Rez Dog
A New Mexico pueblo dog seems pleased to be part of the “doings” of a community gathering.
Photo: Mary Annette Pember

On my mom’s reservation, a dog lying in the road will not immediately run out of the way as your car approaches him. First he will squint at you to see if he knows you. His expression will seem to say, “Oh, aren’t you Bernice’s daughter?”

Then he will move out of the way slowly, a begrudging show that he is allowing you onto his turf. Non-Indian cars may receive quite a different welcome, barking so frantic that it seems to merge into a single long dog-alarm sound that will certainly keep one firmly inside the car.

“Rez dogs” are altogether different creatures from the pampered pets that occupy the homes of mainstream middle America. This difference, however, shouldn’t be construed to mean that they are any less loved than suburban dogs. Native folks just have a different relationship with them. And in many ways, the relationship is more clearly defined.

Traditionally, Ojibwe people don’t allow dogs near sacred objects nor do they feed them food that has been served in ceremonies; it’s considered dangerous to human beings. I’ve heard various explanations for this. The consensus seems to be that humans need to maintain the division between themselves and their dog brothers. Although, they are close to us and helpful, they are animals and have their own spirits. We must always remember this.

rez dog

Growing up in small town Wisconsin, I have first hand knowledge of the Indian-dog/white-dog wars. My Ojibwe mother and Welsh/Norwegian father had an ongoing battle about letting the dog in the house. My mom scoffed at the very notion. Eventually, my dad wore her down — “This is a really cold winter, look how sad he looks,” he would say. The dog made his way into the back room with the wet shoes and boots and in true opportunistic dog fashion never went back. In the end, my mom’s line in the sand was the bedroom. My father wisely accepted his victory, snug in his recliner with the dog in his lap as they watched Gunsmoke.

Dog are dogs on the reservation, and they play their part naturally.
Photo: Mary Annette Pember

Certainly, on a very realistic level, one can make the case that reservation dogs are not very well cared for and can present a hazard to themselves and the community. They run wild, over breed and seldom see the veterinarian. But on a lighter, philosophical level, I think rez dogs possess a dignity denied the suburban dog. Rez dogs seem to have places to go and important business to attend. They trot down the road with their eyes fixed on some distant errand. They attach themselves to dwellings where people feed them, occasionally pat them and generally don’t drive them off, but they definitely have their own society.

When Indians speak to their dogs, the dogs will look up and smile, happy to be noticed. They wear their goofy grins as they stroll around the edges of a powwow and seem pleased that the “doings” are going so well. But rez dogs know their place and seem to have a genuine pride in this structure. One senses that they’d be insulted at the dandified shows of affection bestowed upon the suburban dog.

Safe and healthy with his trips to the groomer and store-bought toys, the suburban dog seems stripped of his “dog-ness” and to my mind, often wears a look of resignation as he eats his diet dog food. The Rez dog, however, ragged and underfed, a cloud of dust emerging from his coat when you pat him, always wears a smile.

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