Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
"Those Were the Dog Days..."
Most of us at one time or another have heard the expression "the dog days of summer." If you try looking up the phrase on the internet, you'll be reminded that the dog days are particularly hot and muggy. You might even find a very common derivation of the term, from the rising and setting of the bright star Sirius in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog) with the Sun during the summer. In ancient egypt, the first "dog day" coincided with the beginning of the nile inundation. At root the expression is firmly rooted in the northern hemisphere, specifically its temperate zones in northern africa and europe. But when you hear plains First Nations people talking about the dog days, chances are good that they aren't talking about trying summer weather or an event from someone else's agricultural calendar.
The preeminent image of "The Indian" is based on a surreal combination of the later horse-riding cultures of the plains, especially Lakota, with a number of costume elements from the traditional garb of western african nations, like the headband with a feather or two stuck in it. In fact, that infamous head band may not even be african, but an invention of men making spaghetti westerns. Yet the horse riding version of plains Indigenous cultures in north and south america wasn't invented until horses were brought back to the americas by europeans. Horses never made it to the north american plains until the early 1700s. That isn't a typing error but a fact, the early 1700s, barely three centuries ago. Many of the people most famous for their supposedly wandering, bison hunting ways during the fur trade had actually started out as agriculturalists. Their way of life was initially very similar to that of some Métis communities, with farming for part of the year and bison hunting the other. Part of the community headed out to hunt while the rest stayed back and took care of the crops. Whether you were a part-time farmer in present-day montana or north dakota or a full-time traveller in alberta and saskatchewan, before the 1700s your preeminent pack animal was the dog.
Most people walked, and the dogs pulled travois, A-shaped frames with netting or cloth stretched between the sides to carry goods. They were also sometimes used to carry people. These dogs were quite large, ideally larger than Inuit sled dogs because one dog would drag one travois at a time. Some pictures showing plains people travelling with their dogs show the animals happily trailing after them or maybe walking a little ahead. It wasn't quite so easy, as you might expect from personal experience with a pet, or as Elder Mary Madeline Marcel learned in the late 1930s when Athabasca Chipewyan people still went out as families to hunt, using travois to move their goods. Some of her family's dogs got away and went running for nearby water or after rabbits on the trip, travois still attached, resulting in quite a few soaked blankets and clothes. It was important to keep the burden dogs on leash and in hand.
A theme pursued for awhile by anthropologists has been to try to show how Indigenous modes of travel and cargo transport did not leave behind longterm signs on the land. If nothing else, this is a great opportunity to do experimental archaeology. Norman Henderson in particular has carried out a range of practical studies in order to understand how fast travois can travel whether drawn by dogs or horses, the impact on the land they might have, and so on. The lack of impact on the land caused by travois is actually a key point in their favour, but don't let this persuade you that no trails and paths could have been worn in and survived into the invasion period. These paths and trails were worn in in many places by peoples' feet, and across the plains by Métis Red River carts, and soon laid out the lines of the major highways across the americas.
Photograph of a Kainai woman with her horse and travois, taken by A. Rafton Canning, 1910.
Source library and archives canada
, identification number PA-029769.
The summer was a great time to hunt, but this meant it was also a time for hard work. Walking for one or more days was one challenge. The next was stalking and killing game, which involved women and men alike as hunters. There were also berries and important plants to be gathered for medicines and dried supplies, and pemmican to make and bag. The bags were often being made from the skins of the animals just killed, whose bones, horns, and sinews were applied to yet other uses.
The summer was also a great time for gatherings and ceremonies like the Sun Dance. But there were various meetings and chances to dance, feast, and sing throughout the year, since each community travelled along established and well-used trails with stops at common gathering places. People simply had a good time at these events, relaxing from work, visiting with family members they hadn't seen for awhile. Different communities and larger Nations might renew their alliances or make new ones, and trade goods were moved back and forth. As yet, the effects of european goods and the presence of european people was still minimal, although smallpox had already struck. A widescale epidemic wouldn't occur until later, when the plains peoples would no longer be able to disperse widely for parts of the year. Times of dispersal could be a mixed blessing in the early days, when on one hand groups infected with smallpox might be effectively isolated and therefore unable to spread the disease. But at the next gathering, it was possible that no one would survive to tell the tale, and the group would simply be gone.
Life wasn't easy, but sometimes references to the "dog days" can sound very wistful, because the truth is, after the arrival of the "big dog" or "elk dog" this mode of plains life rapidly came to an end as the newcomers actively opposed it as soon as they were numerous enough. Realizing that the bison were disappearing and they would have to adjust, many plains nation members were happy to become or return to being farmers. But no one could have expected that both sorts of "dog days" those of the Little Dog and the Big Dog, would be over so fast.