Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Animal lore is the accumulated fact, tradition, and belief about the fauna of a region. Larger animals have a stronger grip on the human imagination. Thus, the buffalo has long been emblematic of the Great Plains. However, farmers and ranchers who know the region best have a rich store of knowledge of smaller animals, including badgers, beavers, bobcats, foxes, lynxes, minks, muskrats, opossums, prairie dogs, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and weasels.

The folkloristic sources of the ideas, images, and stories about wild animals of the Great Plains are many, but four types can be distinguished: oral narratives, popular culture, performances, and elite culture. These categories provide a frame of reference for understanding this body of animal lore.

First are the oral narratives, a key source of ideas about wild animals of the Great Plains. This genre includes the true "stories" people pass on to explain to one another the meaning of a wild animal. It is also the category that has been treated to the most folklore scholarship. Myths are representative of this genre, and there are many Native American myths involving such animals as the deer, coyote, elk, or bear. Myths often explain the origins of geographic features in the remote past. An example is Devils Tower in eastern Wyoming, a large stump-shaped cluster of rock columns, overlooking the Belle Fourche River and rising 1,280 feet above the rolling grasslands. Noted for its magnificence and beauty, this formation has long been a landmark to explorers and travelers heading west from the Black Hills. In Kiowa mythology the striations on the tower were formed when seven young girls, playing far from camp, were chased onto the rock by bears. The rock rose into the heavens where the girls became stars, and the bears, trying to follow, left their claw marks on the surface.

Such legends are also set in the less-remote past. For example, there is a nineteenthcentury story about the "white mustang of the prairies," whose coat and tail and mane were pure white. He symbolized freedom and untamed nature in an era before there were barbed-wire fences. Many people claimed to see him, especially on moonlit nights. The white mustang was able to avoid all predators and was never seen for very long at a time. Cowboys tried to capture him, but they eventually realized it was a waste of time because of the white mustang's courage, speed, and intelligence, which always kept him out of the of ropes and bullets.

Popular culture is the second source of ideas about wild animals of the Great Plains. Included in this category are postcards, souvenirs, cartoons, comics, television commercials, print advertising, theatrical films, and mass-circulation magazines. Popular culture provides a repertoire of stories and images to a wide audience. Popular material from commercial culture can be found in abundance, from the Warner Bros. cartoon character Wile E. Coyote to the postcards from Nebraska featuring the "jackalope," a legendary creature combining a jackrabbit with an antelope.

The third source of ideas, images, and stories are the performances that involve somehow an interpretation of a wild animal. Oldest in this category are the Native American performance rituals and dances that involve the armadillo, the coyote, the bear, and the rattlesnake. European American settlers favored participatory dramalike events that began with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and continue in present-day tourist attractions, rodeos, festivals, museum and zoo programs, hunting expeditions, cooking events, and the like. Significantly, Col. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) was always pictured riding a white stallion, recalling that persistent theme in Plains animal lore.

The fourth source of our notions about animals is elite culture, the body of fine literature and fine arts that is the usual subject matter of humanistic study. Fine painting, poetry, novels, and short stories of the Great Plains often feature animals such as Texas longhorn cattle, descended from the wild cattle brought to America by the Spanish, as central symbols in the imaginative landscape of their fictive works. But even here folk ideas are often still present, just recast in more elegant language. In American elite art we can trace the iconography of Great Plains wildlife from the earliest European renditions through the likes of Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Marion Russell up to the present.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Oral Traditions.

Angus Kress Gillespie Rutgers University

Gillespie, Angus Kress, and Jay Mechling. American Wildlife in Symbol and Story. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood. "The White Mustang of the Prairies." Great Plains Quarterly 1 (1981): 81–94.

Wilson, David Scofield. In the Presence of Nature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1978.

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