Some years ago, when I was still doing art inspired by American Indian sprituality, I had a powerful dream. In this dream, I was gazing into a campfire out in the woods. An enormous grey wolf emerged from the fire, leaping over my head and knocking me flat on my back, his fur trailing sparks of fire that left my eyes dazzled. He ran off and disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
When I woke, I thought perhaps this was a power dream sent to me by the wolf spirit. My teacher had encouraged me to take such dreams seriously and to use them in the artwork. As it happened, I was in the process of making a medicine shield, an object inspired by personal visions, or vision quests, and used by various tribes to protect them spiritually. I figured the dream had sent me the image I needed for it.
When I presented the finished shield to my teacher, she was amazed. “What inspired you to use this image?” she asked.
I told her about the dream.
“You already knew about the firewolf, then?”
“Firewolf? No, I’ve never heard of that.”
She went on to explain that in the traditions of some tribes, fire is considered a wolf and must be treated with respect. You must remember to thank the firewolf for its help in keeping you warm and cooking your food, for the positive benefits it brings, or it might turn on you.
“It’s really significant,” she said, “that you had that dream and had never heard of the firewolf before.”
I thought so, too, and was amazed. I wondered briefly if it might be a case of cryptomnesia, where one is exposed to an idea but doesn’t recall the exposure. But whatever it was, I was thrilled.
I thought I’d write about it for the folklore blog. I duly set about looking up the firewolf legends on the internet in order to provide some references. And therein lies the problem. I found pagans named Firewolf, fictional stories about fire wolves, games featuring fire wolves, so clearly the concept is in the zeitgeist. But I found almost nothing about American Indian traditions concerning fire and wolves. According to Native American Mythology A to Z by Facts on File, Incorporated, the Ute Indians believed Wolf brought fire to mankind:
Tales frequently involve the theft of fire from the being that possessed it. Often the bringer of fire was an animal or a bird, such as Beaver (Nez Perce), Coyote (many traditions), Deer (Nootka), Fox (Jicarilla Apache), Muskrat (Anishinabe), Turkey (Cherokee), or Wolf (Ute). Grandmother Spider (Spider Woman) stole fire for the Choctaw. In one Cherokee tale, a water spider was responsible for the gift of fire.
So, I don’t know what tradition my teacher was referring to. Indian mythology is not a monolith—each tribe has their own set of stories and beliefs. Sometimes there’s overlap, but each tradition is unique, and there are many, many stories out there. I just have no idea which one she meant.
And the cryptomnesia idea is playing through my mind again, once I saw that the Utes believed Wolf brought the first fire. My mother, you see, grew up on the Ute reservation. It’s entirely possible I heard something along the way.
Which does nothing to diminish the vividness and power of that dream. That remains a gift of the unconscious realm, the realm where all things are possible, where mysteries are far more important than answers.
Mother, with Firewolf