3 March 2015
Sioux Crow Myth & Science
Myths are stories that are written to explain how the world works or to teach morals. Myths are usually considered fiction. Cultures associated with a myth or myths do not necessarily view the myths as fiction. They may view them as truth. But many people believe that myths can be explained by science. One particular myth that I found very interesting is a Sioux tribe myth called “The Story of the Pet Crow”. I found it in a book, Sioux Myths and Legends, by Marie L. McLaughlin. The myth talks about how a huge group of crows took food from a Sioux tribe and so the tribe goes to war with the crows. After killing many of the crows the chief of the tribe took a very young crow into the tribe and raised it like family. The crow learned the Sioux tribe’s language and many other tribe languages. The crow became the Sioux tribe’s spy and one day the crow heard some medicine men talk about the Sioux Chief’s predetermined death. The crow sadly told the Sioux tribe of the Sioux Chief’s fate. Everyone in the tribe prepared for the Sioux Chief’s coming death with a funeral. Once the Sioux chief died the crow cried at the death place, left, and never came back. No other crow ever came back to the Sioux tribe again (McLaughlin 2008).
This myth’s moral seems to be saying that your enemies are not that different from yourself and so they are able to become friends with you. But there was no explanation for why the crows never went back to the Sioux tribe. So I am really curious as to why the crows never came back. It could be that the crow that was the Sioux tribe’s member was so sad that it didn’t want to ever return to the Sioux Chief’s death place again. But another possibility could be that in honor of the Sioux Chief that same crow decided to tell other crows to avoid the Sioux tribe so that the crows would never take food from the tribe again.
The myth’s portrayal of the Sioux tribe crow’s actions at the funeral reminded me of real life crow reactions to dead crows where crows silently gather around a dead crow and then fly away. I wondered why crows do this and so I found an online article that has some ideas as to what the purpose of crow funerals could be. John Marzluff is an avian researcher at the University of Washington. He said that learning about danger seems to be one of the most important functions of crow funerals (Werner 2014). He also said,” But it doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on” (Werner 2014). “You know at the same time that you’re learning about danger, you might be feeling bad or afraid about it” (Werner 2014). The article also said that John Marzluff captures wild crows and uses PET scans to see what parts of the crow brain light up when they’re exposed to a dead crow and other stimuli. If, for example, the amygdala—the part of the brain linked to emotions—is active when the caged birds see a dead crow, it could suggest the birds are feeling strong emotions (Werner 2014). But early results indicate that the crows are using a different part of their brain, the area associated with long-term memory (Werner 2014). I think it makes sense for crows to use information from dead crows to increase their chances of survival. But if crows were able to feel sorry for dead crows I would not be surprised. Maybe sympathy can help them remember the death of a crow better so that they have a higher chance of avoiding danger. In the myth the crow never returned to the death place but I was not sure if that was true for crows in real life. When I asked my professor who teaches a class about crows she said that crows do come back to the death place sometimes.
How humans act in funerals is similar to the myth’s portrayal of how a certain crow mourned and similar to real life observations of how crows react to dead crows. But whether or not crows feel sad at crow funerals and what meaning crow funerals hold for crows is yet to be completely determined.
photo credit: http://birdnote.org/show/crow-