E.A. Armstrong wrote, “Much European wolflore is pervaded by a fearsome awe less apparent in North American wolf traditions” (Man, Myth, and Magic).
In fact, wolves are much admired by those aboriginal nations that owe their survival to successful hunting. The Nunavut of Alaska and the Naskopi of Labrador even copied the wolf’s hunting style.
The white man didn’t share this reverence. Among the first things the Pilgrims did upon their arrival in America was place a bounty on wolves.
In Canadian tradition, the wolf was esteemed for its devotion and loyalty both to family and pack.
This idea fades as we travel south. Mexican wolflore is haunted by the “wolf-man,” a creature similar to the European werewolf. In Aztec lore, a well-known sorcerer/warrior, cuelachtli, could change into a wolf-man and, by feeding his blood to his followers, could give them the same ability.
Still, the wolf isn’t a strong symbol in Mexican culture, and when the Spaniards came, there followed the same determined extermination of wolves as existed in Europe. Once almost eradicated, Mexican wolves have been protected since 1972.
U.S. aboriginals have had a complex relationship with the wolf. He was admired but also feared. Many tribes saw him as a god. Others found him evil. In fact, the Navajo word for wolf, mai-coh, also means “witch.”
The wolf’s image improves as we go north.
The Sioux name is shunk manitutanka, “the animal that looks like a dog but is a powerful spirit.” The Lakota Sioux, who call the wolf, sungmanitu, view him as a night spirit who preserves and protects both warfare and the hunt.
This spirituality is echoed by the Northern Cree who thought the aurora borealis a manifestation of wolves. The Blackfood called the Milky Way, “The wolf trail to heaven.”
In much First Nations mythology, the wolf is associated with creation. Dakotas credit wolf-man with making the prairies. Cree myth says a wolf saved mankind during the great creation flood. Some even believe their first ancestors were transformed from wolves.
Other nations believed wolf howls to be the spirits of lost souls. Plains Indians named the four cardinal points of direction after animals with the wolf representing ‘east.’ Many tribes refused to kill a wolf. Shamans (often called “medicine men”) wore wolf skins so they might assume the animal’s spirit.
The totem is a clan’s self-identification. Clan members are said to gain the strength and qualities of their totems. The wolf, adopted by the Creek, Huron, Cherokee, Ojibwa (Chippewa), Shawnee, Iroquois, Osage, Lanope, and Caddo tribes, is the most common totem.
Native folklore offers several tales involving wolves. As well, proverbs and sayings regarding this animal have entered native speech.
Here’s an Inuit proverb: “The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf that keeps the caribou strong.”
Dakotas say, “Don’t feed the bad wolf.”
This one is Chippewyan: “When you flee from a wolf you run into a bear.”
In Indian lore, the Wendigo (Windigo) is not a wolf-creature despite the claims of today’s werewolf/vampire/horror cultists.