Among the Cheyenne and Dakota
by Peter J. Durkin
Whispering Wind, 1999
American Indians of the Northern plains often depicted animals with special powers on their clothing, shields, horses and tipis, in hopes of sharing some of their special qualities. The dragonfly possessed multiple attributes that appealed to the people. It's always a good omen when a dragonfly lands on a tipi cover; a sign that life giving water is nearby. The dragonfly held wide meaning for the American Indians of the Plains, especially the Cheyenne and Dakota. However, the Cheyenne did not consider dragonflies as insects. In their classification of the cosmos they '"consider dragonflies and butterflies to be birds, both hatched from nymphs" (More, 178). This article will offer a brief overview of dragonfly symbolism among the Cheyenne and Dakota.
Modern biology classifies dragonflies in the order Odanata which includes both damselflies and dragonflies, often nicknamed "mosquito hawk" because of their voracious appetite for mosquitoes and black flies. Dragonflies have been traced on earth some 300 million years to the Carboniferous era, and "gian dragonflies with the wingspan of a hawk were dinosaurs' contemporaries" (Brody, 7). The dragonfly possesses 360 vision, can take off at 35 miles per hour; they weave, hover, and can fly backwards. Incredibly, each of their four wings can operate independently under direct muscular control. This maneuverability has made the dragonfly a superb feeding machine. "They are as close to being the perfect predator as anything on earth.
When you're that good, there's no pressure to change" says Dr. Donald G. Huggins, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Kansas (Brody, 10). There are more than 4,950 species throughout the world with about 450 species in the US and Canada (Arnett,76). The blue dragonfly was considered an especially mysterious creature among the Cheyenne.
Peter J. Powell reported that "The blue dragonflies, who come from the blue waters, symbolize protection from death. So it is that blue dragonflies were painted upon the covers of shields or lodges, and on the bags and parfleche boxes in which sacred clothing or objects were kept" (Powell, 845).
Dragonflies, which are strong fliers, form circling swarms over aquatic ecosystems in their predatory search for smaller insects, especially mosquitoes. These funnel shaped configurations or "whirlwinds" are important symbols in Cheyenne religion and "these swarms are helpful to the people, they often warned of approaching enemies or indicated a good direction in which to travel" (Powell, 845).
Individual warriors often adorned themselves with the dragonfly image. "The image of the dragonfly was often used by warriors throughout the Plains because dragonflies are quick and are difficult to kill, and when they fly near the ground they create dust that makes them hard to see" (Maurer, 140). Their horses were likewise painted with dragonflies, an image reflecting the avoidance of danger. For example, one pictograph is described as follows: "A yellow horse with clipped ears is painted with dragonflies, recognizable by the long needle-like bodies and double sets of wings. A powerful creature who darts about and seems always to evade capture, the dragonfly is an appropriate emblem for a war pony" (Berlo, 196). Indeed, the Dakota said the dragonfly possessed the ability to avoid all danger, the dragonfly "can not be hit by man or animal, neither can the thunder injure it" (Wissler, 261)..............
Knowledge of dragonflies or other species is regarded as "property" of men who have gained it and are qualified to discuss it. .............Because of all these attributes, it is not surprising to see the dragonfly as a symbol on Ghost Dance apparel as well. In the attempt to be protected, especially from bullets, the dragonfly would be worn "invoking for the wearer the associative power of the insects darting flight" (Maurer, 175).
While the dragonfly is enjoying an upsurge in modern-day interest, the record of respect it enjoyed among the American indians of the Northern Plains, past and present, can be observed in a rich and diverse historical record of artifacts and ceremonies.#######
Reposted with permission Grandfather Cro