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Talking to Animals; what's the point?

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We're wrapping up a weekend of Revisioning Medicine with Deena Metzger in Topanga Canyon, California, and preparing for our next event, which will be an interpretation and installation of the Plains winter hunt ceremony, as it relates to modern times. We'll be doing that at Rowe Conference Center the last weekend in January (for details, see

We've been intrigued by this series of ceremonies, since we first learned about them. Throughout the Northern Plains, people ceremonially re-enacted the hunt, the predator-prey relationship, each winter as a way to dialogue with the animals who were going to be hunted, and to request their cooperation in being hunted. The ceremony involved people actually becoming animals in order to facilitate this dialogue.

Native peoples of the Northern Plains used the Winter Buffalo Hunt ceremony for meditation and celebration before seeking the buffalo that would sustain them through hard winters. Thus, it was a kind of abundance ceremony, but dialogic, rather than monologic. The animals had to agree. These ceremonies were more than celebration. They involved an instantiation of the animals into the humans who danced for them, such that the ceremony was performed with the animals, whose spirits acted through their human hosts.

The idea of instantiation is known in Catholicism, and means that the spirit becomes flesh. In Catholicism, the wine is the blood of Christ. The bread is the flesh. In Protestant religions, the wine represents the blood and the bread represents the body. "Is" versus "represents". For the Native American cultures I have studied, instantiation is the rule. When you wear the mask of the animal, you are the animal. When people dance for the buffalo, they are the buffalo. It is not a symbolic representation.

Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air,

and they will tell you, or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,

or let the fish of the sea inform you.

-- Job 12: 7-8

The idea revolves around human-animal communication, a particular type that is implicit in the indigenous cultures I have studied, prevalent in children's literature, and dismissed by the mainstream adult world. The passage into adulthood is supposedly marked by the idea that only humans have language[1], yet we are learning more and more about animal languages.

North America's indigenous people start with the idea that animals are people and proceed to implement practices that foster trans-species communication. The non-indigenous popularization of this is the idea of power animals, a mistranslation and obfuscation of actual trans-species communication, which is unique, unpredictable, and non-formulaic. Real communication contains surprises and cannot be codified in a book or in cards (like the Medicine Cards that are so popular in certain quarters).

Indigenous Amazonians rely upon the dreams of dogs to gain information about their environment according to Eduardo Kohn (2007). Kathy Rudy (2012) has written about the need for all of us (not just indigenous people) to incorporate what she calls "post-humanism becoming animal". The goal is not to teach animals to speak human languages, but to develop richer understanding of their world and to participate more fully in that world. She calls this "post-human studies". She says that one of its central projects is to chase down the mystery of communication between organism and environment, and to detail how humans are a part of nature, not above it or beyond it. Post-human, animal studies strives to underscore the connectedness between organisms and environment.

Most impressive to me is the work of Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University, who has spent his career learning the language of prairie dogs. He presents prairie dogs with identifiable stimuli, such as people or dogs, and records their chirps, using acoustic software to deconstruct the sounds. He has found that prairie dogs chirps can differentiate a human female wearing blue, who is thin and tall, from one wearing green, from one who is heavy, from one who is short. I was amazed at the degree to which prairie dogs can communicate these differences in perception to other prairie dogs. Slobodchikoff writes that there are so many more utterances than he can decode, because they seem to be social and relational, unrelated to external events he can manipulate. His amazing you tube video is available at

Slobodchikoff's research shows that prairie dogs have, at least to some degree, similar conversations as to humans, and very different from what has been previously assumed by mainstream thinkers about animal communication. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has shown that Great Apes teach each other skills of enhanced communication. Alexandra Horowitz proclaims that dogs understand us much better than we understand them. Of course, who hasn't heard of Rupert Sheldrake's studies of dogs who know when their owners are coming home. In a book of that name, Sheldrake reported his studies of randomly telling dog owners to head home during the work day, sometimes reversing their journey mid-way, and sending them by different, random routes that could not be anticipated by the dogs. Using activity monitors on the dog, he could reliably show that the dogs knew when their owners reached a certain distance from home. Thus, dogs are more sensitive to humans coming home than probably humans are to dogs coming home.

Dawn Prince-Hughes argues that her autism makes her sensitive to other forms of communication, which so-called normal humans might miss. She writes, "It is clear to me that not only do apes have a language that is complex and holistic, but by communicating with us, they illustrate that it may be we who are less skilled at the art of sharing true subjective experience." (p.126; in Rudy]. Cross-species communication is not solely a matter of animals learning how to talk to us, but also our learning the language of animals as is being done in the prairie dog example.

The purpose of the winter buffalo ceremony was to communicate with the game animals about the need for them and to invite them into the bodies of human dancers so that they could be part of the dialogue in which some of them would agree to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the humans. In the dance, the humans become the animals. Masks and costumes aid that transformation. The ceremony asked the animals for what the humans needed for sustenance. Pledges and covenants were made. Right relationship was restored in the face of the hunt. Respect had to be given. The dance, in some tribes, reenacted the hunt with predators downing prey, attempted to restore the harmony that the hunt disturbed.

To the best we can determine, no one has down the winter buffalo hunt ceremony since the late 1890's. If we could find one to attend, we would do so. However, none seem to exist. Therefore, we've been experimenting in recent years with re-enactments of this ceremony. To do this, we have to pose the question, What does a modern winter buffalo ceremony request? Buffalo was sustenance at one time. In Saskatchewan, when I lived there, a slogan emerged that "education is the new buffalo". Education was thought to provide what the buffalo had once done -- sustenance. If we don't know how to communicate with the animals, how do we communicate with these new spirits, like education?

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)

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