The dog and the bear

Things have been pretty slow over this last week. I completed my site report on the project I talked about last week, and I have since been out in the field again for a small job on Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. Didn’t end up finding anything, which is good for the landowner, but kind of a shame, since there is a vague site report from the 50s saying there is something there. Could be that neighborhood development over the last 60 years has obliterated whatever was left. Or, since the location provided was sort of vague, I just missed the exact spot, if it was a small site. That isn’t what I want to talk about though.

Work is getting a bit scarce these days, so I’m going to take the down time to work on one of two journal articles I want to get out. This is what they’re talking about when they say publish or perish. I have one article in the Wisconsin Archaeologist journal already, but I need to get my name out on the national or at least regional scale if I want to be seriously considered for any tenure track teaching work.

In 2009 I did a small presentation at the Society for American Archaeology Meetings in Atlanta about bear and dog ritual at the Meskwaki Grand Village site I was working on. There were a number of bear skulls found buried at the site that seem to have received special treatment. A few were fire blackened and polished, while others were buried withe the mandibles (jaws) turned over upside down and reversed. One of the skulls was buried on top of a hammered copper plate, and with small copper bells. There was also word of one being found with a blue glass bead jammed up its nose, but I haven’t been able to track down any field notes confirming this.

In addition to the bears, there were also a number of canids, perhaps dogs or coyotes, which appear to have been buried in much the same way a human would be buried. This is not unusual, but while some dogs looked buried, others were clearly eaten, as their bones were fragmented, sometimes burned, and thrown out with the other food refuse.

Jesuits, and other early French explorers in the Great Lakes also described dog sacrafices that often involved some form of strangulation or drowning. While this seems inhumane to us, we need to remember that these people did not necessarily classify animals the same way we do. To most westerners, dogs are almost honorary humans, and are treated as such. It’s a outlook and behavior we are indoctrinated into from a very young age.

Based on the dog burials, it looks as if the Meskwaki might have had fuzzy feelings towards some of their dogs too. I’m not really clear how they dichotomized the canine population into companion dogs, food dogs, and sacrifice dogs, or whether they really did at all. Maybe circumstances dictated treatment at any given time. But I kind of doubt that. The famous ethnographer Paul Radin, who granted, did his work long after the time period I’m working with, described a Ho Chunk practice of designating certain dogs for sacrifice early in their life. These animals received privileged treatment throughout their lives, which sounds close to the treatment we afford our pets.

Perhaps a sacrifice meant little if the animal given up to the gods was not held in high esteem and missed after its death? It reminds me of that bible story of the rich man and poor woman both donating a few coins to the temple. For the rich man, the few coins meant nothing, while for the woman, they were a considerable portion of her savings, and so they were held in much higher regard by God.

Its a great story, and worth sharing with the 1% these days, but I digress.

So that’s what I’ll be writing about. The dog dichotomy, and if there ever really was one, and the bear rituals.

Why bear? Why was bear treated differently from other food? Clearly bear was eaten. Again we have the French telling us of bears being the centerpiece of ritual feasts. So why were their remains not just tossed like other bones?

Ethnographies from around the circumpolar north, and northern temperate regions share high regard for bears in common. That is not to say there was a bear cult that was shared around the world, but clearly peoples who lived in areas were bears were around, viewed them in ways different from other animals. The question is why? Was it the bear’s unique hibernation cycle? Was it the bear’s human-like stance when it rears up? Was it their combination of fierceness, cuteness, and fatty juicy meat?

Things to ponder, and things to publish on.


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