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for people who care about the West

Not Mary's little lamb

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

We who drink in rhymes about Mary's little lamb and Bo Peep's docile flock with our mothers' milk have a hard time seeing wild sheep objectively. Our perceptions of this animal are inevitably colored by the stupid, meek, defenseless creature domestication made of it.

Native Americans, who had no such prejudices, saw bighorns quite differently. In the Southwest, the mountain sheep - which plays a major role in Hopi and Navajo mythology - was discussed only in low tones of voice. Its horns were piled ceremoniously near water holes, and some groups specially cremated sheep bones to quiet the spirits of the killed animals.

In the Northern Rockies, people set the skulls of large rams in trees and left beads and other offerings below them. Bob Edgar, an archaeologist-historian who excavated Mummy Cave, a major site east of Yellowstone National Park, uncovered several ram skulls there in an 8,800-year-old stone structure that appeared to be a shrine.

Although mountain sheep were certainly eaten, the respect given to them had another source. According to U.S. Forest Service Northwest regional archaeologist James Keyser, bighorns were seen as power animals that controlled rain. In thirsty areas like southern Nevada, mountain ranges that spawn an occasional cloud are decorated with thousands of their incised and painted images.