Lecture Five: Humans and Other Animals

             In worldviews expressing domination, non-human animals are not considered to have “souls”.  Sometimes they are not even considered to have feelings—or at least, not any feelings that should be taken into account.  By contrast, among indigenous peoples, non-animals are viewed as related to human beings by bonds of kinship.  In the time remembered by stories, according to numerous indigenous peoples, non-human animals and humans “spoke the same language”.  That mutual language may be recovered as a gift in “vision quests” in which a non-human animal may deign to speak with and grant a gift to the human seeker.  We have seen Black Elk’s emphasis on the traditional Lakota phrase, “All my relations”.  Callicott notes that in Black Elk’s view, the different animals are distinguished not by hierarchical designations of “soul” or rationality– but merely by their kind of locomotion (“two-legged”, “four-legged”, etc).  Such a distinction is neutral in value terms.

Among indigenous peoples, non-human animals are not considered in any way “lesser” than human beings.  In fact, among some peoples they are sacred in the sense that they have mysterious non-human (shamanistic or spirit) powers.  Often in the concrete everyday world as well, non-human animals may act as teachers of human beings.  From other animals, human beings may learn to move or see or feel in certain ways—or how to implement certain technologies.  Further, other animals understand and keep to their proper place in the natural world.  This is the idea that causes the Zen philosophies discussed by Callicott to see all natural beings as our potential teachers.

Importantly, non-human animals also give the gift of life to the many peoples who include hunting and fishing in their subsistence activities.  In non-dominating worldviews, this gift of life is not one to be seized by the hunter from the hunted.  As we have seen in our discussions of reciprocity, there is a sense that if a gift is not honored, it will be taken away in the future.  In this week’s readings, one culture expresses this in the “master of the animals”, who decides that human beings may no longer use what they do not respect and treat appropriately.  In our appendices, we see the remarkable example of the way in which South African First Peoples relate to lions.  An expression of the remarkable connection between lions and another of South African’s First Peoples is given in Callicott, pp. 171-172, relating how the San communicated with lions by hand signals passed down through both human and lion generations. An anthropologist who had and learned and used these signals in the past was nearly killed when she visited the traditional San area and encountered a lion some time after this people were put on a reserve—since the lions were no longer using these signals with the people absent.

An interesting parallel exists in the traditional practices of Hawaiians, who considered sharks to be ancestral spirits of particular families, and thus gave them profound respect.  One Hawaiian man remembers that his grandmother regularly swam with a shark that was allied with their family. Before she died, the traditional authority Mary Pukui recorded information in the Bishop Museum relating to more than 50 individual sharks that were recognized and fed by Hawaiian families.  (From Pamela Frierson, in Intimate Nature).

Among indigenous hunting and gathering peoples, hunting is viewed as a reciprocal contract, in which the animal chooses to give itself to the hunter in return for proper treatment of itself and its kin.  Here is a statement of that contract in the poem, “Statement on our Higher Education” by W. M. Ransom (in Carriers of the Dream Wheel, p. 198).

We learned that you don’t shoot

Things that are wiser than yourself:

Cranes, crippled bear, mountain beaver, toads.

We learned that a hunter who doesn’t eat his game

Is a traitor and should wander the earth,

Starving, forever.

We learned to fish the shadow side of creeks

And to check traps every morning before the dew lifts.

It is a kindness in our savagery that we learned to owe our prey

A clean death and an honorable end.

We learned from our game

To expect to be eaten when we die.

Learned that our father learned all this before us.

Because of this you are brother

To cranes, mountains beaver, toads and me

And to one old crippled bear

That neither of us see.

Another worldview that emphasizes ethical behavior toward non-human animals is that of Buddhism, in which self-liberation is linked with compassion or “loving-kindness” for all beings.  In this view, any act that causes suffering to another living being violates a fundamental moral code.  For this reason, many Buddhists are also vegetarians.

Both indigenous worldviews depicted Buddhist views are similar to each other in their respect and care for non-human animals.  By contrast, there is the worldview that sees non-human animals as a lower form of life– to be utilized for human ends.  Ecologist Wendell Berry once stated that we shouldn’t eat anything we aren’t willing to pray over.  This statement brings to light the difference between food gathered directly from the land and viewed with thanksgiving –and the packaged food found in contemporary supermarkets–which is as far removed as imaginable from its earthly origins.  Such de-natured foods distance us both from the circle of reciprocity surrounding our sustenance—and the care or compassion for that which gives us our life.  In ethical terms, the worldview that objectifies non-human animals leads to potential abuse of these creatures in such areas as factory farming or animal testing of cosmetics.  If we do not see these creatures as living and feeling beings, we feel no moral obligation toward them. 

The objectification of the “animal” in Western worldviews has social as well as environmental repercussions.  Colonialism and racism have been justified over and again by referring to colonized peoples as “animals”.  That epitaph would have little power in a system that did not set human beings on a “higher” plane—a plane that allows them more rights.  All objectification licenses whatever is considered an object to be used at the will of the “subject”.

Here I am reminded of a story given by the linguist Jaime de Angelo.  De Angelo found the indigenous Pit River people with whom he spoke wholly puzzled by the Western use of the term, “object”.  Finally he managed to communicate the meaning of this concept to an elder who responded that by “object”, Westerners must mean “dead people”.  The elder stated, further, that the Pitt River people didn’t live among a lot of those— but he felt great sympathy for the whites who evidently did!  To this elder, objectification is a contradiction in terms in a living world.  Only something totally “dead”—without feeling, or a voice or a will of its own—might be termed an “object”.  Hogan’s work is a powerful expression of the vitally inter-subjective (rather than objectified) worldview of her Chickasaw tradition.

Related discussion essays:





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