Misconceptions of a Sacred Gift: Animal Rights, Imperialism and Indigenous hunting practices

Keesta had thrown the harpoon, and the whale had accepted it, had grabbed and held onto the harpoon according to the agreement they had made through prayers and petitions. Harmony prevailed, whale and whaler were one.

(Umeek, Richard Atleo as quoted in Coté, 32)

Western society has found it necessary to create specific ‘animal rights’ as a response to its treatment of animals, while most indigenous peoples have always been aware of the fact that animals, like humans, are sentient beings which should be respected. Many animal rights movements inherently separate animals from humans and see animals as scarce resources which need protection and management, while many indigenous people will argue that animals and humans cannot be separated and it is their treatment which affects their presence. Such indigenous groups will argue that in the hunt, an animal will only offer you its body as a gift if the correct treatment has been given to them, while western society and animal rights groups see hunting as a purely violent, irrational and ‘primitive’ practice. Unfortunately, many indigenous voices remain unheard or are discarded as ‘un-scientific’ and thus worthless, and this means that it is often outside policy-makers, who have little, if any, understanding of their culture that make decisions concerning hunting practices. Imperialism is a broader concept that encompasses colonialism, and it refers to “unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships based on domination and subordination”, while colonialism refers to the “establishment and maintenance of rule and/or tangible settlement of people and the displacement or subordination of others” (Jones and Phillips 2005: 142). The aim of this essay will be to analyse how ‘animal rights’ can be seen as a form of imperialism towards indigenous peoples, and to do this I will be analysing themes such as the contradictory modes of knowledge, the idea of the ‘noble savage’, the ‘ignoble savage’ and the relevance of technology in regards to this conflict.

In this debate, there is a clear separation between emic and etic responses (in other words the difference between a description or response from a person within a culture, and a description from an outside actor observing a culture), with varying modes of knowledge at play. Human knowledge and experience can be interpreted in a number of different ways: as positivistic, ethical, descriptive and/or expressive. Different cultures may put more emphasis on some modes of knowledge and less on others, and this has a direct effect on how certain people define animals and the environment. In European post-enlightenment practice, the positivistic mode of knowledge (where emphasis is placed on empirical knowledge and ideas that can be ‘proven’ through experimental investigation) is mostly employed, and emphasis placed on the ‘rules of science’. As a consequence, humans are separated from the realm of nature, and animals are considered to be unequal to the uniqueness of mankind. Ingold (2000: 20) explains:  “the distinction between environment and nature corresponds to the difference in perspective between seeing ourselves as beings within a world and as beings without it”. Hence, European perspectives are mainly based on an extraction of humans from the world, and this has clear significance in the animal rights discourse. For if humans are separate from animals and nature then humans possess the power, and obligation, to control and manage nature. When it comes to the animal rights issues, Tyrrell (2007: 2) discusses how policy makers often discard Inuit knowledge of Whales as merely “anecdotal evidence”, which illustrates the conflict which arises between the different modes of knowledge employed by each side.

Unlike Europeans, many indigenous people live within an environment where they maintain reciprocal relationships with the animals, thus there is no such thing as a world without humans. They acknowledge that human persons are different to animal persons and other persons; however they live in an inter-connected system which does not allow one to control or manage the other. Thus emerges the idea of a sentient ecology:

It is knowledge not of a formal, authorised kind, transmissible in contexts outside those of its practical application. On the contrary, it is based in feeling, consisting in the skills, sensitivities and orientations that have developed through long experience of conducting one’s life in a particular environment” (Ingold 2000: 25)

Ingold (2000: 19) argues that the best way of understanding this is through the ‘ecology of life’, where relationships are thought of as a part of a whole rather than something that is unique, separate and compartmentalized. Coté (2010: 42) supports this idea: “the Nuu-chah-nulth have a philosophy of hishuk ish tsawalk, “everything is one.” […] everything in life is connected.” These concepts are also explored in Bird David’s (1990: 194) notion of the ‘giving environment,’ which will provide for humans as long as the proper relationships are maintained. In reference to whaling, respectful behaviour is of the utmost importance to the Inuit, which includes:

not showing excitement at the prospect of a whale hunt; harvesting animals that present themselves to be harvested; not harvesting more animals than are required; killing each animal as quickly as possible; […] making use of as much of the carcass as possible […] generosity with the harvest by sharing it with family and neighbours.” (Tyrrell 2007: 579)

Consequently, from the Inuit perspective (one which is probably shared by many other indigenous peoples) whales are sentient beings who share the same social space as human beings and other animals, and it is vital to maintain a relationship with them through proper conduct.

In the conflict arising out of the animal rights movement, these differing modes of knowledge result in misunderstanding and often racism. European policy makers and animal rights activists whose knowledge is based on positivistic reasoning, see animals in a paternalistic manner – as ‘helpless’ creatures that must be protected from the ‘savage and cruel exploits’ of human beings (See Sea Shepherd 2010). Meanwhile, indigenous people such as the Inuit agree that “animals also possess rights – the right to refuse Inuit hunters, to be treated with respect, to be hunted and used wisely” (Wenzel 1991: 5). When an animal is hunted, it offers its body to the hunter as a gift which will be reciprocated through proper treatment. To end hunting completely would mean the end to the reciprocal relationships which they have maintained with these animal persons, which would lead to social breakdown, and ultimately the loss of their culture. Because, “for them [the Inuit], ecology, hunting, and culture are synonymous” (Wenzel 1991: 3).

Besides European understandings of animals, it is also vital to analyse European understandings of indigenous peoples, because these are fundamental to the animal rights discourse. European understandings of indigenous peoples are marred with stereotypes and ethnocentric views. Both Coté (2010) and Wenzel (1991) describe how indigenous peoples were initially imagined as harmoniously ‘at one’ with nature, representing a romantic past which so often is attached to the idea of hunters:

When the seal protest first developed […] Inuit were not seen as offenders. Indeed, Inuit were themselves perceived as part of Canadian mythology, like polar bears and caribou, all living symbols of the country’s northern heritage” (Wenzel 1991: 50)

This relates directly to the idea of the ‘noble savage’, which Pease defines as someone who lives in a “pure state of nature”, uncorrupted by the vices of technology (Pease, quoted in Ellingson 2001: 360). This stereotype was established during the ‘discovery’ and settlement period of the United States and Canada, and has led to many colonialist policies which have undermined indigenous autonomy. Furthermore, this image has had implications in animal rights philosophies, especially that of ‘deep ecology’, which Wenzel (1991: 50) argues is represented by animal rights organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Society. Deep ecology is a belief that “nature […] has value in its own right, apart from human interests” (Regan 1982: 212). Thus nature is separate from humans, and does not exist for the benefit of humans. Despite this, the core principles of deep ecology as laid out by Naess and George Sessions also includes the following point, which would be relevant to indigenous peoples: “Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity [of life forms] except to satisfy vital human needs” (diZerega 1996: 701). This aspect of deep ecology has generally been ignored as symbols such as the white coat seal and whale have become champions for the animal rights and deep ecology cause. The values supported by Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Society are criticised by Wenzel:

The protest movement, while it cast aside speciesist attitudes, was unable to categorize Inuit seal hunting other than through its own ethnocentrically derived universalist perceptions of animal rights and values.” (1991: 41)

Thus stereotypes of the ‘noble savage’ and the values defended by deep ecologists has resulted in a clear bias and condemnation towards indigenous harvesting practices, whose alternative understandings of the environment are ignored.

If an ‘Indian’ isn’t ‘noble’, then he must be ‘savage’, according to general European stereotypes and many images sent out by animal rights activists. Coté describes the revitalization of whaling in Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth communities, and the fervent anti-whaling campaign which was launched at the announcement that these two communities were going to kill a whale. Many animal rights activists suggested to the Makah that instead of killing the whale they should ‘count coup’ – a Plains Indians practice which involved touching an enemy warrior as a demonstration of bravery. Makah artist Greg Colfax responded to this by saying: “I know nothing of counting coup […] But, from the folks I have talked to about it, it was an act committed between one warrior and another. We are not at war with the whales.” (Coté 2010: 162) This clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding that the animal rights activists had towards Makah culture and their ethnocentric assumption that killing an animal can only be a violent act. Their philosophy is clearly linked with that of utilitarianism, which uses a radical notion of the individual, where the greatest good for the greatest number is the sole calculation. Thus it becomes a moral obligation to end animal suffering at the hands of exploitative, economically self-interested humans. According to the animal rights rhetoric, because Inuit were killing seals and whales they must be barbarous, evil, and inhumane. These beliefs can result in violent and often life-threatening conflicts: “During the Makah hunt, members of the Sea Defense Alliance were accused of spraying chemical fire extinguishers into the faces of the whaling crew, shooting flares over the bow of their canoe, and threatening their lives” (Coté 2010: 157). How different are such acts perpetrated by animal rights activists who forcibly try to stop indigenous people from carrying out their own practices, to the acts committed by colonialist powers with the intent of exterminating indigenous cultures? All of these images of the ‘noble’ and ‘savage’ Indians are the antithesis of Europeans. However, once reality disproves such stereotypes, indigenous people once again suffer. When Europeans begin to see similarities with indigenous people, the flawed assumption is made that they must be losing touch with their own culture: “There is no place for hybrids – no place for true Indians who are modern, nor for traditional Indians who change without becoming modern” (Feit 2004: 113). This leads me to my next topic on technology and cultural authenticity.

Kalland argues that “The concept ‘aboriginal subsistence whaling’ has turned into a powerful concept in the hands of imperialism” (Kalland 1993: 5). Saying ‘no’ to whaling is synonymous with being civilized, so indigenous whalers find themselves caught within a rhetoric which labels their practices as uncivilized, a clear connection to imperialistic attitudes and the stereotypes previously mentioned. ‘Subsistence’ is an important word in this discourse, and it is one which often determines whether communities are given the right, by southern policy makers, to carry out their traditional harvesting practices. Reeves describes recent, ongoing and likely future whale hunts that qualify, or may qualify, for aboriginal subsistence status within the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) management framework. He discusses the Makah whaling tradition, which he argues cannot fall under the category of ‘subsistence’ as it is “less a resumption than an initiation” (Reeves 2002: 24) since the lack of whaling over 75 years meant that the whalers had to learn how to butcher and process whale products from scratch. Furthermore, he argues that the Makah needed to “recreate a culture in which whaling and whale products are tangible features” (Reeves 2002: 24), but this would contrast greatly to Coté’s argument which holds whaling as a fundamental aspect of Makah culture which never disappeared. He also argues that Indigenous beliefs that tend to prevent overkill “can only be expected to ensure sustainability ‘under conditions of low population density, abundant land, and limited involvement with a market economy’” (Reeves 2002: 28). This argument is problematic since it alludes to an attitude that indigenous peoples need to be managed from the outside. Such conditions as “abundant land and a limited involvement with a market economy” ignore the fact that many indigenous people don’t live under such conditions as a direct consequence of imperialistic regulations and rules historically imposed onto them by outsiders. Going back to the term ‘subsistence’, it is often understood to mean only the bare minimum needed for survival. Freeman argues that contrarily, anthropologists use the term in a different manner:

subsistence refers to those practices and beliefs that are necessary to support, and in turn derive support from, the way people make their living […] it also involves a number of related social arrangements, beliefs, and cultural traditions that enable the society to function” (Freeman 2000: xvi)

In this sense, whaling to the Makah, who perceive it as a fundamental practice to their culture and social relationships, should be perceived as a subsistence practice. Even so, it is evident that vague terms such as ‘subsistence’ can become powerful weapons to the southern policy makers and animal rights activists who aim to put an end to these indigenous harvesting practices.

Furthermore, many policy makers will use the technology adopted by indigenous people, such as rifles and motorboats, as proof that overkill is inevitable in the face of a market economy, increased hunting efficiency, and loss of the beliefs which regulate hunting. When the Makah Whaling Commission released its whaling plan for the 1999 hunt, instead of acknowledging the tribe’s effort to conduct a hunt that was considered humane, ethical and safe, members of the Sea Shepherd Society attacked it, stating: “there was not a trace of ‘ceremonial aboriginal whaling’ in it” (Coté 2010: 152). Moreover, it was with guidance from the IWC that the Makah agreed to incorporate a high-powered rifle into the hunt in the first place, so that once they had harpooned the whale it could be shot and quickly killed (Coté 2010: 151). It seems contradictory that an animal rights organization such as the Sea Shepherd Society would condemn the incorporation of such technology which would give the whale a more humane death. Expecting indigenous people to continue hunting with spears, canoes and other such tools is patronizing and unrealistic. Wenzel argues that many Europeans will see the indigenous “handling of modern technology as evidence of cultural change […] [thus] the animal rights movement is itself a part of continuing colonial process in the Canadian North” (Wenzel 1991: 7-8). Thus emerges the problem of the chronotope – the romanticism of an out-dated lifestyle. Indigenous people are expected to hunt with spears, canoes, etc. and lead a traditional lifestyle because their culture is located in the past. When they no longer live up to this chronotope they become as guilty as anyone else and should be governed under the same expectations and social obligations as the rest of (European) society. Such perceptions are completely ethnocentric and unfortunately legitimize further cultural intrusion.

In conclusion, the animal rights movement often carries along with it various ethnocentric assumptions concerning the environment, animals, indigenous peoples and technology which intend to legitimize their aims to forcibly stop indigenous hunting practices such as whaling and sealing. Taking this from an indigenous perspective, such an attack is not all that different from the various other imperialistic assaults perpetrated against their cultures. It makes sense, within their own worldview, that animals are completely sentient beings who live among them in an equal relationship of reciprocity. Hunting is essential in maintaining these relationships, and a cessation of such activities would mean that the animals would leave, social relationship would crumble, and their whole culture could be lost. It is not the purely violent act which the animal rights activists aim to portray. The notions of imperialism, colonialism, nature, death and subsistence could all have benefited from additional discussion, however word restrictions permit this. Ultimately it seems absolutely necessary that issues which affect indigenous cultures and practices, such as hunting, should be analyzed and understood from an indigenous perspective before southern policy makers make decisions on their practices. The rhetoric used in such debates and the stereotypes given to indigenous people by Europeans has threads which run all the way back to the Imperialistic era, and fighting these stereotypes is immensely difficult. Through the discussion of the various modes of knowledge, ideas of the ‘noble’ and ‘ignoble savage’ and technology in reference to cultural authenticity, it seems clear that ‘animal rights’ can be seen as a continuing form of imperialism towards indigenous peoples today.

Bibliography

Bird-David, Nurit. “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer- Hunters.” Current Anthropology 31.2 (1991): 189-196.

Coté, Charlotte. Spirits of our Whaling Ancestors. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2010.

diZerega, Gus. “Deep Ecology and Liberalism: The Greener Implications of Evolutionary Liberal Theory.” The Review of Politics. Vol. 58. Cambridge University Press, 1996. 699-734.

Ellingson, Ter. The Myth of the Noble Savage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Feit, Harvey A. “Contested identities of ‘Indians’ and ‘White men’ at James Bay, or the power of reason, hybridity and agency.” Yamada, Takashi Irimoto and Takako. Circumpolar Ethnicity and Identity. Osaka: Senri publications, 2004. 109-126.

Freeman, Milton M. R. “Introduction: Challenges to Cultural Survival in the Arctic.” Endangered Peoples of the Arctic: Struggles to Survive and Thrive. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000. xi-xix.

Kalland, Arne. “Whale Politics and Green Legitimacy: A Critique of the Anti-Whaling Campaign.” Anthropology Today 9.6 (1993): 3-7.

Phillips, Rhys Jones and Richard. “Unsettling Geographical Horizons: Exploring Premodern and Non-European Imperialism.” Geographers, Association of American. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 95. Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2005. 1 vols. 141-161.

Reeves, Randall. “The origins and character of ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling: a.” Mammal Review 32.2 (2002): 71-106.

Regan, Tom. “Environmental Ethics and the Ambiguity of the Native Americans’ Relationship with Nature.” Regan, Tom. All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. 206-239.

Sea Shepherd Society. Another Victory for the Harp Seals: Canadian Seal Hunters fail to weaken European Union Ban. 28 October 2010. <http://www.seashepherd.org/news-and-media/2010/10/28/another-victory-for-the-harps-seals-107&gt; Date accessed: 08 May 2012.

Thompson, Art. Whaling. Spirit Wrestler Gallery. Vancouver, 1978.

Tyrrell, Martina. “Sentient Beings and Wildlife Resources: Inuit, Beluga Whales and Management Regimes in the Canadian Arctic.” Human Ecology 35.5 (2007): 575-586.

Wenzel, George. Animal Rights, Human Rights: Ecology, Economy and Ideology in the Canadian Arctic . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Cover Page Image:

Thompson, Art. Whaling. Spirit Wrestler Gallery. Vancouver, 1978.

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4 responses to “Misconceptions of a Sacred Gift: Animal Rights, Imperialism and Indigenous hunting practices

  1. This essay fails to grasp the fact hunting — whoever is doing it — is a form of extreme violence (like imperialism) against nonhuman animals. It forgets the real victims here: the animal themselves. If it is not necessary to survive — and in this day and age, it rarely is — does it justify the loss of the life and fear and suffering it causes. To think that animals give themselves to hunters is ludicrous, a fiction.The author appears to be speciesist, which is not unlike racism: discriminating against others because of how they look, because they are different. Did you know that some aboriginal people are vegan precisely because they respect animals.

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    • You begin by assuming that Death is destructive and violent. However, can Death not be productive; regenerative? You assume that animals are helpless and voiceless, yet many cultures would disagree and say that animals are powerful- they are the ones who determine the outcome of a hunt. Who are you to call that “fiction”? I can grasp very well that from your cultural perspective hunting may be extremely violent, but the point of this essay is to demonstrate that there are other perspectives out there which often fail to be acknowledged and respected, especially within international arenas. I’ll put it right out there: I am a complete supporter of indigenous subsistence practices such as whaling and sealing. I don’t think any outsider has the right to stop traditional harvests which are vital to the cultural continuity of a community, that is exactly what colonialism is. Hunting continues to be extremely important for not only the physical, but also spiritual and cultural survival of thousands of people around the world. You accuse me of being speciesist, yet you are discriminating in your own way. It does not seem like you have approached this topic with a very open mind to other cultures and beliefs.

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  2. Interesting article, but I didn’t find it entirely convincing, for one thing because it was clear from the beginning where your sympathies lie. Something else: the animal offers itself as a gift? I know that different cultures in which other species are killed come up with rethoric or rituals that relieve the hunter’s unease about the kill, but I would expect something to be said about that in an article like this, and not let it stand there as “the gift of the animal”. My last objection: I understand that from the perspective of the inuit new meddling by white people has strong connotations with the colonial past; but in a serious article I would be very careful with accusations of imperialism unless you have very clear reasons (which I did not find in the article), because it’s an all too easy way of pushing people into a suspect corner, similar to accusations of racism or fascism. You cannot expect people who devote their lives to stop the killing of other species not to be bothered with the resumption of whale killing. That’s not imperialism, It is one of the ways of seeing the world that can become highly morally charged.
    Best regards,
    Hans de Vries

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    • Dear Hans de Vries,

      Thank you very much for your reply! I am trying to approach the topic by taking beliefs surrounding hunting in their own right – in other words not suggesting that such beliefs are simply intended to relieve a hunter’s unease about killing an animal. Saying that would be projecting quite a western understanding of the environment onto the issue at hand, for according to this train of thought, how can hunting be considered anything other than violent and an act to feel uneasy about? I don’t think that that is a universal understanding of the act of hunting. To many indigenous peoples hunting is not a negative act at all; rather it can be seen as a way of continuing social relations with the animal-persons which inhabit the world alongside human-persons. It has to do with differing perspectives surrounding personhood. In response to your second point, I can understand that the term ‘imperialism’ is heavily charged; however anti-sealing and whaling activists, as well as governments, have repeatedly accused indigenous hunting practices of being cruel and unnecessary with absolutely no understanding of their different perspective. Forcing people to give up their practices, traditions and ultimately asking them to drastically alter their worldview in favour of a dominant one is a form of cultural imperialism. At the same time I don’t expect, for example, anti-whaling activists to change their own beliefs surrounding hunting, I simply argue that other understandings of the environment should be respected as just as valuable. I appreciate your criticisms!

      Jessica

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