10 Indian Country Dog Breeds You Should Know
In the Anishinaabe creation story, Wolf and the Original Man were brothers.
Among the Yakama people, Coyote is known as Spilyáy, a trickster.
Evidence tells of the relationship of the sled dog to the Arctic region’s First Peoples dating back several thousand years.
An artist depicted a woolly dog seated next to a Coast Salish woman working a loom, circa 1855. Fine woven articles made from wooly dog fiber are found in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Burke Museum.
Since the beginning of time, canines have had a special role in Native American family life – as companions, helpers, protectors, and even suppliers of fiber for blankets and clothing.
“We’ve had dogs forever, for thousands of years,” Yupiit Chief Mike Williams Sr., a veteran musher, said in an earlier interview with ICMN. “We’ve always had a special relationship with them and we’re going to continue to. Like our language and our culture, it’s a part of who we are.”
So, let us recognize 10 Indian country canines you should know – from mighty Ma’iingan to the friendly neighborhood Rez Dog.
Wolf. The canine species’ top dog was there at The Beginning, helping to establish the relationship between human and canine. “In the Ojibwe language, our word for wolf is ‘Ma’iingan’ – the one put here by that All Loving Spirit to show us the way,” according to the White Earth Land Recovery Project, founded by Winona LaDuke.
Edward Benton-Banai wrote in The Mishomis Book that the Creator sent the Wolf to be the Original Man’s companion while walking around creation. “Together they walked to all places. When they had visited all places together the Creator told them to separate again. While they traveled together they became very alike, and they still are. Both mate for life, live in a clan, and both have had land taken from them.”
Today, the White Earth Land Recovery Project is at the forefront of efforts to protect the gray wolf from being hunted. “We see the wolf as a predictor of our future,” Bad River Ojibwe elder Joe Rose said on the White Earth Land Recovery Project website. “And what happens to Wolf happens to Anishinaabe … Whether other people see it or not, the same will happen to them.”
Close-up of gray wolf howling in light snow.
Coyote: Today, he’s known by the Yakama people as mischievous, and by the Southern Ute people as “an irresponsible meddler.” But at one time, Coyote was a trusted companion of the Creator and walked as we do.
In the Southern Ute story told by Alden Naranjo, the Creator gave Coyote the responsibility of carrying a bag of sticks “over the far hills to the valleys beyond,” and was told not to open it until he reached his destination. On his journey, Coyote let his curiosity get the better of him and he opened the bag; people speaking different languages jumped out and ran away in all different directions.
Coyote completed his journey and left those who did not run away in the sacred valley. Those people are the Utes.
“You foolish thing, you do not know what a fearful thing you have done,” the Creator told Coyote. “Those you let escape will forever war with the chosen ones [and] will always be a thorn in the sides of the Utes.” The Creator then doomed Coyote “to wander this earth on all fours forever as a night crawler.”
Coyote on top of a hill.
Alaskan Sled Dog: Dogs have been an important part of Alaska Native life for several millennia. They protected children, carried goods, accompanied their owners on hunts and fishing trips, and pulled sleds.
Sled dogs were brought to world attention in 1925, when 150 sled dogs and 20 mushers traveled 674 miles in five and a half days to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to Nome and surrounding communities, saving the people from an epidemic. The run became known as the Great Race of Mercy and one of the dogs, Balto, is memorialized with a statue in New York City’s Central Park.
Today’s Alaskan sled dog is an Alaskan Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Canadian Eskimo Dog, or Siberian Husky, or maybe a mix of one or all. Sled dogs are still valued companions, but they are also outstanding athletes; sled dogs and mushers compete regularly in sprint, mid-distance and long-distance races; the most prominent race, the Iditarod, retraces ancestral routes as well as the route used in the 1925 serum run.
Wheeldog via Wikimedia Commons
Dogs like us, baby we were born to run
Coast Salish Woolly Dog: This dog was white with long, thick fur that was used in the weaving of blankets. The dog’s hair might be mixed with mountain goat wool and plant fibers to change the yarn quality.
According to the late anthropologist Dr. Wayne Suttles, these blankets “were important trade and gift items, essential to the accumulation of wealth and prestige. Lightweight but very labor-intensive, woven blankets represented wealth that could be transported easily in a coastal hunting and fishing society where seasonal mobility was necessary for survival.”
Woolly dogs were well-treated; according to Suttles, they were fed mostly salmon and lived indoors, while hunting dogs were kenneled outdoors.
Dog-hair weaving disappeared after the introduction of machine-made blankets by British and American trading companies in the early 19th century, according to a report co-authored by Suttles.
Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane documented a Coast Salish woman weaving a blanket of Wooly Dog fiber, with a Wooly Dog sitting nearby, in 1855.
American Indian Dog: “If you saw an American Indian Dog, your first instinct might be to think it was a wolf,” one dog breed site states. “The American Indian Dog is an attractive breed with a wild appearance very similar to [its] ancestors. These dogs can grow to be fairly large, achieving a maximum weight upwards of 100 pounds with a light but strong build … Always on the alert, the American Indian Dog’s ears are large and firmly pricked, making sure that it catches every sound that comes its way.”
This breed is widely believed to be descended from the first dogs domesticated on this continent.
“American Indian Dogs are said to trace back 30,000 years in North and South America,” according to the Dog Breed Information Center. “Mainly, the many groups of Plains Indians in the United States developed these dogs by combining all the types they traded from all the Indian Nations around them.
“Not having any other domestic animals, the dogs were very important to their entire culture. For thousands of years, Native Americans used these dogs for hunting, tracking, guarding and herding. They were also used as pack animals, and would pull the families’ travois as they moved or migrated. They would keep their owners warm at night, and provide wool for weaving and trading.
“The most important objective in preserving this ancient breed is maintaining and improving the natural balance, primitive instincts and versatile working abilities for which it was originally developed. This truly beautiful, naturally balanced, all-American dog was close to extinction only a few years ago. Now, thanks to all the years of research and selective breeding, hopefully they can regain their proper place in our society …”
Kobidog via Wikimedia Commons
The American Indian Dog, also known as Plains Indian Dogs, is believed to be descended from the first dogs domesticated on this continent, and may date back 30,000 years.
Tahltan Bear Dog: This dog of the Tahltans and Tlingits was used for hunting bears, beaver, big cats, elk and porcupine in British Columbia, Canada, and has been described as “a canine version of Mighty Mouse.” This dog stood 12 to 18 inches and weighed from 10 to 18 pounds. Hunters carried the dog inside a pouch until tracks were discovered, where upon the dogs tracked the prey.
“These small dogs could run on top of crusty snow and bark and worry the bear until hunters arrived,” Alaska Native researcher Stephanie Little Wolf wrote on SledDogCentral.com.
John Muir wrote of his 1880 observation of a Tahltan Bear Dog: “I never saw any creature very much like him, though in some of his sly, soft, gliding motions and gestures he brought the fox to mind. He was short-legged and bunch-bodied, and his hair, though smooth, was long and silky and slightly waved, so that when the wind was at his back it ruffled, making him look shaggy. At first sight his only noticeable feature was his fine tail, which was about as airy and shady as a squirrel’s, and was carried curling forward almost to his nose. On closer inspection you might notice his thin sensitive ears, and sharp eyes with cunning tan-spots above them.”
The Tahltan Bear Dog breed continues today thanks to a specialized breeding program.
Sketch of a Tahitan Bear Dog
Pueblo Indian Dog: Like the Tahltan Bear Dog, the Pueblo Indian Dog is a “tough, little, [and] rather barky” dog adept at hunting in water and on land, tracking with sight and scent, tree climbing, and herding, according to Song Dog Kennels in Oregon, which breeds American Indian Dogs. “Barking while on the track and in the tree. I’ve even seen them bark under water, when sight-hunting fish.”
Indigenous Peoples would pack these dogs on their backs to where other tracking dogs had taken them. “When they caught the scent real strong, they would turn their dogs loose and the dogs would tree the bear, sometimes climbing the tree and pulling down the bears. The meat was shared and packed home on the backs of the dogs.”
According to a summer 2008 article in Archeology Southwest, a publication of the Center for Desert Archeology, Pueblo Dogs “drank from and played in Hohokam irrigation canals, and their hair was used by ancestral Pueblo weavers. [Pueblo dogs] have long herded Navajo sheep. More than mere witnesses to human history, however, dogs have served many purposes—as guards, hunting guides, draft animals, babysitters, bed warmers, cleanup crew, and food and fiber resources, to name a few.”
Xoloitzcuintli. This breed derives its Nahuatl name (pronounced zoh-loh-eets-KWEENT-lee) from Xolotl, the Aztec god who accompanies the soul to the afterlife; and itzcuīntli, meaning dog. The Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Zapotecs and others believed that the dog, known as Xolo for short, would safeguard the home from evil spirits as well as intruders. In ancient times, Xolos were often sacrificed and buried with their owners to act as guide to the soul on its journey.
Today, the dog retains a reputation as a healer. “The breed and its warm skin is often put to use in remote Mexican and Central American villages to ward off and cure ailments like rheumatism, asthma, toothache and insomnia,” the American Kennel Club reports.
Xolo is the national dog of Mexico and is depicted in art and artifacts dating more than 3,500 years. The dog’s size can range from toy to miniature to standard, and Xolos of different sizes can be born in the same litter.
Maikemo via Wikimedia Commons
Xoloitzquintle carries the name of an Aztec god, has a reputation as a healer, and is the national dog of Mexico.
Chihuahua. This is the smallest breed of dog and is named for the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Archeological and genetic evidence shows that Chihuahuas originated in Mexico and are likely descended from the Techichi, a companion dog favored by the Toltecs.
Chihuahuas come in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and coat lengths. “Some people find them noisy and bossy, while others are enchanted by their sassy expression and terrier-like temperament,” the American Kennel Club reports. “There’s some truth to both sides; there’s a lot of personality and attitude packed into that adorable, compact body.”
The AKC describes the Chihuahua as “enormously loyal and loving,” “extremely intelligent and a quick learner,” and “a giant personality that will rule the house if you let it” – yet willing to tolerate being dressed up in a sweater.
Rez Dog. Stray or free spirit? Call him or her what you may, but the fact remains: the Rez Dog is likely the coolest dog you’ll know. The Rez Dog is everyone’s buddy – canine companion to anyone who needs one, four-legged member of any family, playmate for any and every kid. The Rez Dog comes in all breeds, shapes and sizes. And, as ICMN A&E, Sports and Pow Wow editor Vincent Schilling wrote, a Rez Dog is often more playful than your average canine. “A Rez Dog will chase after birds, squirrels, beavers, chipmunks or rabbits — but never catch them,” Schilling wrote.
Contrary to common belief, not all Rez Dogs are strays. Batman, a popular Rez Dog on the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation on the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle, is a very loyal member of the Price Family, but spends his days making the rounds and sharing the love — and doing his fair share of chasing after birds.
Batman also has his own Facebook page, on which he shares helpful information (“7 Ways to Keep Dogs Calm During Fireworks,” for example). Batman shared this advice when the summer temperatures started to rise: “Batman Says: ‘Please keep Clean Water available for your dogs… and cats too I guess” #warmweather).
Courtesy Price family
Batman Price, a popular Rez Dog on the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation on the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle, is a very loyal member of the Price Family, but spends his days making the rounds and sharing the love — and doing his fair share of chasing after birds. He has his own Facebook page.