When Dogs Could Talk
“Myth is such an integral part of the conception of the West. People think about it in terms of myth. Always have, I believe.
The Kiowa story has it that eight children were playing in the woods, and there were seven sisters and their brother. The boy is pretending to be a bear and he's chasing his sisters, who are pretending to be afraid, and they're running. And a terrible thing happens in the course of the game. The boy actually turns into a bear. And when the sisters see this, they are truly terrified and they run for their lives, the bear after them. They pass the stump of a tree, and the tree speaks to them and says, "If you will climb up on me I will save you."
the little girls scamper on top of the tree stump. And as they do so,
it begins to rise into the air. The bear comes to kill them but they're
beyond its reach. And it rears up and scores the bark all around with
its claws. The story ends, the girls are borne into the sky and they become
the stars of the Big Dipper. It's a wonderful story because it accounts
for the rock, Devils Tower,
this monolith that rises nearly a thousand feet into the air, and it also
relates man to the stars."
For a thousand generations, the West belonged only to Indians -- perhaps more than three million of them. There were people who lived in houses made from the tallest trees on earth and people who lived in shelters fashioned from brush; people who lived in tipis and in towering cliff-top cities. Some started fires to make pastures, or diverted streams to irrigate their crops. Others did not dare alter the earth they believed to be their mother, and prayed to the spirits of the animals they hunted.
Indian feels that he is related to the animal world. That all living things
are related. In the Kiowa oral tradition, one of the ways to indicate
time long past, is to say, Well this happened when dogs could talk."
Some tribes considered war the highest calling. In others, women owned the property, and a man joined his wife's family. In still other tribes, the punishment for an unfaithful wife was to cut off part of her nose.
"The West of the American continent was as diverse as almost any place in the history of the world. You had people speaking seven different language families, each as different from the other as each one is different from Indo-European. You have people who don't use in their ordinary conversation "I," "my," "me," everything is "we"... You had cultures on the Plains where each person discovered, through a vision quest, his or her own inner voice, and then came back after a week of isolation, and told the rest of the tribe, "who I am." And nobody could argue with that because it came from within." Michael Dorris
know there is this marvelous stereotype out there, that before white people
came the world here was perfect, that people lived in a paradise in which
they were the most elegant, the most moral, the most elevated of all humanity.
That's not true, we were human beings... and we did things that all human
beings do, and some of it was elevated and marvelous, and admirable, and
some of it was pretty horrible."
Despite their profound differences, Indian peoples were linked together. Webs of ancient trading trails stretched in every direction, and covered every corner of the West, bringing buffalo robes to people who had never seen a buffalo, corn meal to people who had never planted corn, and ocean shells to decorate the clothing of people who lived a thousand miles from the sea.
In the high country where the present states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona come together, there once lived a great people, remembered now as the Anasazi. For centuries, their civilization thrived.
They traded widely with other cultures, dammed streams to water their crops, laid out broad, straight roads across the desert, and built lofty towns where thousands lived. The Anasazi flourished and their numbers grew. Then -- though no one knows for certain why -- they were forced to abandon it all. Newcomers -- the ancestors of the Ute and the Navajo -- eventually took over the region.
is a world of movement, this is a world of change; this is a world in
which there's drought, and people abandon areas and settle new areas,
cultures flower and cultures decline. This is just as much a historical
world as anything that's happening in Europe."
The Anasazi were not the first people to be pushed aside by others in the West. And they would not be the last.
called themselves 'human beings' or 'the people,' or, basically, 'us,'
and everybody else, known and unknown, was "them", and it made dealing
with the constant surprise of encountering people who spoke different
languages, had a different ethnic look, had different religions, different
political systems, a lot easier to deal with, because "they" were always
bizarre. And so when Europeans arrived on the scene, they were just another
category of 'they.'"
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© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA