What is the cultural significance of pronghorns to native americans?


Last Updated: 15 years


Can you tell me what cultural and religious significance the pronghorn antelope has for Native Americans in the West? (I know the answer will have to be general but if you have examples from different tribes that would be great!).

~Submitted by Hans S.


Although nearly everyone is aware of the buffalo’s vast numbers in pre-settlement times, few realize that pronghorns (often called antelope in the western states, although the are not a true antelope) equalled and perhaps even exceeded the bison. Immense pronghorn herds–an estimated 40 million; some say as many as 70 million–mingled with untold numbers of bison and deer, filling the American West from the shortgrass prairies of the western Great Plains, to Southwestern deserts, to the midgrass of eastern Nebraska.

As late as the 1870s, a train passenger described a herd of pronghorns that stretched for seventy miles, containing an estimated one million animals. At the time when Lewis and Clark made their way to the Pacific, the pronghorn’s range was enormous, stretching west of the Mississippi River to California, north to Manitoba, and south nearly all the way to Mexico City.

Just about all the tribes within it’s range hunted the pronghorn for meat, except the Apache, who believed it should never be hunted. Skins were used for clothing, entrails and bladders for containers and bindings, sinew for thread, and bones for tools. It was used in much the same way as deer, for all the same purposes.

The Apache have a legend that once a beautiful young woman of the tribe became a pronghorn antelope and even today her descendants still run with the wild herds of pronghorn, so if you eat an antelope you might be eating one of your ancestors.

Blackfeet Pronghorn Legend

The Blackfeet in Browning have a legend that tells how their god, Old Man, created the pronghorn on the slopes of the Rockies, but when he turned the animal loose, its great speed caused it to stumble and fall on the rocks and fallen timber of the mountains. So Old Man moved the pronghorn to the prairie, where it was content. And so it was that, along with the bison, the pronghorn ruled the plains.

While bison preferred prairie grasses, pronghorn ate the broad-leafed plants or forbs, sagebrush, and shrubs. Grazing by bison allowed the remaining forbs to grow and develop. So pronghorn moved in the wake of the buffalo, eating the flourishing forbs that were left behind.

Near extinction of the pronghorn

Like the bison, millions of antelope fell before both market and sport hunters. Tons upon tons of pronghorn meat filled trainload after trainload bound for the East and West coasts. Even when people couldn’t eat all the meat, pronghorns were still slaughtered. So many pronghorns were killed that the sheer quantity of meat glutted the market, making it almost worthless.

In Denver during the 1860s, just twenty-five cents could buy three or four entire pronghorn carcasses-a single coin for hundreds of pounds of meat. Sometimes hunters couldn’t even give the meat away. Despite this, pronghorns continued to be routinely shot by the thousands and the carcasses simply left on the prairie to rot. Ranchers feared they would take away forage from their sheep and cattle, not realizing neither eat the plants that pronghorns do.

Like the buffalo, within just a few decades, hunters, farmers, and ranchers virtually wiped out a species that had been a part of the North American continent for nearly 20 million years. By the early 1900s the pronghorn had vanished from most of the West.

Only 1,000 pronghorns were left in Colorado out of the original one million antelope that once ran wild within that state, and in all of North America, just 10,000 remained.

Beginning in the 1920s, concerted efforts helped bring the pronghorn back from extinction.There are now an estimated one million pronghorns in North America.

Names for the Pronghorn

Native Americans had many names for the pronghorn. The Cree called pronghorn “small caribou;” the Yankton Sioux named it “small deer.” To the Ogallala Sioux, pronghorn were “pale deer.” But for a long time Europeans didn’t know what to make of this strange animal, usually describing it as a kind of goat.

In the western US, pronghorns are often referred to as an antelope. While they belong to the Antelope genus, they are not a true antelope. The pronghorn is the only animal of it’s species, and is found nowhere in the world except North America.

The native american people of Central Washington hunted pronghorns with snares because their speed and stamina made them nearly impossible to catch on foot, and they were hard to run down even when the horse was introduced. Tribal groups in this area include Salishan speaking people to the north – the Methow (Mitois, Chiliwists), Entiat (Sinialkumuhs, Point de Bois), Chelan (Tsill-anes) Wenatchee (Pisquows, Wenatchi), Sinkiuse (Kawachens, Moses Columbia, Isle des Pierres), and Shahaptian speaking groups to the south – the Wanapums (Sakulks) and the now extinct groups of Pshwahwapam and Mical.

Speed and senses of the pronghorn

The pronghorn can maintain speeds of 60 mph for up to 4-5 minutes, and can continue at 35mph for hours. The fastest documented time for a pronghorn is 61mph. The horse, on the other hand, has a top speed of about 45mph and can only maintain it for 1/4 mile to a mile, or a little over a minute.

A cheetah is the only animal in the world faster than the pronghorn, at 70mph, but he can only maintain that speed for a distance of a few hundred yards to a 1/4 mile. Due to a large windpipe, antelope can move about 4-1/2 times more air than that of a human.

Pronghorns also have excellent eyesight, eight times better than humans, and can spot movement up to four miles away. Pronghorn’s eyes are larger than an elephants. They are also protruding and sit far back on the head, so a grazing pronghorn can see predators approaching behind him more easily than other grazing animals.

Curiousity has killed more than cats

However, pronghorns display an enormous sense of curiosity, uncommon in wild animal communities. They will investigate at close range any strange and unfamiliar object, especially one in motion. Early native Americans learned you could lure a pronghorn in close enough for bow hunting by hiding in a bush while waving a stick or cloth and the pronghorn would draw near to see the source of the movement.

When alerted to danger, pronghorns contract their rump muscles causing their white rump hairs to stand on end, which other Pronghorn may detect from 2 miles away. At the same time, they exude a musky odor, which can be detected by other pronghorns within a mile radius, since pronghorns also have a keen sense of smell.

Pronghorns drink very little water

Although pronghorn no longer exist in the Mojave Desert, they once did and were hunted by ancient natives. The biggest problem was getting close enough for a good shot from the bow and arrow. That could usually only be done at the waterhole, with the males during breeding season, when they might stand their ground longer than usual.

Catching them at a waterhole at other times of the year was difficult, because pronghorns can go for long extended periods without a water source, sometimes months. They get most of the moisture they need from the plants they eat.

Pronghorn roundups

Pronghorn were also corraled into enclosed areas and then shot with arrows or clubbed to death. Driving them over cliffs like the buffalo didn’t work very well, because the pronghorn is light enough and agile enough to turn quickly on short notice, unlike the heavier bison.

Group hunts were often led by a group leader who was usually the most skilled and experienced hunter. These group leaders were thought to have a spiritual connection to the animals hunted. Hunting group leaders often visited the herds, sang to them, and slept with the herd for several nights before the hunt.

Pronghorns have been depicted on bowls made by the Mimbre indians in the Southwestern US that have been dated to be more than a 1,000 years old, and pronghorns are common in rock petroglyphs throughout the Southwestern US.

The Paiute relied heavily on the pronghorn.

The Paiute hunted the pronghorn in great community drives in which the whole village participated. The pronghorns were usually driven into a trap in a box canyon or other natural barrier where they could be shot with a bow and arrow. Pronghorns usually do not jump but rather prefer to crawl under or through barriers. They also are not great climbers.

Rabbits and Pronghorn were often traded and shared among neighboring bands of Paiute, and given as peace offerings. The Paiute also have a ritual dance honoring the Pronghorn, associated with harvest and bounty.

Hopi Pronghorn Kachina

The Hopi have a pronghorn kachina, called Chop. This kachina is thougtht to make the rains come and the grass grow.

Many native americans believed animals with forked horns or antlers, such as the pronghorn and deer, represented a forked or double nature. Thus, they could be either a good or bad omen.

The Antelope and a Frog

The Kootenai Indian tribes who once inhabited the area of present-day western Montana tell a story about an Antelope and a Frog:

“The antelope was a very proud animal, but also very arrogant about his running ability. One day he boasted to frog about his superior speed over all other animals. This irritated the frog who decided to trick the antelope into a race along the creek-bed.

The antelope smugly took up his challenge and bet heavily on winning the race. Before the race however, frog called all his relatives and cleverly hid them in the reeds of the creek-bed, and when the race started they jumped up in sequence just in front of the speeding antelope. Since each frog only had to jump once they never got tired, while the antelope soon became exhausted and was beaten to the finish line.

When the antelope expressed his amazement at the speed of the frog, the frog confessed and told him it was not so much that he was a faster runner, more that he was a faster thinker.

The Antelope and the Deer

In a Tachi Yokut Legend of the Native North American peoples in central California, an antelope and the deer were roaming together around Tulare Lake when the antelope said: “I bet I can beat you running.”

“I think not” said the deer “for I can leap and bound as quick as you can run.”

The antelope replied: “Well, let us try”, and so the antelope and the deer agreed to run a race.

The deer said: “Let us go to the south of the lake and run northward”.

When they arrived they could see that to the west of the lake was open plains, while the east of the lake was covered in patches of brush. The antelope said: “As you boast you can leap and bound as quick as I can run, I will take west side of the lake and you can take the east side,” to which the deer agreed.

As part of the agreement the antelope said: “If I win, all this open country will be mine and you will have to hide forever in the brush.”

The deer replied: “Very well then, and if I win it will be the same for you.”

Needless to say the antelope won, for the deer couldn’t complete the race when he leapt into a particularly dense patch of brush and failed to get out. This is why today the antelopes live on the plains while the deer remains hidden in the brush.

We know today, that deer, on average, can run short sprints at 50 mph, 10 mph slower than the pronghorn.

Pronghorn Totem Animals

As totem spirit animals, all horned or antlered animals have a strong connection to the qualities related to the Brow (or Third Eye) and the Crown Chakras. Those related to the Brow/Third Eye indicate intuition, insight and meditation, which clear the subconscious to open the Chakra to knowledge and intellect. Those related to the Crown are to do with the Higher Self, Spirit and spiritual connection to the Divine, other ethereal matters and wisdom.

This suggests that those with the pronghorn as their Totem are most often focused on knowledge and wisdom and are incessantly seeking to connect it to their spiritual examinations. The pronghorn- will ask even further that you use your mental prowess in additional endeavours, and will ensure that your quick-witted and keen mental agility will serve you well in all you do.