In the spirit of survival: How Indigenous protectors are saving rez dogs

From healing historical wounds to championing a brighter future, advocates are redefining the narrative around reservation dogs and their integral role in Indigenous identity and welfare.
rez dog
Some dogs have one family, while others, often called community dogs, may move among different families’ yards and homes. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

This article was originally featured on MIT Press. This article is excerpted from Kendra Coulter’s book “Defending Animals: Finding Hope on the Front Lines of Animal Protection.”

In many native communities around the lands we now call North America, dogs roam freely. They may be viewed as a risk to people’s safety, members of the community, or some combination, depending on where you are and who you ask. Often called rez dogs, the animals are imbued with many different identities. Some native people themselves identify with the dogs as relatives and reflections, members of families, similarly hungry and rejected, and stubborn and wily survivors who are emblematic of the Indigenous spirit.

“Whenever I visit tribal communities, I am always on the lookout for my relatives, the rez dogs,” writes Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, dean of social work at the University of Manitoba and member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota. “I want to know their stories: How did they get to where they are today? How did they survive? What happened to their babies, their parents, their friends, and their culture? What do they dream about? What hopes do they have for the future? What can they tell us about the fate of the human race and the planet?” He says that the lives of rez dogs cannot be uncoupled from human-human relationships, and particularly from the impacts of European arrival on native ways of living, learning, and honoring fellow creatures, including dogs. “The condition of dogs in our communities is a reflection of us. If they are sick, it is because we are also sick.” Many other Indigenous people who work with animals make a similar argument.

“The condition of dogs in our communities is a reflection of us. If they are sick, it is because we are also sick.”

Although unknown to many outside native communities, rez dogs have attracted the attention of some animal protection groups concerned about their health and safety, especially those in regions with harsher climates. These organizations have proceeded in a range of ways: Some have stolen the dogs right off the land, while others have reached out to leaders in these communities to offer assistance by bringing veterinary services, food, and other supplies, or rehoming the dogs outside the community.

Other animal organizations have been invited into native communities (usually called First Nations or Indigenous communities in Canada) to exchange knowledge. With its successful Northern Dogs project, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, for example, built relationships with First Nations to better understand challenges before co-developing programs to address issues facing the communities. “Today, we offer veterinary services, culturally relevant education, and real-life solutions for communities that would otherwise not have them.” Dialogue and relationship building must come first, particularly because of the longer pattern of outsiders telling native people that they can’t take care of their own. This has not only happened with dogs but also with children. Native children have been taken into state systems or religious residential schools designed to assimilate and destroy Indigenous cultures and spirits. The children experienced harsh treatment, abuse, and disease, and many died. Decades of these patterns have created widespread and intergenerational trauma with psychological, social, and economic symptoms as well as mistrust. Understanding these truths, and working for reconciliation and healing, is difficult but necessary.

Many native communities have their own law enforcement and/or animal care and control services tasked with investigating potential harm and/or enforcing the communities’ animal bylaws, which may permit free-roaming dogs or not. Native communities are diverse and have responded in different ways to rez dogs. Ermineskin Cree First Nation has developed a comprehensive law covering dogs at large, dangerous dogs, excessive barking, licensing, and protection. It begins from a place of respect, establishing that the nation “has a deep and abiding respect of the Creator’s Natural Laws and a great sense of stewardship, with a long-standing traditional and spiritual relationship with domesticated animals, in particular dogs (atimwak), and holds such animals in high-regard and, as such, strives to ensure that matters related to such animals are carried out in a conscientious, respectful and prompt manner.” It also states that the regional Animal Protection Act applies on the reserve.

Animal services officer Norm Running Rabbit of the Siksika First Nation differentiates between dogs being “allowed” to roam free and being recognized “as free beings, as animals that should be without restraints.” Speaking to the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Alberta SPCA), he explains that this means dogs who are technically “owned” and cared for may be free to move about too. Some dogs have one family, while others, often called community dogs, may move among different families’ yards and homes. He recognizes that many people are not accustomed to this approach, and that safety and animal welfare issues have emerged and will arise. The chief and council of the Siksika First Nation created an action plan, including building its own team and infrastructure. Running Rabbit works to enforce humane standards of care and responds to safety concerns—both animal protection and animal control.

He sees the dedicated animal services program with specialized officers who can handle issues responsively and work proactively to offer lessons for other native communities. Siksika has formed relationships with outside partner animal organizations, including to provide veterinary care, and Running Rabbit emphasizes the need for those who want to work with native communities and are guests on the land to learn and then respect protocols and local cultures, and get to know both leaders and community members. In a similar vein, Yellow Bird highlights the need to see the difference between being “a rescuer and a supporter,” and central to this is not making assumptions. This kind of work is about mutual respect.

Diana Webster of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe founded the Native American Humane Society in 2014 to serve as a bridge between tribal and outside animal welfare organizations. She works to empower native peoples as they respond to the animal issues in their communities. Speaking at the Reconciliation in Animal Welfare Symposium, a historic event that brought together those who work in animal welfare to better understand Indigenous history and lived experiences, Webster says, “When I first started in animal advocacy, it was all about rescue and spay-neuter. But I quickly realized that what it really was all about was the relationship that people have with their animal. We were going into communities and finding that people really love their animals, but they don’t have the resources or access to the services that their animals need.” She stresses that the work is emotionally difficult and can be frustrating. “A lot of it is being done by women, by strong women. We need to build systems and build onto existing systems.” Based on her leadership experiences, she offers advice for people wanting to help animals in native communities. She suggests breaking big tasks down, taking the time to plan, and trying not to get jaded. Webster also encourages people not to be obsessed with perfection and instead be kind to themselves as they do their best.

The number of native tribes and nations that have their own animal services agencies is growing. Some bring vet clinics into their communities. Some work with national organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States’ Pets for Life as well as local or regional humane societies.

Indigenous peoples are also creating their own grassroots organizations such as Rez Road Adventures, the brainchild of Vernan Kee and Chantal Wadsworth of the Navajo Nation, and Save Rez Dogs, founded by Leah Arcand of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. They are working to help dogs, inspire and educate others, build partnerships and community champions for rez dogs, raise funds to make more work possible, and reclaim traditional relationships that have been distorted and damaged by residential schools, the reservation system, intergenerational trauma, and many other effects of colonization. Arcand credits her role as a teacher, mother, and Indigenous woman as to why she does the work, even though it can be emotionally exhausting. Arcand and co-lead Craig Edes, who is Gitxsan and based out of Treaty 6 (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), emphasize the need to go upstream when seeking to help the dogs. They highlight the value of understanding history, share insightful tools for communities and individuals looking to make a difference, and offer practical advice for people who have dogs. In other words, the big picture and the little details.

Dorothea Stevens, a public health nurse with the San Carlos Indian Health Service, began by transporting animals from her Apache nation in southern Arizona to get the veterinary care they needed. But as the years passed, a group of other volunteers joined her to form the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team. Speaking to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, Stevens said, “We work along with animal control. We just don’t have the vets that we need and we don’t have the enforcement as far as animal abuse. That’s something we will be working on.”

This sort of work isn’t about denying that problems can emerge and animals—and people—may need help. It’s about doing so in a way that is rooted in respect for everyone.

In addition to responsive work, she highlights the power of education. “As Apaches we respect all animals and we were raised that way a long time ago, but we don’t see this happening anymore. We want to start with the little ones so they can teach the adults.” Emphasizing the range of ways nation members can defend animals, the Rescue Team says, “Adopt. If you can’t adopt, foster. If you can’t foster, sponsor. If you can’t sponsor, volunteer. If you can’t volunteer, donate. If you can’t donate, educate.” In recruiting volunteers, the group stresses essentials like physical strength, and twice it underscores the importance of mental stability, noting, “It can be really tough seeing the condition of some animals.” This sort of work isn’t about denying that problems can emerge and animals — and people—may need help. It’s about doing so in a way that is rooted in respect for everyone.

There are many significant lessons to draw from this landscape and work, whoever and wherever we are. One is the importance of understanding history and context as well as asking questions and learning how things came to be and why, even if it’s uncomfortable, and maybe especially when it is. Another is the need to question stereotypes, myths, and assumptions about Indigenous people. The value of creating but not imposing. The significance of dialogue, reciprocity, and respect. The interconnectedness of pain and healing. The interconnectedness of us all.

Kendra Coulter is Professor in Management and Organizational Studies at Huron University College at Western University and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She is the author of “Defending Animals,” from which this article is excerpted.