Indigenous Relationships towards nature
“From an imposed settler perspective, land belongs to people. From an older indigenous perspective however, people belong to the land.” – Rita Wong, December 1st, 2016
I want to start this essay with this statement because it very clearly expresses the essential difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous conception of Land. Through my research I tried to understand these differences more clearly. My initial question for my big idea was:
How and to which extent do and did different indigenous groups integrate sustainability in their everyday life?
However, I soon found out that I am interested in a more basic issue which gives background knowledge to the first question. It helps to understand why Indigenous peoples would integrate sustainability in their lives:
What are the relationships and concepts of Indigenous peoples towards nature?
This question deals with the ideology and culture of Indigenous peoples, rather than the specific resource management practices. By understanding their relation to nature and land, one can understand the reason behind their actions, whether they are sustainable or not.
Initially, I wanted to investigate Indigenous peoples’ relation towards nature only as a preparation for my actual research question. However, I found out that this question itself was very profound and that it could cover my whole big idea project, as it is multi-layered and more complex than I initially thought. There is not one relation towards nature. In reality, the nature of their relationships to nature varies between different Indigenous nations. I wanted to explore these relationships more thoroughly. For this reason, decided to focus my whole project about the second question.
I tried a multi-layered approach to find answers to my question. What I did for research was trying to have open ears for one semester. I did go to the library and I read different books and articles but I tried to go even further and find answers in my every-day life. By watching documentaries, reading newspaper, talking to people, studying art, joining the longhouse lunch, reading stories, attending the reconciliation call and taking part of the Kinder Morgan pipeline protest I tried to gain information which is relevant to my topic.
Starting to explore: traditions, beliefs and culture
I found a lot of evidence which showed the respectful attitude of Indigenous peoples towards nature. One of the first literature I read was Aboriginal Perspectives of the Natural Environment by Dumont (1993). His work unites different Aboriginal peoples’ views on nature and presents common elements. One aspect which stuck with me was how nature is personalized in various Aboriginal cultures. Animism, the belief that everything is animate and has a spirit, is broadly accepted. The natural environment, which includes animals, plants, land and more abstract things like wind or water, is perceived as an extended family.
This new approach impressed me a lot and I took it willingly. However, I would say that it was not the most unbiased literature for me to read. It focused a lot on issues like harmony, personhood and cyclic thinking. These principles have inspired people all over the world who can identify themselves with this way of thinking, but they also inspire the picture of a noble savage and the dead Indian.
In collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, Dumont explains various principles of Aboriginal culture, like personhood, interconnectedness and cyclic thinking. Even though his work is truthful, it is held general and the focus lies on stereotypical beliefs and aspects which have been perceived positively by western culture. Furthermore, the participants’ communities are not revealed. Even though these concepts were confirmed in other readings like Aboriginal Relationships to the Land and Resources by Leroy Little Bear (1998), Dumont’s work inspired an idealized picture of Aboriginal Culture to me.
Nature has different faces in different Indigenous nations. While some nations have a loving relation to the natural environment, in other nations nature has a threatening aspect. However, Indigenous peoples are united by their proximity to it. They have been surrounded and nourished by nature. I made this point in previous assignments already and only want to point it out briefly again. Intending not to generalize Aboriginal culture, I still found a thread throughout my research. Nature plays a central role in Indigenous culture.
This proximity has its roots in the every-day practices of Indigenous cultures and their dependence on it. In coastal First Nations of BC, for example, Yellow and Western Red Cedar roots, bark, whites and wood have been used for clothing, baskets, fabrics, ropes, totem poles, tools and many more. The constant use of cedars builds reverence for it and gives it a spiritual significance: cedar trees are recognized to have their own lives and spirits (Stewart, 1984).
The proximity also manifests itself in the resistance of Indigenous peoples against the destruction of our environment nowadays. There are various present and past examples within British Columbia where First Nations have shown how important nature is to them. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, protests which led to the Great Bear Rainforest project, the Clayoquot protests, Jumbo Glacier Resort, the Oka crisis and protests a resistance at site C dam, have received a lot of public attention but there are many other ongoing activities.
While Environmentalists are concerned about biodiversity, habitat loss and ecosystem degradation, Indigenous peoples are concerned more about their land. Their culture, stories, history, memories, family and sustenance have had their roots in the land and nature. Their land and the activities which Indigenous peoples have performed on it form part of who they are. For them, the driving force behind protecting the land is their emotional binding to it.
This was the case in all the named activities: During the Kinder Morgan pipeline protest on the 19th of November, the issue of a potential oil spill was raised several times whereas the negative effect of oil on climate change was hardly mentioned at all. In the Dakota Access Pipeline protests it is about the potential pollution of water, destruction of wildlife habitat and the degradation of sacred sites. In the Oka crisis, burial sites were being threatened by the golf course project, the Jumbo Glacier Resort project conflicts with spiritual beliefs, in Clayoquot Sound and the Great Bear Rainforest it was about protecting old growth forest and temperate rainforest. Again, there were different reasons but in the end it has always been about protecting land which gives the peoples identity.
This connection to nature unites Indigenous peoples over the globe. Two examples from South America present the same intimate relation of Indigenous peoples towards nature as in Canada. In When two worlds collide, Indigenous communities from the Bagua Province stand up against the destruction of their land. They are ready to defend their homeland with their lives because for them, every kind of life is sacred (Orzel & Brandenburg, 2016).
The Yanomami, a “warrior-nation” from northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, seem to contrast with this peaceful attitude. Yanomami have been pictured as violent practitioners of blood revenge by Napoleon Chagnon. Unokai, practitioners of blood revenge, are supposed to have a higher status and therefore tend to have more wives than non-Unokai (Chen, 2014). The news of a tribe in “chronic warfare” overturned the image of the noble savage. However, Chagnon has been criticized for polarizing and fabricating data and Yanomami and other Anthropologists have rejected many of Chagnon’s claims (Eakin, 2013).
The Yanomami can be perceived to have a more exploitive relationship to nature, as they “use fish poison in the rivers, reduce mammal populations, cut down trees and sometimes strip whole populations of palms to thatch their houses” (Milliken, n.d.). However, the way they do it is based on a deep respect which is present Aboriginal and other Indigenous practices. They only take what they need for surviving and do so in a considered way (Milliken, n.d.). So even though the Yanomami culture differs from other Indigenous culture’s their connection to nature is still intense.
There are many more examples which emphazise the respectful part of Indigenous people’s relationship to nature. However, there are different aspects which need to be considered.
Discovering new unexpected kinds of relation
Dumont’s’ principles generally apply for Inuit and they have a very close relation to nature as well. However, while reading Inuit stories and Himmelheber’s collected work, Where the Echo began, it became clear to me that the Inuit way of thinking is very different even from other Aboriginal cultures (2000): The culture of the inhabitants of Nunivak Island is marked by their hunting activities. To be a good hunter and capable to care for oneself and others is a key quality which is valued above all others.
The few animal species on Nunivak Island are central to their sustenance and culture. Each part of an animal has its function: Seal Fur is used for clothing, their intestines for windows, and the bladder is inflated to form a balloon for festivities. The concept of personhood is very strong: Animals are believed to be able to change into humans. In stories like About a girl who was unwilling to marry, animals and humans even marry each other. However, animals are not perceived as cute. Rather, they live besides humans and often, there is threatening aspect, as can be perceived in Wolves as human beings. Even though animals think and take on human forms, they remain the animals they are: At times helpful and caring, at others unpredictable and dangerous.
One question which occupied my mind was how Indigenous peoples can have strong relationship to nature when hunting forms part of their every-day life. For this reason I read a book of Thomas Mcilwraith about the Iskut First Nation of northern BC and their hunting stories (2012). Hunting experiences are told in a characeristic way, which, to outsiders, sometimes appears to be disrespectful towards animals (Colin Duncan in “We are still Didene”, 2003, p. 62):
See this cow moose run off, eh,
In the timber.
Down he went.
I went back to the truck.
Drove my truck up there.
Got my packboard.
Put on my shnowshoes.
Went back tere.
The bloody moose got up
And took off.
Hunting talk is an artistic way of storytelling and is not easily understood by outsiders. “[…] their talk of the hunt challenges the images of idealized, perhaps romantic, Aboriginal relations with the environment […]”, writes Mcilwraith (2012). Villagers do remind their companions of a respectful behavior towards animals, as these are intelligent beings. For example, it is believed that moose reveal themselves more often to people without a rifle than to hunters and one in one story, a hunter is turned into stone for scolding a goat. This shows that Iskut peoples’ relation towards nature is respectful, however, they have a very modern hunting attitude. For example, if an animal appears in front of a hunter, he or she must take it, states a norm. Dogs are valued for having been hunting partners in the past but today, dogs also have a negative connotation. The word “dog” is used in swear words (dog shit, dirty dog) and negative metaphors (dog deal) and it seems like dogs are treated badly as well: most of them live outside in small shelters throughout the whole year, they often receive little food and many are scavengers. This relation towards domestic animals gives an insight into the relationship towards animals in general and constitutes part of Iskut peoples’ relationship towards nature.
Many Indigenous peoples live in an urban context nowadays. There every-day life depends less directly on nature than the one of their ancestors. This suggests that Indigenous peoples who live a life informed by a modern society have less strong ties to their land and nature. Synthesizing my knowledge, I can say that this is only partly true. There are certainly examples, where nature has become less important for Indigenous peoples. In The Lesser Blessed, one can none of the character has a spiritual connection to land. However, nature plays an important role as a space for solitude and room for thoughts. For many Indigenous peoples today, nature and land remain an important part of their lives. Even if they connect to nature differently than two centuries ago and differently from what a big part of western society pictures, the connection to nature stays strong.
Chen, E. (2014). Case Study: Yanomami and the Evolution of a Culture. Retrieved from https://sites.duke.edu/amazonindigenousculture/yanomami-and-the-evolution-of-a-culture/ Dumont, J. (1993). Aboriginal Perspectives of the Natural Environment Eakin, E. (2013, February 13). How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist. New York Times. Himmelheber, H. (2000). Where the Echo began . Leroy Little Bear, 1998 “Aboriginal Relationships to the Land and Resources,” in Sacred Lands: Aboriginal World Views, Claims, and Conflicts eds. Jill Oakes, Ricke Riewe, Kathi Kinew, and Elaine Maloney, (Edmonton: Canadian Circumpolar Institute), 19-20 Mcilwraith, T. (2012). We are still Didene. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Milliken, W. (n.d.). The Yanomami are great observers of nature. Retrieved from http://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3162-yanomami-botanical-knowledge Orzel, M., & Brandenburg, H. (Directors). (2016). When Two Worlds Collide [Motion Picture]. Stewart, H. (1984). Cedar. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.