My grandmother M is Native American and would often tell me stories about her life on a reservation in Arizona. I asked her about any stories that she carried with her as a child or even in adulthood that relate to her cultural background. She shared this story with me about her experience with an owl.
The story I remember most is not of her life on reservation however a story that happened to her as an adult. My grandmother once told me that the owl is considered a negative omen in Native American culture. She also told me that she experienced this negative omen first hand and has since hated owls. Molly had seven sons and one of her eldest had purchased a motorcycle. He was in his twenties and was of age to purchase the bike but had never ridden one before. My grandmother told me that one day she had noticed an owl out during the day perched on a tree near her bedroom window. She found this very odd because of the time of day, and because she lived in East Los Angeles where seeing owls would be rare. The owl spoke a name to her, and she was very unsettled. The owl had spoken her son’s name. Her son had been home but was about to leave on his bike to hang out with his friends. My grandmother stopped him and told him to stay home because she had a bad feeling about him leaving. She didn’t tell him about the owl for fear that he wouldn’t believe her and would probably think she was crazy. That night, my uncle was in an accident on his motorcycle and died. To this day, my grandmother regrets having kept the owl from him.
Stated by Native-languages.org, many Native American tribes consider the owl an omen of death. Hopi however, consider the owl a symbol of authority and wisdom. It is interesting that my grandmother didn’t look at the owl as a sign of wisdom given that her own tribe sees them that way. Possibly it was a sign of wisdom in that it gave her the warning signs and she was left to her own devices to solve the problem. My grandmother has never shared stories with me regarding anything supernatural. I don’t think that was something that they talked about because I don’t think they believed in it. Given that my father also had an experience regarding the death of my uncle and he is very logical and not easily swayed without proof, I believe there is truth to it.
SI: Way back in the day, I was probably about, uh, 12 or 13 at the time. My momma told me once, that to the Lakota Sioux, my tribe particularly, the Oglala tribe, they see owls as a postive thing, a lot of other cultures see it as an omen of death or destruction or something negative. But the Lakota Sioux view it as a symbol of hope and power and wisdom, of course. Basically it’s a positive sign. I remember because one time we were cruising to the reservation – we used to live on a fish farm. So we were heading back to the fish farm, and we saw an owl overhead. There’s also this connection between the Sioux and owls, it’s a whole Native thing.
Once an owl got caught in a fence at the fish farm, and her (SI’s mother) boyfriend, another caretaker of the farm, was trying to get it out of the fence by hurting him, but it kept going ballistic on him. So my mom went up to it, and she took like a t-shirt and put it around its head, but it was completely calm. The caretaker tried to do the same thing and it went ballistic. My mom still firmly believes that because she’s Sioux and because owls are a good thing for us, that that’s the reason the owl didn’t freak out as much.
That was on a reservation in Arizona, in the desert. I just think it’s interesting that different cultures can see different signs as positive or negative. Like I said, a lot of European countries think, since it’s a nighttime bird, that it’s something negative, like a raven almost. I was told that when we were cruising on the way back to the house.
SI’s mother’s maiden name was Brown. That was not in fact her last name at birth, but her aunt had made her change it so she would not be bullied for it. The name she was born with was Barbara Brown Owl, but only held that name for the first few years of her life.
“According to my mom, who’s Palestinian, the owl is bad luck in Arab culture. Like she doesn’t like images of owls, but I don’t think she actively, like avoids them.”
The informant is currently a student at the University of Southern California. She says that she first heard this folk belief from her mother when she was discussing Harry Potter with her mother about five years ago. Because of the prevalence of owls in the Harry Potter series, she thinks that her mother mentioned this folk belief of hers to the informant. The informant recalls that she found this particularly odd and that this belief stood out to her in her mind. She also says that when she asks her mom about owls, her mom doesn’t like images of them and doesn’t like them in general, but cannot provide a reason as to why. This is an example of how folk belief has persisted throughout time even when the meaning behind the belief has been lost. Even though the informant’s mother does not know why she is supposed to dislike owls, because she has grown up in a community where she has been taught to dislike owls, she does not like them.
“There are some superstitions in German. Like when you hear, in German or..for German people. That when you hear an owl hoot, if you jingle the change in your pocket, you’ll have good luck for the year with your crops.”
The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She says that she first heard this folk belief from her grandma when she was a young child. The informant says she knows many pieces of folklore from Germany but rarely believes in any of them. She says she thinks this superstition originates from centuries ago when many people believed in luck for their crops to grow. She doesn’t know why and how owls and change are related, though she speculates that many superstitions do not make sense in modern context anymore.
I agree with her analysis about superstitions and crops. Because farmers cannot determine the fate of their crops from just working hard, as weather and other factors were often uncontrollable aspects of the occupation, farmers relied a lot on luck and superstitions to help them. The lack of understanding the meaning of owls and change shows the loss of context as this saying was passed down through generations. If the saying originally had meaning for the owl and the change, it is lost today, at least in the informant’s family.