Marco Crisari/Thinkstock
The turtle is but one of many sacred animals throughout Native cultures.

Our Brothers and Sisters: 6 Sacred Animals and What They Mean in Native Cultures

Vincent Schilling

Without a doubt, animals are a huge part of Native culture. They are considered our brothers and sisters, among our winged, four-legged and swimming family members. They are part of our creation stories, they are messengers to the ancestors and the Creator, and they are our teachers on this world.

In an attempt to give a bit of respect to our sacred animals have compiled a bit of cultural information about our animal brothers and sisters. Here are six sacred animals and what they mean in Native culture.

The Eagle

Because the eagle is the animal that flies the highest in the animal kingdom, many tribes have believed they are the most sacred, the deliverers of prayers to the Creator. Additionally, the eagle feather as a gift is considered the highest honor to be given.

The eagle is an animal of leadership, and in most cultures it is considered a dishonor to kill one. As a certain Cherokee legend demonstrates, you simply don’t mess with an eagle. One night, according to The Eagle’s Revenge as recounted on the website, a hunter kills an eagle that he finds eating a deer hung on the drying pole. The following day seven warriors are felled mid-dance by seven whoops from a warrior who enters in the middle of the ceremony. The tribe later learns that it was the eagle’s brother, come to avenge the death.

Bald eagle

The Coyote

Most commonly viewed as the trickster by many tribes, the coyote figure is also called Isily by the Cahuilla, Yelis by the Alsea and Old Man Coyote by the Crow Tribe, which views the animal as both creator and trickster. Regarded by some tribes as a hero who creates, teaches and helps humans, the coyote also demonstrates the dangers of negative behaviors such as greed, recklessness and arrogance in other tribes.

Overall, the coyote is often referred to as a creature of both folly and intelligence that seeks to fulfill its own needs at the expense of others. The coyote is also known as a master of disguise.

The ubiquitous, notorious, coyote trickster. (Photo: Thinkstock)

The Buffalo

As one of the most important life sources for the Plains tribes, the American buffalo, or bison, is a sacred and strong giver of life. Their horns and hides were used as sacred regalia during ceremony. They are also tied to creation, medicine and bringers of sacred messages by the ancestors such as White Buffalo Calf Woman, the bearer of the peace pipe to the Lakota people.

In an Apache story, a powerful being by the name of Humpback had always kept the buffalo from the tribes of Earth, thanks to Coyote, who tricked Humpback and his son into believing that he was a dog, waited for them to fall asleep and then barked to scare the buffalo. The buffalo in turn trampled Humpback’s house flat, which allowed the bison to roam the Earth and feed the people.

American Bison Museum


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



kickapoocandy's picture
Submitted by kickapoocandy on
Thank you Vincent Schilling for this article. In my volunteer work I do I see many Natives fighting for our brother the wolf and coyote. They need us to be their voice. Great article. Kepiihcihi Candy Copeland (Kickapoocandy), Social Media Director, National Wolfwatcher Coalition