California Indians and their Dogs

Three-thousand archeologists are on the loose in Sacramento, gathered for the 76th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, which runs through sunday.  According to the local paper, members of this tribe are avid researchers one of humankind’s oldest recreational beverages.  The Bee reports that in 1993, they drank all the beer in the conference hotel, and this in St. Louis, hometown of Anheuser-Busch.

When they are not partying like ancient Egyptians (one theory holds that pyramid-builders were paid in beer), the Society’s members will hear numerous research papers.  One of them, by Paul Langenwalter, professor of archaeology and antropology at Biola University in La Mirada, contradicts a popular prevailing view, and asserts that California Indians had close personal relationships with their dogs.

Native American Children and Dog, near Susanville, ca 1900 - From Sacramento Bee

This is good news for those who have wondered if we are the only culture in the historyof the world that buys our dogs presents at Christmas and Jackalope horns at Halloween.  Actually, we probably are.  Langenwalter, who has studied Indian burial sites dating to 1700 has not recovered any Jackalope horns, but he has found many other things of interest.  Native people and their dogs were often buried side by side, curled up in a sleeping position.  Dog graves were also marked with stone cairns. 

Early European observers noted the close relationship between native Californians and their dogs, and this is confirmed by Debra Grimes, a Miwok Indian, and cultural preservation specialist for her tribe.  Grimes agrees that dogs were historically buried as a member of the family, because they were.

I am reminded of a story I heard so long ago that I cannot even remember its source.  My best guess is that it is either a plains Indian legend or that it comes from the Pacific Northwest.

When the earth was young, humans and animals were natural allies, and the friendship of the animal tribes made us very powerful.  So powerful, in fact, that gods were worried.  (Even then we had a tendency to get too big for our britches).   The gods decided to separate the human and animal nations, so they opened a chasm between us in the earth.  From a small crack it grew deeper and wider, the animals on one side, people on the other.  At the very last possible moment, Dog jumped across the gap to stand with humans, and that is why dogs have been our special friend ever since.

Enjoy the article and wish the archaeologists well.  Who knows, they could find the Jackalope horns any day!

Missy’s Homecoming Day, aka, Valentine’s Day

I’ve always been something of a Valentine’s Day Scrooge – “Humbug!”  Always, even in fifth grade, while trying to decipher the nuances of the text on candy kisses enclosed in the envelopes during the school Valentine swap.

I’m not doctrinaire about it.  I always bring Mary a card and some little treat.  And it is marvelous to stop to be mindful of the love and friendships we enjoy.  I’m just not a fan of Hallmark holidays.  It’s hard not to be a bit cynical when the hearts come out the last week of December, during the Christmas closeout sales.

Much of that cynicism ended two years ago, on Saturday, February 14, 2009, at noon.  Mary had spent the morning at Saint Francis Episcopal church.  Like their namesake, the good people there have a serious ministry with animals.  They rescue dogs and train them as companion and service animals for vets coming home from our wars.

Mary called to tell me an eight month old papillon had washed out of the program.  The little thing been mistreated or neglected, for she was much too hyper and skittish to make any kind of service training feasible.  “She is really sweet,” Mary said.  My wife later confessed that she was counting on me to be the voice of reason, and tell her to get real.  Didn’t happen!

Instead, I leashed up our other two dogs and took them over to meet Missy.  It was instant bonding, all around.  Humans and canines instantly warmed up to the little one, and she to us.  Thankfully, neither Mary nor I had any clue how much harder three dogs are to care for than two!  Missy was part of the family and we took her home within the hour.

Now Valentine’s day will forever have a face, one far more appealing than any stupid, rosy-cheeked cupid.  The hearts of people and animals do not seem to have any limits for how much love they can hold.  At this very moment I’m gazing at Missy curled up at my feet – one of the biggest hearts in one of the smallest beings I have ever had the joy of including in my life.


Charis – a Dog Story

We named our first dog Charis after Merlin’s mother in an Arthurian fantasy novel.  Some time later we realized the word meant “grace” in Greek.  That was just one of many things she brought into our lives.

We walked into the breeder’s living room where five little puppies huddled together in their pen.  Charis raised her head and hopped over her litter-mates to dash up to us, her little tail wagging furiously.  We took it as an omen – only later did we understand it was fairly predictable alpha behavior.  One of her mottoes could have been, “Obedience is optional.”  Luckily, “Will work for food,” was a motto too, so with the help of dog treats, we came to an understanding.

She was a purebred bichon frise, and we only got her because her red nose and blue eyes didn’t match the breed standard, so the breeder couldn’t use her as a show dog.  Her blue eyes turned gold by the time she was a year old, just like a wolf.  I thought she was about the most beautiful puppy I’d ever seen.

Charis as a puppy

Once we took her to a pet friendly motel on the Oregon coast that had it’s own nine-hole golf course. She was a trickster and a runner.  She scampered out the door as we were carrying things in and ran a merry chase, stopping to pee on several greens until another golfer called and she pranced up to him, wagging her tail, and for all you could tell, pleased as could be with herself.  The following year when we called, the motel was no longer pet friendly.  I’m not saying that Charis changed that all by herself, but still…

In the trickster mode - can you see it?

The same recessive gene that gave her wolf eyes, probably took her eyesight when she was 13.   She adapted to that pretty well, but also,  she was large for her breed, so by 14, she was blind and needed medication for joint problems. The vet said it might not be much longer. That night I dreamed that the aging Charis was not the real one. In the dream, I saw the real Charis dashing through the back yard, jumping over rocks and hurdles as if gravity didn’t exist.

But the Charis who had to deal with gravity and the passing of time could still go for walks, find her way around the house by smell and touch, and generally enjoy our company and that of her younger “sister.” It wasn’t quite time.


I think of her in November because the time finally came when she was 15 1/2.  We took her in to the vet for our final act of kindness four years ago on Veteran’s Day.  Extraordinarily difficult things happen to every one, but I have never had to initiate anything harder in my life.

There are some permanent lessons I learned at the end of her life, things that have stayed with me, but that’s for another time.  This is just a moment to remember, and put up several of my favorite photographs of a beautiful little soul that wore the shape of a dog for a few precious years.