his long body to duck under the low doorway. Carefully, to avoid looking like a clumsy greenhorn, I did the same. The house had a single room. It reminded me of houses I've visited in Appalachia except it was cleaner, neater, and sweeter smelling. along the left wall was the kitchen, with a new gas stove, a counter and a sink, although I wasn't sure about running water. In the center of the room was a small round wood stove that radiated warmth. It was early spring and still very cool; a good time for my purposes, because Navajos believe that animals should he discussed only after first frost and before first thunder, during their winter quiescence.
Two iron bedstead stood at right angles to each other, with an armchair between them. In this sat Henry Wallace. Ambrose settled on one of the beds. His mother, a large woman in a skirt and print blouse, with dark-framed glasses and long hair pulled back into a bun, sat on a couch doing needlework. Ambrose motioned for me to pull up a chair from the dining table. The room was full but there was a comfortable, even a spacious sense of a living room. A shelf above one of the beds held spools of sewing thread and a radio, which was playing pop music. Henry turned it off.
He looked at me and made a motion of writing. Clearly others had sought him out, and I could understand why. He made an extremely impressive appearance. He had white hair in a buzz cut and bristling eyebrows of pepper and salt. His features conveyed strength and determination. His skin was neither dark nor red but golden. His eyes didn't seem brown like Ambrose's; there was something else glinting there, but in the shadows of the house and with only the quick glances I allowed myself, I couldn't quite tell what. He wore jeans and a heavy red sweat-shirt with a hood.
"It starts with the big one, the main one," he began, in hesitant English, "what you call the boss." He touched his chest and shoulders. "Then it goes down from there," and he moved one hand in a step motion, implying levels of cat. "Leopard with spots, tiger with stripes, panther is black. All cats are the same, from mountain lion down to" and he pointed at a white cat sleeping on top of a neatly folded stack of quilts. Then he changed to Navajo, and Ambrose translated. It was a pleasant language to listen to, alternately guttural and sibilant.
When Mother Earth was first created, Ambrose said, each animal was told what he would be used for. "The mountain lion was told his skin would be used for ceremonies, and for quivers," Ambrose said. "The gail bladder is used against evil, if a person is witching against another person, Lion claws are used to tear yucca leaves for making ceremonial arrows."
Quivers seem to have been one of the most widespread uses of the mountain lion in North America. Maybe Natives hoped to convey the strength and silence of the lion to the arrow. The Lakota of the northern Plains also made saddle blankets from lion skin. Southeastern Indians wrapped male infants in lion skins and female babies in the skins of deer or bison, the lion's prey. Natives along the Mississippi tapped thin sheets of copper around the lower jaws of cougars to use as headdresses. Lion claws were strung into necklaces, and tails decorated clothing. The ultimate use of mountain lions was to eat them, which some cultures did in both Americas.
Lions skins, claws, and gall bladders were passed down from generation to generation, Ambrose said. A Navajo can't just go out and shoot a lion for parts whenever he wants, he added emphatically. To kill for no reason is against our ways," Henry said in English. Then he describes, in Navajo, how lion fat, mixed with eagle, bear, and bobcat fat and with the ashes from dead branches of the most venerable jumper tress, would be smeared on human bodies. "What you would call war paint," Ambrose added.
Fat was not something that could be handed down through the ages, and I wondered how it was obtained. The only reason for a Navajo to hunt a lion is for his own ceremonial uses, Ambrose said, but few if any Navajo did that anymore. "We buy from sport hunters off the reservations," he said. "All they want is the head."
Henry began to speak about the four cardinal directions and the colors--black, blue, yellow, white--associated with them. As he spoke he moved his hands in a dignified, expansive way toward the east, west, north, and south. Each direction was marked by a sacred mountain. In some way, mountain lions in each of these colors and on each of these mountains had a role in ceremonies. "It's because lions are used in ceremonies," Ambrose said, "that we consider them sacred. If you don't want them to bother you, if you find a track, put turquoise and shells on the foot tracks and pray, `I cave us alone.' The lion might be sick and wants to be cured."
I asked what happened if a lion didn't go away.
"We call Kathleen or Pat," Ambrose said. "We get other nationalities to kill them for us."
So guilt for killing was avoided. In Navajo mythology, as in the myths of many hunting cultures around the world, there was a time long ago when humans and animals were essentially the same. People became animals, and animals turned into people, and all spoke the same language. They married and had children. Hunting, then, meant killing relatives. A solution to the problem of guilt was to identify with predators who, like humans, needed to kill to live. Ambrose explained one way in which Navajo licked themselves to hunter animals. "We hunt the Wolf Way," he said. "It depends on what clan you're born into. We have a separate prayer and chant. When I make a kill, I put my right foot on the deer and howl--all the coyotes will hear and come. It's like saying `Come eat,' because we leave the entrails for them. Then we share with our family, like the wolf. One who hunts in the Mountain Lion Way uses his own prayers, and when he kills, he sniffs the blood. The lion is stingy, so the hunter will eat the meat by himself." The Mountain Lion Way of hunting was also known as the Tiptor Way or the Deer Way, and aimed to bring down deer and sometimes antelope. The hunter kept his arrows on the bowstring ready to shoot, and walked against the wind on tiptoe along game trails.
Occasionally Ambrose's mother added to the conversation; her English was a bit more confident than Henry's. She nodded when Henry said they didn't see many lions around, but sometimes they noticed one passing through.
"Are there enough lions?" I asked. "Would you want more around?"
"No!" she said, her eyes widening. After a while she asked me, "What do you think of this zoo?"
I had been to the Navajo Zoo, an attractive, well-run clusters of cages set into the spectacular monoliths at the escarpment where Window Rock was located. It held a variety of native species, including bears, lions, wolves, and coyotes. The staff often found cornmeal by the bear's cage, a sign of praying. Once in a while it looked as if someone was praying by the lion's cage. The director routinely received requests for body parts--a lion's whisker, rattlesnake blood, particular hawk feathers--and filled those that weren't too physically intrusive. More than thirty thousand people a year visited, most of them Navajo, but after fifteen years of operation, the zoo's budget had just been slashed by a member of the tribal who held the traditional view that wild animals should never be caged. It was a view I could sympathize with. "But it's the only way the young kids are going to learn about the animals," Ambrose said. "It's good to have for the younger generation."
A car drove into the yard, and a couple with two small boys knocked and came in. I assumed these were relatives. Each one went around the room to each of us and shook hands--an Indian kind of handshake, just barely touching palms, because a firm grip shows assertiveness, a trait not highly valued. Something Pat had mentioned came to mind. "The Navajo love to shake hands," he had said. "When I have tow meetings in a row with the same people, they'll come up again to shake even though we've just done it." The new comers sat down; the little boys were still and quiet, while their father joined in the conversation.
After a short while, Henry said to me, "That's all. Not many stories of lions." It was clearly time for me to go. Ambose planned to stay, I went around and shook hands with everyone, highly pleased with my cultural sensitivity. On the way out I hit my head on the low door frame.
The clouds had knit together into a gray weave that nestled over the long green plan. It wouldn't be the kind of blustery, pounding storm that brings what the Navajos call male rain, but rather the soft, gentle patter of female rain.
Long blades of ice sheathed the trail up the canyon wall, and I watched my footing carefully. I was backpacking alone and did not care to trip. Although it wasn't sheer, the cliff on my right fell off several hundred feet. There were tussocks of stunned oaks and gnatly pines among the boulders that probably would have broken my fall, but the thought was not comforting. Elk and deer droppings absorbed the heat of the morning sun and razed the ice around them, the larger elk apples making deeper wells, so that's where I stepped. This part of New Mexico has more than enough deer and growing numbers of elk. It has cliffs with rimrock overviews, jumbled talus slopes, forests of pines and junipers for cover, and innumerable natural caves for dens. Some streams even run year-round. It is great mountain Lion country.
It has been great lion for a long, long time, and that fact has shaped the culture of the Natives who lived there. On some ledge of mind below the reach of words, the Southwest is the home of lion spirit. Maybe in the clear air and sparse vegetation, lions were glimpsed more often than in lusher, denser landscapes. Maybe those more frequent sightings revealed the agility and grace that are the essence of lion beauty. Other Native cultures besides those in the Southwest have found beauty in mountain lions. A century before the Spanish arrived in Florida, a Calusa Indian carved an elegant wooden figurine with a small head, large round eyes, delicate nostrils, and sinuous limbs arranged in a human posture. Eastern Woodland Indians carved many stone and clay fired pipes with fluid features of naturalistic lions. But in New Mexico, Pueblo peoples honored lions in a way unique in North America: they sculpted a pair of life-sized lion figures from bedrock and enclosed them in a ring of stone. It was to the Shrine of the Stone Lions that I was headed.
Actually, there were tow such shrines within a few miles of each other, each consisting of a pair of lions that had been chipped and rubbed with stone and bone rools from the compressed volcanic ash that forms the local rock. By 1880, one of the shrines had already beer blasted by treasure hunters who thought, mistakenly, that something might be buried underneath. It was no longer an active shrine. The one to which I was hiking, accessible because the mesa on which it sits is now within a federal wilderness area, was created between 1200 and 1500 A.D. and is still visited by Indians from many miles away. As late as the 1950s, local hunters from nearby pueblos (villages) were still anointing the eyes and toes of the Stone Lions with red ocher (oxide of iron) to transfer to themselves the vision and strength of the lion. "We're planning to start taking groups of our schoolchildren there," a tribal officer for the nearest pueblo told me. "It will be a good way to teach them the traditions, especially the young boys." While at that pueblo I passed the reservation school, where a marquee proclaimed, "Home of the Cougars."
It was the distant ancestors of those very schoolchildren who had most likely made the Stone Lions. Their had been in the same place for more than five hundred years, but that was its fifth or sixth site. Periodic drought, warfare, expanding populations that killed off the game and cut all the number within easy reach, exhaustion of the small pockets of good soil--some or all of these factors forced the ancestral Anasazi to move, and move again. (Hopi mesas, on the other hand, have a different geology that holds water, and a coal seam that was worked by Stone Age strip-mining reduced the need for wood, so Hopis didn't need to move.) Today's nineteen New Mexico pueblos descend from thousands of sites through the Southwest, most of them still unexcavated. Toward the end of my bike I came upon one called Yapashi, linked in oral tradition to the pueblo village that was Home of the Cougars and believed to be home of the Stone Lion sculptors. Mounds of earth and stone rubble formed an irregular circle from which stretched arms of cholla cactuses. Here and there a corner wall of stone cut from the light volcanic rock still stood upright. Five hundred people may have lived here. I stood in the middle of the central plaza, where dances and games were held, and heard voices singing in the wind. They were bluebirds, flashing like little pieces of sky. Without them I would have felt so alone in that dead city. The earthen roofs of the kivas had collapsed, and pines had seized the advantage of extra soil. In those pits with painted walls and fire hearths, ceremonies and social events took place, and the men slept.
Yapashi commanded a 360-degree view. Mountains far and near, the higher ones still mantled with snow, circled the entire horizon. Just beyond view, some hundred and fifty miles east of Hopi Land, was the Puebloan Center of the World, a shrine made of a rock cairn atop a high peak that contains obsidian for arrows. Like many other Native peoples, the Pueblos venerated various natural features as shrines. And like most other tribes, they felt themselves to be the focus of the living world.
The Stone Lions lay a short walk to the northwest from Yapashi. The shrine was very inconspicuous. Squat junipers, bushy pinyon pines, and Gambel oaks still thick with the dead leaves of winter screened my view. Needles and leaves had built up under trees, but between them was bare dirt, visibly eroding in a continuing legacy of overgrazing. The first sign of the shrine was a jumble of rectangular boulders. Some were three or four feet tall and standing upright; others were smaller and had tumbled over, or perhaps there had been some sort of wall built outside the ring of monoliths. One pinyon pine, present in photographs from 1890, grew through the rocks. The ring was broken on the east side with an entrance way paved in stone. Inside, the lions lay off-center, side by side and apparently identical, stretched out in what has been variously interpreted as a crouching or reposing posture. They might have been resting their heads on their paws or getting ready to spring. Their expressions might have clarified their intention, but bored shepherds had battered the heads and obliterated the faces in the late nineteenth century. All that remains is the body shape--a hint of massive shoulders, distinct baunches, and broad, flat tails extended straight out. Someone had placed a single deer antler in front of them.
I have seen pictures of the Stone Lions wreathed in white antlers, a very pretty effect and seemingly appropriate. The local Pueblos, however, didn't think so. They complained to the federal superintendent about foreign objects at the shrine, and in the early 1990s the religious leader of the closest pueblo held a ceremony at the Stone Lions to burn everything found near the sculptures. Federal rangers agreed to clear out whatever they found at the shrine on their rounds. The next summer the superintendent received a Freedom-of-Information Act request for all records relating to the shrine. The letter read, in part:
On August 8th we led a group of hikers to the Shrine of
the Stone Lions. It was the third time I had been there in
as many years. The stone circle at that Shrine has much in
common with ancient sacred stone circles throughout
Europe, and much of the worship of the Native Americans
is common to our ancestors also . . . When we arrived at
the Shrine, we were greatly disappointed to find that the
Shrine had apparently been stripped of many of the sacred
objects that had formerly been used in religious worship
there . . .
Below the signature was the title, "Priest of Wicca." The superintendent replied, in part:
Early photographs taken at the turn of the century and
again in the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s show that the Shrine
was completely clean; no ring of antlers and no objects of
worship were historically nor prehistorically (according to
oral history) left within the Shrine ... the ring of deer
antlers and the addition of worship items did not appear
until the 1960s...The leaving of "foreign objects" no
matter how good the intentions, within the Shrine...
compromises the Shrine for Puebloan people... The
Pueblo elders and religious leaders inform us that they do
not leave things within the Shine...
There was no further correspondence. The foreign offerings had included beads, potshreds, and hawk and owl feathers. In Puebloan tradition, owl feathers tied to bags of human excrement are the most vile implements of witchcraft.
I sat on stones red ocher, but couldn't see any. Local Natives ask that visitors do not enter the stone ring, but the bare dirt was trampled by many footprints. I felt an active desire not to walk in, although I did, after a long time, step quickly in to toss away the antler. After a while a chill breeze drove me downslope to scout for a place to camp. I wanted a reasonably flat size that I could restore from the impress of my tent and its stakes. Unfortunately every such place was sprinkled with prickly pear cactuses, and eventually I uprooted two of them. Maybe that's why I didn't see a lion, but then I hardly expected to. Nonetheless, I put up the tent where I could across the little canyon that ran behind the Stone Lions. There was a good sitting rock next to my tent. For hours I sat. I've never been good at meditation. I didn't even try to clear my mind. I let it wander over the canyon wall, between several huge boulders that framed my view. On the left, one was patterned with green lichen into a sad frog face. On the right, two rocks formed lowercase, dotted I five stories high. Between them lay several arrangements of beige rocks that looked invitingly like lion dens. I kept hoping a lion would stick her head out of one, yawn, stretch, and call out her kittens. Or leap from rock to rock in a display of feline grace. Nothing of the kind happened. The life of the canyon simply went on. Birds sangs and sometimes winged by. The sun slowly sank. Trees transpired. Spirit flowed.
Spirit is a human concept, like justice, and equality. The people of Yapashi believed that lion spirit was strong enough to fend off evil, especially from the west, the direction that the lion represented. One of the functions of the Stone Lions was to guard Yapashi. Another was to serve as a hunting fetish. Like the Hopis, the Pueblos saw the lion as the greatest hunter of all, and the master of other predatory animals. There doesn't seem to be the latest hint of human competitiveness for deer; on the contrary, the Pueblos gloried in the lion's hunting prowess. The leaders of some Pueblo hunting societies were called Cougar Men. Hunters gave the cry of the lion to intimidate deer and small fetishes of natural or carved stone, shell, or wood. Without these, in which the power of the lion level for a time and favored the hunters with increased skill, hunting would have been useless. When the hunters made a kill, he smeared blood on the mouth of the fetish to feed it. Properly treated, the lion acted as a protector and could advocate human interests among the other powers in the world.
At the same time, the lion was an enemy. Killing a lion (or a bear or an eagle) was the same as killing an enemy Navajo and admitted a Pueblo man into the Warrior's Society as fully had taken a human scalp. When a lion was killed, the hunter built a fire and the other men of the Pueblo, alerted by the smoke, crept up to the skin and attacked it with clubs or bows and arrows or guns. The skull was ritualy buried. Lion men was apparently not eaten, although lion bones have been found in archaeo logical digs in the region. The skin claws were used for ceremonies, but killing lions to obtain parts doesn't seem to have been any more routine for Pueblo than for Navajos. Lions that died from illness or the hooves of an escaping deer must have been found sometimes. Occasionally a hunter would come upon a [UNREADABLE TEXT] by surprise and take advantage of the opportunity. And sometimes, in the communal drives of deer and rabbits that were a common method of hunting, lions or bears would be caught in a circle of hunters. Any animal that failed to break through was killed.
These "surrounds" faintly echo the enormous drives of Inca kings in Peru, where thirty thousand men formed a circle dozens of miles in diameter and slowly cinched themselves closed. Tens of thousands of guanacos and vicunas were captured and shorn; the females were released, as were the best and largest males, while the rest were killed for meat. Lions and all other predators were killed. Animals were tallied and the hunted areas were rotated. This practice, described by the son of an Inca Princess and a Spanish conquistador, has been called the earliest game management in the Western Hemisphere.
And yet, despite their enmity to the mountain lions as predator, Incas relied heavily on the car for cultural symbolism. Lions were associated with transitions--in time, as in initiation rites for young boys, and in space, as in marking borders--hinting at a biological relationship with edges: lions are most active on the brink of night and day often seek out the prey rich margins where different habitats abut each other. Lion symbolism and biology entwine inextricably in other Native histories. The Indians of southern California were said to venerate the lion above all animals because, when they saw buzzards gathering, they sought out and feasted upon the lion's kill. The lion's success as a hunter meant their own survival. Cheyenne mythology went even further: their women suckled panther cubs like children, and in turn the panthers killed deer for them. Early humans in Africa probably appropriated leopard kills, and Bushmen have been known to persuade lions to relinquish a freshly killed dinner. Maybe it was the use of mountain lion food by people that generated a body of lore, prominent in parts of Central and South America, of the lion as a friend and even loving helper of humankind.
Enemy, guardian, friend--facets of mountain lion glint and flash through myriad Native beliefs, but underlying them all is a single vein. Natives see the world as a whole in which every entity, animate and inanimate, plays a part. Every part is intimately involved in an unending, mysterious cycle of life and death, and any feature of nature--plants, animals, mountains, waterfalls--might be addressed in terms of kinship. The lives of nonhumans have important and power. Nonhuman life sustains human life. This fact generated a deeply felt need to reciprocity, which is expressed in mystic rituals and codes of behavior. From the tension between exploiting and worshipping the environment grew a desire for harmony and a tolerance of ambiguity. Ambivalence was recognized and accepted as the most rational response to the beauty and pain, the delight and terror of the natural world. Mountain lions are as fierce as bloodshed but gentle as a mother with kittens, as strong as death yet vulnerable to accidents and age. American Indians were able to reconcile the extremes, and the emotional result respect. It is way of knowing through balance.
"What kind of animal is the lion?" I asked an Indian at one of the pueblos, expecting a western-style description of physical traits or perceived behavior.
"Why there's only one kind of animal, the kind that demands respect!" be said in astonishment.
Much of the sacredness in Native American thought about animals in general and lions in particular may have been wrenched away by half a millennium of disruption, but there's still an embarrassingly simple lesson at the core: live and let live. "Lions should just be left alone," Hopis and Navajos and Pueblos said to me over and over. In the history of white relationships with lions, that's been: the last thing to occur to anyone.
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