Cultural Perceptions of the Wolf

No single explanation exists for the varying perceptions and portrayals of wolves between the European and Native American cultures during the Middle Ages and early European settlement in America. Modern-day Americans find it easy to blame one side, specifically the Europeans, for the vengeful destruction of a national wildlife heritage. However, the religious, social, and economic differences between the two cultures at the time explain the underlying motives. As Lopez puts it, “We forget how little, really, separates us from the times and circumstances in which we, too, would have killed wolves” (Lopez, 138).

Each culture, defined by their own set of customs and traditions, viewed not just the wolf but nature as a whole, in very different lights. The wolf has been a symbol of great respect and honor as well as a demonic symbol of hatred and persecution. While the Europeans saw the wolf as a demonic machine capable of destroying a man’s livelihood overnight, many Native American tribes saw the wolf as a brother, a revered companion in hunting, and a figure with deep connections to the spiritual world.

These varying perceptions of wolves between European and Native American cultures at the time were the result of contrasting social backgrounds, including each culture’s unique set of customs, traditions, and practices, as well as the divergent economic and religious pressures that existed between the separate cultures at the time. First of all, the incomparable social backgrounds of the European and Native American cultures contributed to their varying perceptions of wolves during the Middle Ages. Separate cultures possess their own distinct set of customs, traditions, and practices that make that culture unique.

Moreover, these diverse customs and traditions helped to shape the perceptions of wolves that each culture possessed around the time of European settlement. The vast differences between each culture’s social backgrounds aids in illustrating this point. Starting first with Native Americans, it is important to note that though individual tribes may be distinct from one another, many shared a similar set of customs, traditions, and hunting practices that gave rise to equivalent portrayals of the wolf.

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The similarities between their ways of life led to the positive perceptions of wolves in many Native American and closely related Eskimo cultures. Many Native American tribes, as well as the Nunamiut Eskimos, are traditional hunting societies that lead similar lives to wolves’. Both ate similar foods as the wolf such as Caribou and Moose. In addition, the harsh conditions of their shared environment tested the very same skills necessary for survival in both Indians and wolves (Lopez, 85).

Subsequently, this leads to the differences between hunting styles among the indigenous people of North America and the Europeans, ultimately resulting in two very different perceptions of the wolf. For Native Americans, hunting goes far beyond tradition. Throughout Native American history, hunting has been the Indian man’s means of survival, a sacred art, and his way of living. At the time, Europeans were transitioning away from hunting and gathering and were gradually moving towards an agrarian way of life. Consequently, Europeans were unable to relate to the wolf the way Native Americans could at the time.

These similarites between the Indian and the wolf contributed to their positive perceptions. According to Lopez, “At a tribal level, the attraction of the wolf was strong because the wolf lived in a way that made the tribe strong: he provided food that all, even the sick and old, could eat; he saw the education of his children; he defended his territory against other wolves” (Lopez, 105). In addition, tribes like the Cree, Pueblo, and Shoshoni Indians all fought alongside wolves in mutually beneficial hunts to take down their prey, a practice absent in European culture (Lopez, 99).

In turn, Native American war ceremonies, as well tribal songs and dances celebrated the wolf, further separating their perceptions of this animal from those of the Europeans (Lopez, 115). Furthermore, wolves inspired a sense of respect and reverence in many Native Americans due to the hunting skills and techniques that wolves shared with them. All of these examples demonstrate the effects that certain customs, traditions, and practices belonging to distinct cultures have on shaping perceptions of nature and in this case, wolves.

Next, the disparate economic pressures and circumstances in each culture at the time drove the contrasting perceptions of wolves between the European and Native American cultures further apart. Around the time of the Black Plague, Europeans began to feel the economic pressures as a result of famine and disease. During this time, the one creature that truly thrived was the wolf. Hence, the wolf became an easy scapegoat for their economic and health problems. On the other hand, when disease and other struggles took a toll on the Native Americans, it was often the European settlers who were the only ones thriving at the time, not the wolves.

Whereas wolves were thought to have brought disease and famine to the people of Europe, ironically, it was the European settlers who brought disease and famine to many Native Americans during early settlement in America. Nevertheless, Native Americans shared a common bond with wolves as they both became victims of European persecution Protecting the family, hunting, and surviving were central to Native American culture, unlike wealth in European culture at the time. The reason for this was that most Native American and Eskimo tribes in North America have always been hunting societies.

To make a living for a Native American was to survive, and they have not strayed from this tradition. On the contrary, when the Europeans settled in America, they brought their lurid misconceptions regarding nature with them. In eyes of the European settler during the start of the Manifest Destiny, nature presented a barrier to economic progress. The economic circumstances surrounding the desire for expansion during the Manifest Destiny were quite different from the Native American’s economic situation, which they paid much less attention to than the Europeans.

The European settlers’ desire to conquer and civilize the New World catalyzed the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. With this transition came a shift in economic interests that consequently altered the perceptions of wolves from an economic standpoint. Some people may argue that the shift to an agrarian society resulted in positive perceptions of wolves because they often defended farmers’ crops by killing the deer that feasted on them. However, the farmers in Europe and early America quickly shifted their focus towards raising livestock rather than crops.

Subsequently, due to the decimated populations of wild caribou and bison, wolves turned to livestock as their prey of choice. Instead of being defenders of man’s livelihood, wolves became a threat to man’s livelihood. Wolves were now an economic liability to farmers that raised livestock. Meanwhile, wolves rarely threatened the Native Americans’ hunting and gathering traditions in the way that they threatened the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. Economic interests further affected the changing perceptions of wolves when bounties came into existence.

Bounties allowed Europeans to make a whole new livelihood out of slaughtering wolves and selling their pelts (Lopez, 168). In Of Wolves and Men, after recalling the sight of a wolf that one bounty hunter caught in one of his steel traps, the man revealed, “I would have let him go if I didn’t need the money awful bad” (Lopez 198). In contrast, Indians rarely killed wolves, and when they did, it was for very different reasons than the Europeans had (Lopez, 108). An opposing argument could be made by conveying that some Native Americans killed wolves just as the Europeans did.

Having said that, most Native American tribes made it a point to not intentionally kill a wolf, fearing that it would bring retribution from other wolves. However, if an Indian did happen to kill a wolf, they did it in a respectful manner and often used the pelt for religious ceremonies rather than economic gain (Lopez, 110). After all, Native Americans weren’t faced with comparable economic pressures that the Europeans were faced with. Still, Lopez touches on the different circumstances underlying the economic motives for killing wolves by writing, “Wolf killing goes much beyond predator control, of course.

Bounty hunters kill wolves for money; trappers kill them for pelts; scientists kill them for data; big game hunters kill them for trophies” (Lopez, 139). Finally, the divergent religious beliefs and practices along with the distinct myths and tales that arose from them were influential in determining how the European and Native American cultures viewed wolves. First, in Native American culture, the wolf often appears in many of their legends as a messenger, a great long-distance traveler, and a guide for anyone seeking the spirit world (Lopez, 103).

Myths, stories, and folktale structured most Native American religious beliefs. For instance, in Naskapi myth there is a spiritual figure known as the Animal Master who rewarded man by releasing animals that could be hunted when food became scarce. According to this myth, the only condition the Animal Master gave was that the hunters had to treat all the animals with respect and could not insult the spirits by wasting the animals’ flesh (Lopez, 90-91). Spiritual myths like this one played an instrumental role in sculpting the beliefs regarding the treatment of nature in Native American cultures.

The Europeans of the Middle Ages stood on the other side of the religious spectrum. Whereas in Native American culture the wolf was a connection to the spiritual world, the wolf threatened European peasants’ spiritual world by exposing buried bodies during the Black Plague at the time (Lopez, 208). In addition, with the spread of Christianity and Catholicism throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages, the wolf began to take on a demonic form through the obscured view behind the stained glass windows of gothic cathedrals scattered all across Europe. Religious folklore and literature at the time demonize wolves.

The distorted beliefs that humans could act out of an intense devotion to hell by transforming into werewolves fueled the theriophobia in Europe. Still, what frightened many medieval men more than the thought of the werewolf itself, were the fears of facing the court during the Inquisition. The Catholic Church capitalized on these fears as a means of maintaining its secular control during a time of political and social unrest (Lopez, 238). Furthermore, The Hammer of Witches, published as part of the controversial European doctrine, the Malleus Maleficarum, proclaimed that no sorcerer could harm men unless he were in a contract with the Devil.

This document describes the wolf as the Devil’s dog and the form in which the Devil could do his work (Lopez, 239). As a consequence of completely separate religious beliefs, practices, and circumstances during the Middle Ages, the European and Native American perceptions of the wolf took different forms. All things considered, the varying perceptions of wolves between Native American and European cultures resulted from the divergent social, economic, and religious pressures at the time. In summary, Native Americans possessed unique customs and traditions that varied greatly from those in Europe at the time.

In addition, economic circumstances have defined how people looked at nature throughout the course of human history. During times of disease and famine in Europe, the unfavorable economic circumstances resulted in the negative feelings towards wolves. Consequently, these differences greatly contributed towards the negative perceptions of wolves in European culture as well as the positive perceptions of wolves in Native American culture. Finally, religious factors have the ability to shape an entire system of beliefs within a single culture.

The Catholic Church’s reign of terror during the Inquisition brought about severely contrasting perceptions regarding wolves in comparison to many Native American beliefs. As a final point, all aspects of a culture, including social, economic, and religious factors, contribute to the changing perceptions of wolves and nature from one culture to the next while helping to explain the underlying motives of these perceptions in the process. Negative and false perceptions of nature don’t necessarily need to be justified, but their explanations are necessary so that future generations may learn from them.