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Rohonas and Spotted Lions: The Historical and Cultural Occurrence of the Jaguar, Panthera onca, among the Native Tribes of the American Southwest

From: Wicazo Sa Review
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2003
pp. 157-175 | 10.1353/wic.2003.0006

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Wicazo Sa Review 18.1 (2003) 157-175



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Rohonas and Spotted Lions The Historical and Cultural Occurrence of the Jaguar, Panthera onca, among the Native Tribes of the American Southwest

Steve Pavlik


To most people the very word "jaguar" conjures up visions of a magnificent spotted cat stalking through the dense semitropical or tropical rainforests of Brazil, Costa Rica, or perhaps Mexico. Few would associate this animal with the forests, woodlands, or especially the deserts of the American Southwest. Yet this land, too, is jaguar country. In reality, the historic range of the jaguar, Panthera onca, extended well into the United States. Jaguars have been documented throughout the state of Arizona as far north as the Grand Canyon. In all, at least eighty-four jaguars are known from Arizona alone since 1848. Jaguars have also been recorded in Southern California, New Mexico, Texas, and perhaps even Colorado. 1

Unfortunately, jaguars, like all other large predators, were killed whenever and wherever they appeared. Never plentiful, the jaguars native to the American Southwest were soon extirpated. Although some animals continued to enter the country from the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, the great cat was not listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. Between 1970 and 1996, many jaguars were reportedly sighted, especially in Arizona, but only two were "official," that is, they were killed and their skins collected. Then in 1996 two different jaguars were brought to bay by lion hounds belonging to two separate hunting parties two hundred miles apart in Arizona. The first cat was photographed; the second cat was photographed and [End Page 157] videotaped. Both were then given their freedom. The jaguar had returned to the American Southwest. 2

The appearances of the two jaguars galvanized the conservation community to action. Lawsuits and threatened lawsuits resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) belatedly listing the jaguar under the ESA in 1997. Meanwhile, the states of Arizona and New Mexico, along with a dozen other federal, state, county, and local agencies, developed a Jaguar Conservation Agreement with the FWS. Initially put together to head off the listing of the jaguar, the coalition remained together after the cat was listed. The purpose of this group—a partnership of various government, public, and private interests calling itself the Jaguar Conservation Team (JCT)—is to develop and implement conservation practices beneficial to the jaguar.

One task of the JCT has been to learn as much as possible about the jaguar in its Southwestern range. What type of habitat, for example, does the jaguar require? What prey does it most favor? What other unique factors and needs exist?

The close relationship that exists between the jaguar and the native people of Mesoamerica and South America has long been studied and is well documented. For the native people living in these cultural regions, the jaguar was widely revered as a warrior and a god. 3 Yet little is known about the relationship between the cat and tribal people north of the Mexican border. Did a similar relationship exist? The purpose of this essay is to explore this question, to document the historic and contemporary occurrence of the jaguar among the tribes of the American Southwest, and in doing so, add new knowledge to what we know about the spotted cat. The following section will deal with the occurrence of the jaguar in prehistoric Native American cultures prior to 1540. 4 Subsequent sections will document the occurrence and role of the jaguar among the Pueblos, Southern Athabaskans, Northern Pimans, and other tribes of the American Southwest. In a closing section, I will present an argument in support of studying the role of the jaguar among these various peoples.

The Jaguar in the Prehistoric Southwest

George Gaylord Simpson determined that there were only three groups of large Pleistocene felines in North America: pumas (mountain lions), jaguars, and the so-called American lion. This last species, Panthera atrox, Simpson believes to be more accurately a giant jaguar...