Nomadic tribes from Asia brought dogs with them to the New World and for thousands of years, they were Native Americans’ only domesticated animal. Fiercely guarded by tribe women, they were used to drag sleds, help hunt buffalo, used as a food source, and sacrificed in rituals to appease angry spirits.
On a darker note, Spanish explorers also brought dogs to the New World… but these were used to hunt and kill the Native Indians.
The Arrival of Dogs in North America
Dogs arrived with man as he migrated to North America from Asia across the Bering Strait. Dogs were Native American’s first domesticated animal thousands of years before the arrival of the European horse. It is estimated that there were more than 300,000 domesticated dogs in America when the first European explorers arrived. Indians assiduously raised, bred and trained their dogs to protect families, to hunt, to herd, to haul, and to provide companionship. A robust trade of dogs existed between all tribes across the Plains and parts of what is now Mexico and Canada for the purposes of breeding, work, hunting and, sometimes, food. Depending on the tribe, each family could have as many as thirty dogs, every one of which was trained to respond to his or her name.
A Confounding Relationship of Love…and Sacrifice
Indian men hunted with their dogs, the women used them to assist with daily physical labors, and children played with them. Dogs weren’t just pets, but members of the tribe and they were known and loved by tribe people as one loves a coworker, a friend, or a family member. It was believed that dogs could see the dead and portend the future. Because they had so much more meaning than other animals, Indians sometimes took the very best dogs of the packs and sacrificed them in offerings to appease angry spirits or to underline the value of an agreement or a relationship. A riveting account of such a sacrifice and this intense relationship is described in the book, Illustrations of the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians by George Catlin published in 1856. In it, the author writes:
“The dog, amongst all Indian tribes, is more esteemed and more valued than amongst any part of the civilized world; the Indian who has more time to devote to his company, and whose untutored mind more nearly assimilates to that of his faithful servant, keeps him closer company, and draws him nearer to his heart. They hunt together and are equal sharers in the chase. Their bed is one and on the rocks and on their coat of arms they carve his image as the symbol of fidelity. Yet, with all of these, the Indian will end his affection with this faithful follower, and with tears in his eyes, offer him as a sacrifice to seal the pledge he has made to man; because a feast of venison or of buffalo meat is what is due to everyone and consequently has no meaning.”
He goes on to describe the meal:
“I have sat at many of these feasts and never could but appreciate the moral and solemnity of them. I have seen the master take the bowl with the head of his beloved dog and descant on its former affection with tears in his eyes….At the feast I’m describing, each of us tasted a little of the meat, and passed the dishes on to the Indians who soon demolished everything that they contained. We all agreed that the meat was well cooked, and seemed to be well flavored and palatable; and no doubt, could have been eaten with good relish had we been ignorant of the nature of the food we were eating.”
Dogs Trained to Kill Native Americans
Europeans brought the Mastiff to America as part of their offensive against native peoples. Dogs had been used in European warfare for centuries, but they were especially effective against the Native Americans because the drastic difference in appearance between Europeans and Indians allowed for little chance that the dogs would mistake their masters for the enemy in the mix of fighting. Native Americans describe these attack dogs as especially fast and viscous. In traditional warfare, the dogs were led on leashes in the front lines and released just before the exchange of gun fired commenced, but in the Americas, the dogs were turned loose on the innocent.
“The dogs the Conquistadors brought with them were Mastiff breeds that were hardly the lap variety. These attack dogs, often wearing their own armor, were the common European shock and awe tactic of the period. The first documented New World use of these canine swat teams occurred in 1495 when Bartholomew Columbus, Chris’s brother, used 20 mastiffs in a battle waged at Santa Maris el Antigua, Darien with his brother employing the same approach a year later. These dogs were trained to pursue, disembowel and dismember humans and to this purpose, enjoyed a human diet in the Americas. The Spanish reveled in holding human hunts called “la Monteria infernal “ where much sport was made of chasing and killing the local men, women and children.”
This video discusses how the Spanish used dogs and other means to terrorize Native Americans.
The Travois and the Working Dog of the American Plains
Though some Native American’s farmed, most were hunter-gatherers living in great, nomadic groups. Early Europeans witnessed thousands of Native American men, women, and children trekking across the plains in pursuit of Buffalo, their chief source of food. Accompanying the Indians were their dogs that had been trained to pull travois, sleds that had been filled with the Indians’ personal possessions and the building elements of their tipis. In a letter written in 1896 cited by the blogspot http://doglawreporter-bay-net.blogspot.com/2012/01/the-dogs-of-great-plains-nations.html, the author writes:
“The people have dogs like those in this country [Spain], except that they are somewhat larger, and they load these dogs like beasts of burden, and make saddles for them like our pack saddles, and they fasten them with their leather thongs, and these make their backs sore on the withers like pack animals. When they go hunting, they load these with their necessities, and when they move—for these Indians are not settled in one place, since the travel wherever the cows [buffalo] move, to support themselves—these dogs carry their houses, and they have the sticks of their houses dragging along tired on to the pack-saddles, besides the load which they carry on top, and the load may be, according to the dog, from 35 to 50 pounds.”
This video has great historical pictures of Native Americans, their dogs and the travois. It also includes more textual information on how women, dogs and men all worked together to herd and kill buffalo.
Women Were Chiefly Responsible for Rearing and Training Dogs
Women of the tribe were responsible for breeding, raising, and training the dogs that lived with the natives. Bitches were bred for hunting, protection, disposition, intelligence, herding, and hauling. Occasionally bitches that were in heat were tied up outside to encourage cross breeding with wild wolves or coyotes. The original Native American Indian dogs had an Alaskan Husky/ German Shepherd-like appearance and the genetic lines of the breed exist to this day.
Here’s a great example of what a Native American Indian Dog looks like and how quickly it can be trained. Remember that this is a before and after, so if you don’t watch past the ‘before’ part, you’ll think that NAID’s are goofballs. But watch how carefully obedient this woman teaches this dog to be after only a couple of training sessions. Can you see how useful such intelligence could have been to early man?
Grotesque Way of Culling Puppies From the Litter
When female dogs gave birth to more than 3 or 4 puppies, the weakest were killed to prevent overtaxing the bitch. How the women decided which puppies should be culled from a litter was horrific. The tribe women built ceremonial fires of sage and held each newborn puppy in the smoke until its mouth began to foam profusely. Afterwards, the pup was placed on the ground. If the puppy could still stand, it was deemed strong enough to cart a family’s possessions; if it fell over, it was considered weak and was put to death.
Working Like a Dog…
“In this way, five or six hundred wigwams may be drawn out for miles, creeping over the grass-covered plains. In the rear of the caravan, there are at least five times that number of dogs following in the company of women. Every cur of them, large enough to be enslaved, is encumbered with a sled filled with household goods that he must pull …Despite these loads, the dogs trot off, amid the throng of squaws and other dogs, faithfully and cheerfully dragging their burden, only sometimes stopping to loiter or catch little bits of play time with the other dogs too young or to smart to be forced into labor.”
A description of an Indian migration found in Illustrations of the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians by George Catlin, 1856.
It is said that one Native American woman and a couple of dogs could gather and drag enough wood back to camp to last for a whole month. Dogs were used by Native Americans to catch and kill beavers and other animals that fueled the 19th Century fur trade that made people like John Jacob Astor a millionaire and opened up the Plains to a large wave of migration. Since horses did not enter in the Americas until the 16th century when the first Europeans arrived, it fell upon the dogs to help herd buffalo and give the Native Americans, who hunted on foot, a chance to shoot and kill in the quantity that they needed to stay alive. The women of the tribe typically trained dogs to drag travois in only four days. Employing the kind of progressive training practices that we use today, women first coaxed dogs to acclimate to a harness, then the light frame of a travois, followed by increasingly higher levels of weight. As vast numbers of native people nomadically followed the American Buffalo, it was the dogs in their charge that dragged the tipi poles and skins and other household items needed for their next campsite. When streams needed to be traversed, men held up the back of travois, while the dogs, still harnessed to their load, swam in front. Other times, the Indian family and dog were loaded into a canoe and the travois was towed behind in a separate vessel.
Part of a Larger Group of Dogs Called the Pariah
Pariah dogs are feral dogs or ones that live on the edge of human settlements. The definition is a loose one and there is considerable debate about which breeds should be on the list. Still, many believe that the Dingo, the New Guinea Singing Dog (this dog climbs trees…did you know?), as well as the North American Indian Dog are a shoe-in to make the grade.
More on the Native American Indian Dog
American Indian dogs are not recognized by the American Kennel Club, but they are recognized by the International Indian Dog Owners and Breeders Association (IIDOBA), the Dog Registry of America, Inc. (DRA) and the International Progressive Dog Breeders Alliance (IPDBA). While New York City is home to many NAID-types (Huskies, Malamutes, Chinooks, and German Shepherds) this breed is probably too intelligent and too energetic for just-only apartment living. They require exercise, time with their ‘pack’ (that means you and your family, boobalah), and mental stimulation. Additionally, this breed must be socialized with lots of other people in order to bring out the full extent of its generous, loving spirit.