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Our Animal Selves

All around us are radiant species. What can the first peoples teach us about restoring our relationship with animals?
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Each Animal Supports Many Other Lives

Chickasaw photo by Melissa Baldwin

Photo by Melissa Baldwin.

In our language, one term for animal is Nan okcha, which means, “all alive.” We have songs for the animals, even a tick dance song. It is understood by traditional peoples that each kind of animal has its own expansive intelligence, each its own ways, own mind. The mind of the horse is not the same as the snake or crow.

I recall the morning I was lectured by a crow with an entire paragraph and not one word repeated. I listened carefully but was not intelligent enough to understand. The horse has never lectured me, but I do remember one man telling me he respected crows most of all birds for their desire to live. This was after one bit me hard enough for a bruise to appear, leaving more damage than any of the long-beaked, clawed raptors I worked with.

All around us are radiant species. The prairie dogs call the rain, it is said. They are integral to our aquifers and are a keystone species supporting many other lives. They know us well, have a language, and yet most humans have not bothered to open a current of understanding between us and them. Instead, they are poisoned and shot because they are thought to be in the way of development or because it is believed that their tunnels trip cattle and horses.

The animals are leaving us and will not return. The mustang, rounded up, sold for food to other countries. Alligators poisoned by agricultural toxins and other environmental changes. Prairie dogs, lost to development.

We face even more losses than we can count as temperatures change. Those changes affect ocean, land, ice, not to mention the indigenous peoples who are losing food sources and places of history, stories, and memories. Their lives are being uprooted as their lands are covered with water, as melting glaciers in Tibet rush down from the mountains picking up sewage, chemicals, and agricultural runoff along the way. Rain abandons the deforested rainforests and falls elsewhere. Rivers dry out and give off poison gas.

Bison photo courtesy of Hamner Fotos

Buffalo graze on Pine Ridge Reservation lands. Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative reintroduced buffalo in 2005 to restore the land and the Lakota way of life.

Photo courtesy of Hamner Fotos.

A Culture of Compassion for Animals, Including Humans

I live in country with regions of deforested, ruined land, where chemicals used to grow non-native species of grasses for grazing enter the creeks and aquifer. Trees are bulldozed, the cattle given steroids, antibiotics, and growth-enhancers, their urine also entering water.

Without forest, land no longer attracts or holds water. Now we have drought. Cedar trees appear in fields to shade and cool the earth, a natural process. They also preserve the water, but many ranchers believe they use too much, so they are poisoned, continuing the new cycle. I remember a woman once saying that when a cougar kills a deer it is god, but when we do this to the animals, land, and water, it is “Not god.”

The traditional relationship between indigenous peoples and their environments is well documented, but this relationship is more complex than realized by Western thinkers. It is neither simple, nor is it primitive. It is a science maintained by more than 20,000 years of observation.

Navajo elders, with a long knowledge of plants in their region, have more known categories or classifications for each plant than do Western-trained botanists. Indigenous peoples have knowledge systems derived from a language of place, plants, and animals—the whole that is now called an ecosystem. Some know the changes in river flows and currents along the Mississippi, or the numbers of migratory birds that pass through their regions each year.

Traditionalist and activist Dennis Martinez, tells of a nation of indigenous people in South America who make the sounds of each species that is gone in order to keep a place within the ecosystem for that bird or animal to return. This is how significant we take each species to be.

The compassion we offer to animals is the same measure of love we are capable of offering other human beings. The suffering and pain of one is universal. When there is a wound in our world, we must do our best to heal it, and yet we live in a culture of wounding that could just as easily become one of healing for animals and humans.

We Can Restore Ourselves to this Land

Our truths come from tenure on this land. The animals known by ancestors meet us still in some way, despite the passing of histories.

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How one Baltimore-born Motown veteran is preserving two of the country's most precious resources: wild mustangs and at-risk children.

I remember when the buffalo were returned to Lakota land. Long grasses not seen in years by the elders returned and grew. The mere weight of the animals’ hooves on the earth brought water to the surface. Creeks and streams came back. These returned the insects and the birds. A great restoration of the land began after the reintroduction of the bison. Several years later the tribe released a herd of wild horses. The bison stood quietly on the top of a ridge and watched the horses come out of the trailer and begin their run toward freedom.

It is night now. The mustang stands outside, the elk and deer are bedded down in dry grasses beneath trees on the hillsides. An owl speaks. Beneath stones, snakes hibernate, but the winged serpent moves slowly across the dark starlit sky toward the edge of Earth, the edge where all things will fall if we are not more careful in this world with other lives who see us and know us, who welcome us as we, too, restore ourselves to this land.


Linda Hogan mugLinda Hogan, Chickasaw novelist and poet, wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Linda works for the Chickasaw Nation. She is a Pulitzer finalist for her book Mean Spirit; her book People of the Whale was just published in Chinese. Her website is; she is offering her performance piece, Indios, for the first time this autumn.


  • Animals Among Us:
    Should we eat animals? Can we save our ailing wildlife? What can animals teach us about caring for the planet and each other? The Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine explores our relationship with other creatures.
  • The Emotional Lives of Animals:
    Grief, friendship, gratitude, wonder, and other things we animals experience.
  • Photo Essay: Domesticated
    One photographer's take on the mystery of the wild, and our constant efforts to tame it.

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