The natural world plays an integral role in Amerindian traditions and material culture. Animals, especially, were/are a vital domain for representation. Animals, as it were, are good to think (Morphy 1989).
Why? For one thing animals were a source of food and protein. They also provided key raw materials for all manner of purposes (e.g., dung for fuel, fiber and hides for textiles, sinew for bindings, bone for tools and crafts, blood for sacrifices). Many animals also served as companions, in life and death. Thus, humans rely on animals, sometimes in a large part, for their livelihood.
But animals were also another form of sustenance: they were sources of inspiration for acts of creativity, indelibly expressing ideas and concepts relating the makers to the agents in the environment. Animals have certain physical traits and behavioral characteristics which elicit a range of human responses: awe, admiration, envy, indifference, loathing. Sometimes with pinpoint precision and sometimes in stereotypes, animals and animal behaviors found their way into the material expressions of ancient and contemporary indigenous American groups. To name but a few, big cats, such as the jaguar, puma or mountain lion, are prominent animals whose traits are admired and associations/meanings appropriated, especially for ideologies of authority and leadership.
In Amerindian cultures, animals often performed as surrogates of humans. Various cosmogonies viewed earlier versions of the current world populated by animals (rather than humans). Ancestors frequently took animal forms or have animal associations. Religious practitioners, known as shamans, throughout the Americas found in animals suitable alter-egos in ritual practice.G. Lau | Jun 2004