Why Reservation Dogs Hate Owls (And What It Means)

Introduction

Reservation Dogs is a comedy TV series created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi that premiered in 2021 on FX on Hulu. Set in rural Oklahoma, the show follows four Indigenous teenagers – Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese – living on a reservation as they commit small crimes to raise money to get to the mythical land of California. Though a comedy, Reservation Dogs deals with serious themes like colonialism, loss, and the search for identity and belonging.

The show has been groundbreaking for its focus on contemporary Indigenous lives and for having an all Indigenous writers room and Indigenous directors (“Sterlin Harjo says ‘Reservation Dogs’ gives audiences an ‘authentic glimpse into the day-to-day of Indigenous kids'”, 2022). According to critics, Reservation Dogs represents a major step forward for Indigenous representation on television by showing the humanity and complexity of Native American teenagers living in poverty on a reservation while avoiding stereotypes (<"https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/how-reservation-dogs-became-a-breakthrough-hit-for-indigenous-representation">).

Owl Symbolism in Native Cultures

In many Native American tribes, owls are seen as harbingers of evil and death. Their calls are interpreted as bad omens. According to the Creek and Seminole tribes, hearing an owl’s hoot foretells of an impending death https://centerofthewest.org/2018/08/06/owls-native-american-culture/. The Cree believed that dream catchers could ward off the evil influence of owls and their calls. Among the Apache, owls were associated with ghosts, and if an owl was heard it meant that someone had died https://blog.kachinahouse.com/owl-symbolism-in-native-american-culture/. Many tribes viewed owls as messengers between the living and the dead.

an owl perched on a fence under the moonlight

Some tribes saw owls as omens of sickness and misfortune. The Cherokee believed owls signaled approaching epidemics. According to Navajo legend, the hoot of an owl signaled the onset of the fatal illness known as “ghost sickness.” They believed contact with owls could cause sickness and death for themselves or their relatives https://palmstrading.com/the-owl-a-nuanced-symbol-in-native-american-cultures/.

The Owl Woman

In Cheyenne and Arapaho legends, the Owl Woman is a sinister figure who preys on children. According to folklore, the Owl Woman wanders at night searching for victims. She lures children by imitating voices and sounds to trick them into approaching her. Once a child gets close enough, the Owl Woman snatches them up and devours them.

One of the most well-known legends is that of the Owl Woman and the Girl Who Was Always Crying [1]. In this tale, a young girl who frequently cried was warned by her mother not to wander far from their tipi at night. One evening, the girl heard what sounded like her mother calling to her from a distance. Believing it was her real mother, the girl followed the voice away from the safety of the tipi, only to be captured by the Owl Woman lying in wait. The Owl Woman carried the girl to her cave and ate her.

According to Cheyenne oral histories, the Owl Woman was known to roam the plains hunting for misbehaving children to eat. Parents would often invoke the Owl Woman as a warning to frighten children into good behavior, lest they be taken away.

Owls Represent Outsiders

In many Native American tribes, owls are seen as symbols of outsiders or white colonizers encroaching on their lands. According to one source, “Owls represented outsiders: living on the boundaries of nations and settlements, [they] came upon camps as harbingers of displacement in native territories” (https://centerofthewest.org/2018/08/06/owls-native-american-culture/).

When European colonizers arrived in North America and began pushing Native peoples off their ancestral lands, the owl served as a reminder of these dangerous outsiders. Their large, staring eyes and silent flight represented the unsettling presence of settlers who would watch the tribes from afar before unexpectedly swooping in. As respected Cheyenne author Henrietta Mann notes, the owl “presages misfortune and warns of impending doom” (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-meaning-of-an-owl-totem-in-Native-American-culture).

So for many Native cultures, the owl became a dark omen of invasion and displacement by foreign colonists. Even today, owls can symbolize outsiders encroaching on native lands or ways of life.

Owl Imagery in the Show

The FX series Reservation Dogs makes frequent use of owls to create an ominous tone and foreshadow tragic events. Owls routinely appear in the background or peripheral vision of characters, often with their eyes obscured to make them seem more eerie and otherworldly.

an owl with glowing eyes watching the characters

In the first season, an owl appears on a fence post behind Bear and Elora as they have an emotional conversation, foreshadowing the conflict to come between them (Source). Later, an owl watches ominously as the youths plan to steal a chip truck, foreshadowing their criminal acts.

Owls also appear during moments of danger or violence. When a violent gang pursues Cheese, an owl watches the chase, foretelling his demise. As Willie Jack plans revenge after a friend’s death, an owl observes in the background, foreshadowing the dark path ahead (Source).

The constant owl appearances link the birds to death, darkness, and ill fate throughout the series. Their obscured eyes make them seem more supernatural and reinforce their role as harbingers of misfortune.

Negative Owl Associations

In some cultures, owls have long been associated with negative symbolism relating to fear, danger, and death. In ancient Greek mythology, the owl was seen as the sacred bird of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. However, its nocturnal habits also linked it to darker forces. The Romans viewed the owl as a symbol of misfortune, illness, and death (https://happybirding.com/are-owls-bad-omens/).

In India, there are mixed associations with owls. On one hand, the owl represents wisdom due to its connection with the goddess Lakshmi. But its cries are also thought to foretell death or misfortune. Seeing or hearing an owl is often thought to be an inauspicious omen (https://www.houseofgoodfortune.org/bonheur-blog/owls-good-or-bad-luck).

In many Native American tribes, the owl is associated with death and darkness. Their cries are believed to signify that death or tragedy is coming. Some tribes see the owl as an evil spirit or consider it a bad omen to see or hear one (https://happybirding.com/are-owls-bad-omens/).

These negative associations with owls persist in modern pop culture as well. Owls are often depicted in horror or supernatural stories as symbols of the underworld, evil spirits, or harbingers of doom.

Owl Sounds as Bad Omens

an owl screeching loudly at night

Many Native American tribes associate the ominous hoots and screeches of owls with death, evil spirits, and bad omens. The Cree believe the whistling call of the Boreal Owl signals that someone will soon pass into the spirit world.[1] For the Apache, dreaming about an owl is thought to be a warning of impending death.[2] Hearing an owl hooting or screeching nearby is seen by some tribes as a sign that evil spirits are lurking.[1] Overall, owl calls tend to be associated with bad luck, sickness, death, and other negative omens in many Native cultures.

Killing Owls to Ward Off Evil

Some Native American tribes historically killed owls or avoided them due to associations with death and evil spirits. Owls were seen as an ill omen and their calls were believed to foretell coming death or disaster. For example, the Cahuilla and Luiseño tribes in California actively hunted owls and destroyed their nests to ward off evil.1 The Hupa tribe in northern California believed owls signaled impending death and would immediately kill any owls they found.1

These practices likely originated from associations between owls and death – owls are nocturnal predators that feed on mice and other small animals, and their nighttime calls were seen as foreboding. By killing owls, tribes hoped to protect their communities from evil spirits and misfortune. However, some tribes like the Luiseño would spare owl nests with babies, reflecting mixed attitudes.1 Overall, the practice of owl persecution stemmed from traditional folk beliefs rather than scientific evidence.

Efforts to Change Perceptions

In recent years, there have been efforts by conservation groups to change negative perceptions of owls among some Native American tribes. This has been driven in part by campaigns to protect owl species like the Northern Spotted Owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (Source: https://www.northernspottedowl.org/jurisdictions/tribal.html). Many Native tribes have significant forestland holdings within the range of the Northern Spotted Owl, so their cooperation is important for conservation efforts.

Some conservation groups have tried to shift attitudes by emphasizing the ecological importance of owls. Owls help control rodent and small mammal populations, and serve as an indicator species for forest health. Outreach campaigns promote viewing owls as wise guardians of the forest instead of ill omens. There have also been efforts to incorporate traditional tribal knowledge into habitat protection plans for threatened owls.

While views are mixed, some Native American tribal members involved in owl conservation have come to appreciate them. One member of the Tulalip Tribes stated: “We’ve learned a lot working with the spotted owl. We’ve developed a respect for the species” (Source: https://centerofthewest.org/2018/08/06/owls-native-american-culture/). This indicates changing attitudes are possible with education and cooperation.

a conservationist holding a spotted owl

Conclusion

In summary, the stigma against owls in many Native American cultures stems from their associations with death, witchcraft, and outsiders. Owls are often seen as harbingers of evil and misfortune. Their nighttime activity and eerie calls contribute to their ominous reputation. Stories of owl figures like the Owl Woman reinforce the connection between owls and dark supernatural forces.

This stigma persists today in depictions like Reservation Dogs, where the gang is wary of owls as bad omens. The owl serves as a symbol of threatening outsiders encroaching on the community. While efforts have been made to rehabilitate the owl’s image and recognize its ecological importance, the bird remains fraught with negative meanings for many Indigenous peoples. Unpacking these associations provides insight into Indigenous worldviews and the complex relationship between culture, folklore, and the natural world.

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