Wolves, History, & Culture
How does culture influence perceptions about wolves throughout US history?
Where did these different perceptions come from? Why are they so ingrained in people’s psyches? The cultures we are raised in can strongly affect how we see and interact with the world, and with wildlife.
- Why do some people see wolves as a scary and dangerous threat to people and other animals?
- Where do you think these perceptions come from?
- What has influenced your own perception about wolves?
- What stories have you heard that have wolves as characters?
Wolves have long been viewed as menacing and dangerous by Western societies. Why is that? There are many instances in literature, popular culture, and mythology that support this dark characterization. Phrases like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, “throw them to the wolves”, and “cry wolf” all paint a picture of wolves as malicious creatures. Wolves in folktales like Little Red Riding Hood and The Boy Who Cried Wolf are cruel and cunning in their attempts to overpower their prey. These stories of wolves may be folktales, but their repeated telling over generations gives them power to influence the perceptions of an entire culture. Reminders of these fictional wolf characters have persisted throughout history.
The wolf has been a popular polarizing character in literature for decades. How many of these stories are you familiar with? Read a few to explore how wolves are characterized. How does each story either perpetuate inaccurate perceptions or clarify accurate descriptions of this animal?
What is the relationship between Indigenous people and wolves?
Prior to European colonization, there were 250,000 or more wolves living in North America alongside hundreds of different Indigenous tribes¹. Each tribe had unique lifestyles, cultures, and spiritual teachings that were closely tied to their relationship with the natural world.
All tribes have a common perspective about wolves and the other animals, plants, and parts of nature: “the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all”². They believe that everything in nature is to be treated with the respect given to a family member³. All tribes have a unique expression of this relationship. Lakota culture centers around the sacred phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, which means “all my relations” or “we are all related”⁴.
Indigenous people treat the wolf with respect and caution, observing and learning from its behavior. The Pawnee tribe even took the name of the Wolf People to symbolize the courage and loyalty of this animal⁵! Viewing the natural world through a relationship lens continues to be a foundational part of Indigenous cultures today⁶.
What was the relationship between European colonists and wolves?
This Indigenous interconnected and relational worldview was challenged when European colonizers arrived in North America. These settlers brought with them a different cultural relationship with the natural world. From the settlers’ perspective, the world was organized in a hierarchy in which people’s desires and needs were prioritized over the needs of the land and wildlife. Plants, animals, and natural spaces were viewed as bountiful resources for human use.
To colonists, this land was a “wilderness,” and in order to progress forward and settle here successfully, they needed to tame and conquer it⁷ ⁸ ⁹.
The settlers’ worldview put them in competition with the natural world and the land’s current residents. As Europeans colonized greater swaths of North America, violently pushing Indigenous people off of their land and expanding ever further westward, this perception of needing to tame and conquer the dangerous wild persisted. In most cases, it was a losing battle for both wildlife and the Indigenous people.
Before livestock animals were brought to America, settlers and wolves mostly avoided each other. However, as colonists moved west, they killed more and more bison and deer (two of the wolf’s main food sources)¹⁰. When cattle, sheep, and other domesticated animals were introduced to the land, the fragile separation between humans and wild nature was broken. Faced with decreased options on their food menu, wolves turned to livestock to stay alive. These livestock animals were kept at the outer edges of settlements, leaving them conveniently vulnerable and exposed to predators. With their food and transportation sources threatened, settlers’ perceptions of wolves as dangerous and frightening became more exaggerated, which in turn strengthened their efforts to exterminate them¹¹. Even as colonies grew into modern cities and towns, the ideas of untamed wilderness and the cruelty of wolves have endured. By the early 1900s, wolf populations were significantly decreased through extermination by humans. Wolves were completely eliminated from Colorado by 1940.
How are the current perceptions of wolves influenced by our history?
The context of history can persist through generations, and affect the views we hold as a society. While more people understand the animal’s natural behavior, perceptions of wolves as dangerous remain widespread. Modern movies like Frozen and The Grey portray wolves as the villain bent on harming or killing the heroes of the story. On the flipside, books like The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig attempt to turn the tables on the classic story of the Three Little Pigs, depicting wolves as timid and frightened against the fierce pig. However, this depiction sways to the other extreme and adds fodder to misperceptions. Wolves are not vicious killers unless they are hunting their next dinner, but they aren’t warm and cuddly either. An accurate portrayal of the wolf would characterize it as a predator that needs to hunt to survive and thrive, and as an animal that is vital to its natural ecosystem.
Controversy around wolves’ place in natural lands continues today. Some people believe there is no longer space for wolves, while others feel that returning wolves to their native range is the priority. The compromise will lie somewhere in the middle. Wolves may improve the health of ecosystems, but their presence will pose management challenges for the people who share the land with them. The fact that many more people now live on land that was once the wolf’s native range adds to the complexity of the issue, and serves to polarize the two sides even more. The goal of this Quest is to bring perceptions and facts together to build a fact-based understanding of the wolf and of the potential impacts its reintroduction could have. Then, you can cast a well-informed vote.
Animals 101: Wolves - National Geographic
This is a great time in the Quest to review what you know. As you watch this video, keep in mind your new understandings of wolves. In what ways are you seeing wolves through a more accurate lens than before you started this Quest?