Dog-Killers

First Place, Creative Nonfiction, Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, 1998; Honorable Mention, Creative Nonfiction, Writers at Work, 1999. Published in ZYZZYVA, Vol. 56, 1999.


“Last time I saw Elijah, he was bragging up coyote pelts,” my sister-in-law Emma Black Crow was telling me as we sat in the gym at Crazy Horse School in Wanblee, SD. During the wake, we women would gossip to keep ourselves alert.

Elijah Whirlwind Horse had been school superintendent, Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman, and successful cattle rancher with a thousand-acre spread.

“Remember the time we went to buy a beef? All them rottin’ coyote carcasses?”

I remembered, but they hadn’t been rotting. They’d been frozen solid. Heaped high in his shiny blue and chrome pickup in front of his new split-level house. Mounds of streaked gray-white fur, flecked with ice. Flat-black eyes, black snouts, black paw treads. Hundreds of pelts.

“Braggin’ he got hisself every damn coyote in Washbaugh County, gonna get thousand dollars a load. So greedy he forgot all about Shunkmanitu.”

Shunkmanitu.Sacred dog. Old Man Coyote.

“But he got his. Throwed from his horse, deep in the Badlands, died from the fall.” She stopped and smacked her lips.

She didn’t have to continue. We all knew Elijah’s favorite horse had been spooked by a coyote.

* * * * *

I loved Shunkmanitu, trickster hero of the tales my husband Selo Black Crow told at night all winter long, and I loved our own Old Man Coyote down the creek from us. He’d holed up in a den dug in the Badlands dirt, or else under an old culvert in a washed-out wagon trail across the creek — I never could find him.

During the day when I’d be outside in the buffalo pasture working quietly, plugging a hole in the fence by the creek with hog wire, or picking prairie turnips or buffaloberries or wild plums, I’d hear that old-man cough, like someone who’d smoked too many cigarettes, that low hack-hack cough, soft yet penetrating, uncannily human, and so very close.

That was Coyote.

But our coyote turned out to be a she. Late one night we heard high-pitched yipping, a litter of kits, and then we heard her, too, her deeper howl. We heard them on cloudy nights as well as moonlit, their yips and howls carried far by the silence, echoing off Badlands gullies, rising and falling, a lullaby rocking us to sleep, telling us all was well.

* * * * *

In Lakota language class I learned:

___dog is shunka[break]___coyote is shunkmanitu, sacred dog [break]___wolf is shunkmanitu tanka, big sacred dog

Thus the Lakota names of He Dog, Crazy Dog, and Crow Dog, which visitors sometimes laugh at, refer to Coyote or Wolf, powerful sacred animals. These ‘Dog’ Soldiers were the elite warriors, always guarding the women and children in the rear, always in the first line of defense, dedicated to die to protect the people.

Leonard Crow Dog, my husband’s cousin, once told me how his great-great grandfather received his name.

After an enemy attack, his ancestor lay dying. Four Coyotes came. One curled up next to him to keep him warm, one brought a special sage, one brought a ball of sage soaked in water, and one brought taopi tawote, wound medicine made from stinkweed bushes.

Without Coyote medicine he would have died. On the fourth day a Crow came and led him back to his people. To honor these two sacred animals, he took the name Crow Coyote.

Later, reservation census takers mistranslated his name, as they did with Chief He Dog and Crazy Dog, and so the honorable meaning of their names was lost. Then even the mistranslated names were lost.

Missionaries discouraged such outlandish animal names, because they came from the pagan practice of hanblechia, seeking a vision, an animal guardian spirit. The missionaries told the Lakota that animals had no souls, and gave their boarding school students respectable names like Brown or Johnson.

But the traditional Lakota knew otherwise, that everything has skan, breath or spirit. Soul. Everything is alive. Even Stone People, the born and ancient ones. The wisdom, the soul of the stone, can guide and protect and heal.

And since everything is alive, all must be honored, even the Bee Nation, even Old Man Coyote. When the breath stops – when the stone stops breathing and becomes dust — the soul moves on to the spirit world, which surrounds us all.

I always knew animals had souls, so when I married a Lakota spiritual leader and moved to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I fit comfortably into this Lakota world view. And I was glad he’d kept the traditional name of Black Crow.

* * * * *

Cinderdog, my Chicago street-wise lab, survived the move to the reservation, where dogs are never allowed inside.

Soon he became top dog of Emma’s pack, teaching them tug-of-war with sweat lodge towels, leaping through snowdrifts to chase rabbits and cars and buffalo. He guarded the camp, baying over the hills at drunks straying from the road to Norris Bar.

One morning, digging out from a five-day blizzard, I couldn’t find Cinderdog. Snowdrifts glittered, blanketing woodpiles and obliterating tracks. Finally I found him frozen stiff in the sweat lodge. He must have sought shelter there, but he hadn’t died from the cold.

I sucked in my breath. He’d been shot in the forehead, a small clean hole. I held his head and cried. My protector, my companion, was gone.

“Made by a .22,” Selo said.

We didn’t own guns because Camp Lakota was sacred land, with vision pits, sweat lodges and sundance ground. The killer had to be our nearest neighbor, a man who visited us every day. Wesley, the forty-year-old bachelor, lived half a mile up Branding Iron Creek with his mother.

He hunted prairie dog, grouse and wild turkey. He also shot endangered kit foxes and black ferrets, and the only beaver. He said the pelt man paid good bucks. Only Wesley would go out in a blizzard.

“Musta’ caught him inside the sweat,” Selo said. “No four-leggeds allowed.

Where else could Cinderdog go in a 30-below blizzard? Besides, Wesley never took sweat, didn’t give a damn about traditional ways.

“Must’a come back from hunting with an empty gunny sack.” Selo shrugged.

Such meanness, I thought, how could Wesley be so heartless? But reservation life was hard, turned people hard. I turned hard towards Wesley.

“Best keep on the good side of Wesley. Can’t tell what he might do,” said Emma, who surrounded herself with dogs — for protection, garbage disposal and ceremony soup.

* * * * *

If you could smell puppy soup at the altar, they said, it’d be a good doctoring. The old ones thrive on puppy soup. After a ceremony, everyone’s happy to dip greasy fingers into dog soup. Could cure everyone present.

Just in case an elder became ill, Emma always had a fattened puppy ready: small, clean, short-haired and black. She fed it with loving care, so its sacrifice wouldn’t be meaningless.

After the puppy grew to the right size, Selo dedicated it with prayers to Tunkashila, the Great Mystery. While I held the puppy, he painted a red stripe from the top of its head to the tip of its nose, marking it as sacred. Not with store-bought paint, but red Badlands dirt mixed with buffalo heart grease.

Then the puppy was choked out. Selo looped the ceremonial rope, a thick rawhide thong, around the puppy’s neck, and directed anyone willing to pull the ends in opposite directions until the puppy was strangled.

At first I refused to help, but then I learned to concentrate on the sacredness of the ceremony and the sick elder who needed doctoring, not on the puppy. That way I wouldn’t lean towards the puppy, prolonging its life and spoiling the sacrifice.

Next, Emma singed the puppy over a fire, rubbed its skin free of hair, peeled and chopped it into chunks for a clear soup without potatoes or salt. Prepared properly, puppy soup – not just the meat, but the pure sacrificial puppy soul — could make you well.

* * * * *

When I first moved to the reservation, I learned that when you drive down a rutted dirt track to a remote log cabin, you don’t get out of the pickup. You wait for a light to go on, a lamp to be lit, a door to open. Because each place has a pack of dogs just like Emma’s, on guard against strangers.

One evening I forgot. Our mechanic nephews were putting an engine back in, trying to finish before dark, and they’d hit a snag with a 360 engine that ought to but didn’t quite fit into the chassis. I was sent to get Sam Quiver, self-taught mechanic, knowledgeable and deft, even though he only had two fingers left on one hand.

When I pulled into the Quivers’ cluster of cabins, I got out and immediately a black mutt from their pack bit me — just one quick bite-to-the-bone nip in my right calf. It caught me by surprise, and hurt too much even for me to cry out. I just stood there looking at my ripped jeans. No blood.

Sam came out, clubbed his dog away from me, and swore. “He’s a bad’un. Want me to shoot ’im? Good watchdog, but he bites too many people.”

“No, don’t!” I cried, kneeling and holding my aching leg. “It’s not the dog’s fault.”

* * * * *

After the sundance each August, Emma’s dog pack grew. Out in the country at Camp Lakota, visitors and locals alike left dogs behind. All kinds of dogs.

Mongrels. Pups. Wiener dogs, Chihuahuas, terriers, and once, a poodle. Indoor dogs. City dogs. Pedigreed dogs. Dogs used to canned dog food, dog houses, rawhide dog bones, flea collars. Ceremony puppies grown too big and thin and mangy.

We had too many dogs and no Animal Rescue League, no Humane Society. So I began dog-dumping. If people could dump dogs on us, I could dump them back.

I put on leather work gloves to avoid contact, and averted my eyes. I took dachshunds into Wanblee and dumped them in the teacher housing circle, sometimes in their fenced-in yards, seeking a soft heart for an inside dog.

Others I dumped at crossroads, blue healers and setters, good working ranch dogs hoping to find their way into a ranch and a rancher’s heart. I dumped the cutest in Long Valley, by the only store.

Sometimes, if I recognized the mutt, I’d take it right back to its owner. Other times I left dogs on the open prairie, knowing they’d become food for coyote and cougar.[break]

* * * * *

Several weeks after the last sundance, I woke up to screams and howls, not cougar or coyote, but human wailing. A high keening that Lakota women make at wakes. It could only be Emma, and meant another crisis. Selo my husband was off speaking for the American Indian Movement, leaving me alone to manage Camp Lakota.

I looked out the log cabin window and saw Emma framed in her cabin doorway, shrieking, flapping her arms and tearing her hair. She was staring down at the sundance grounds, where the camp dogs were snarling and circling around Topa, the sorrel herd mother of our Indian ponies.

In seconds I was dressed and down there, grabbing a piece of sweat lodge firewood to ward off the pack. Topa raced back and forth, kicking back the circle of lunging dogs and whinnying frantically every few breaths.

Below, feebly thrashing in a gully by the creek, lay our newborn appaloosa colt. His rump was spotted with blood now, raked open, chunks of flesh torn loose. His neck and mane hung limp in the gravel. I could see it now: during the night, Emma’s pack of starving camp dogs had brought him down.

I screamed and threw chunks of firewood at the pack. Some dogs slunk away, but others hovered nearby, jaws and jowls and forepaws dripping. At the sight of the bright red blood on their fur, I lunged at them wildly to keep them at bay.

Then I knelt down by the colt, held his head and talked to him. His body heaved and shuddered. How could I end his terrible pain? Call Wesley the neighbor with a gun? I watched the colt’s dark eyes glaze over, until with a jerk he lay still.

I looked up. Above me Wesley towered on the bank. “Need some help?” he said, shouldering his .22. A small rifle, but adequate. It had done in Cinderdog.

I stood up and wiped my bloody hands on my jeans. “No need, Wesley. The colt’s already dead.”

Wesley fired to make sure, and perhaps to see me jump as well. Then he said, “What about all them horseflesh-eatin’ dogs?”

I shuddered and looked up towards Emma’s cabin door. It was shut. She had shut herself off from the crisis. Emma’s pack had grown too large. This year I hadn’t dumped any dogs after the sundance. And this fall, living on government commodities stretched out over each month, we barely had enough to feed ourselves.

Wesley was right. Once a dog tasted horseflesh, none of the colts would be safe, maybe not even the buffalo calves, though they were protected by Maggie, the warrior cow with the wicked horns.

“Okay,” I said, pushing aside my queasy feelings, “let’s get to it.” I grabbed the biggest and bloodiest dog by his collar, an Irish setter, a trusting city dog with a rabies tag, and held him firmly out away from my side.

Wesley’s shot echoed. Not loudly. Just a crack-thud. He drilled him right through the forehead. The setter shuddered against me, jerked, crumpled, lay still. I released my hold, my palms sweaty.

“Absolutely lethal,” Wesley said.

Next dog, a boxer. Grabbed his collar, like a robot. Bang–yelp–jerk–release.

We shot three or four or ten dogs, I don’t remember. My heartbeat thudded in my ears throughout the whole ordeal, drowning out the individual salvos.

Afterwards, when the prairie was quiet again, we laid the colt in a nearby ravine and covered him with dirt. Then we buried the colt-killers alongside. I should remember how many furred bodies I hoisted into that dark gully, but I don’t.

Somehow I drove Wesley back home. I even thanked him.

“Glad to do it,” he told me, “any time.”

* * * * *

After the purge, only five dogs remained. Emma’s pack was diminished but still hungry, and Emma didn’t speak to me. But Wesley did. Wesley visited every day. He was untroubled, untouched, untouchable. Wesley didn’t believe in anything. Dead was dead, and there were no souls anywhere, animal or human.

In my heart I knew otherwise. Earlier I’d pretended that if I wore gloves, I’d be untouched, that dog-dumping wouldn’t count. But when I washed the blood, colt-mixed- with-dog, from my hands, the rotting coyote pelts of Elijah’s pickup surrounded and smothered me. Disrespect. Dog-dumping and dog-holding did count.

For weeks I had nightmares. I was a new-born colt and the pack was after me. I was a starving pack dog tearing at the haunches of the new-born colt. A Chihuahua clinging to a leather work glove, scrabbling to stay in the pickup. My nose painted red, a thong tight about my neck. My forehead drilled by a .22.

I was alone, and for the first time, afraid of the dark. I could no longer go to the outhouse at night. Nor walk in the buffalo pasture under the stars.

Dog ghosts prowled the sundance grounds by moonlight. All night long I heard ghost- whinnies, ghost yelps, ghost howls. Restless dog-souls. And waiting for me down by the creek, Shunkmanitu.

Dawn brought no relief. During the day I was swept by furies. In my day-mares I fingered the cold trigger of Wesley’s .22, I clubbed shadows with sweat lodge firewood,

I trampled and swore and raged. At Selo, always gone. At Emma, wanting a dog pack. At Wesley, our gun-happy neighbor. At the local dog-dumpers. At the mean, rangy reservation dogs, those skinny survivors.

Not enough food. Too many dogs. No harmony, no soul. A world out of whack — all around me, a world out of whack. And me powerless to whack it back into place.

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