Happy Chemehuevi Trails

Some years ago I acquired a folio or large-sized Edward S. Curtis photogravure titled “A Home in the Mesquite — Chemehuevi” (1924). Here’s the image:

Chemehuevi-HomeAlthough this has been on my wall for well over a decade, I have never given it much thought. While I have had some design and art oriented friends say how much they like this gravure, it’s never been one of my favorites. My preference, driven initially by aesthetics and later by study, has always been for the iconic Plains Indians images. This preference has morphed into a minor passion, as I am regularly impelled into the remote and rural Plains for long road, camping, and hiking trips. On a recent trip through the Republican and Solomon River Valleys of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, I camped for a few days in the remarkable Village of Brownville, Nebraska. There I discovered the Chemehuevi.

This surely sounds strange, given that Brownville sits in the verdant Missouri River Valley of southeastern Nebraska. It’s a long way – roughly 1,100 miles as crows fly – from the Mojave Desert homeland of the Chemehuevi. Distance aside, the two landscapes could not be more different. Nebraska’s eastern edge is an ecotone or transitional zone where hardwood forests and prairies give way to the Great Plains proper. The Missouri River, running north-south along this edge, bisects a borderland consisting of a miles wide flood plain, loamy alluvial bottomlands, densely wooded valley bluffs, and tall grass prairie uplands. Moving west out of the valley, the trees thin and the land begins a slow majestic roll into the vast grasslands and endless vistas of the central Great Plains. Up until 150 years ago, these grasslands supported the largest concentration of large mammals (i.e., bison, elk, and antelope) on earth, surpassing even the great ungulate herds of Africa. It’s stunningly beautiful and rich country that has attracted Native Americans for at least 12,000 years, having been occupied most recently by the Omaha, Oto, Ponca, Ioway, Kansa, and Pawnee tribes.

All of which is to say that this lush ecotone is not just a thousand crow miles from the Mojave Desert: these are world’s apart. The Mojave, while beautiful in its way, is stark and even forbidding. It’s not a land, or landscape, which says bounty or signals home. Yet the Chemehuevis and their southern Paiute brethren chose it for home and have made it their home for thousands of years.

At this point, you may be wondering how I discovered the Chemehuevi in Brownville. Those who ever visited Omaha’s Old Market may recall, fondly I would guess, The Antiquarium Bookstore and its wonderfully polymathic owner, Tom Rudloff. After visiting the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore back in the 1960s, Tom decided that Omaha needed what Paris had. Over many years, Tom turned The Antiquarium into something every bit as good and in some ways better. The Antiquarium was an Omaha institution, its gathering place for artists, oddballs, intellectuals, writers, and nomads. In 2007, Tom broke Omaha’s heart by picking up and moving the whole thing (including over 100,000 books) to Brownville, where he had just purchased an old school to house the books and art. It’s a charming red brick WPA-style structure from the 1930s that sits in the middle of an artisan’s community. In other words, it’s perfect. This explains why I was camping in Brownville, at The Antiquarium, for several days.

One night, while having wine and picking Tom’s brain about Native American ethnography, he asked me what I knew about the Chemehuevi. Nothing, I had to confess, other than the fact I had a Curtis gravure of a Chemehuevi home hanging on my wall. He then told me about Carobeth Laird and her books, which he considered to be masterpieces. Coming from Tom, this is no small praise. Laird’s story, a hint of which appears in this 1983 obit from the New York Times, is remarkable. But her books, which Tom happened to have hidden away in his Rare Book Room, are even more remarkable. They now sit on my shelf, having been read in short order upon my return.

Laird’s most famous book, or the book that made her famous, is Encounter with an Angry God: Recollections of My Life with John Peabody Harrington (1975). Harrington, for those who don’t know, was an anthropological savant and linguist who spent 40 years of his life obsessively gathering ethnographic data on several little-known and fast-disappearing Native American societies in and around southern California. His salvage work was so prodigious that it weighs in the tons and now occupies 700 hundred feet of shelf space at the Smithsonian. Much of it still awaits the army of PhD students needed to digest and present the materials in organized monographs. Harrington was, in a curious and brilliant way, like Edward Curtis: he devoted his entire life to an enormous and quixotic project. Those who engage in these kinds of epic quests usually suffer, as do those around them. Laird lyrically and sympathetically captures all this in Encounter with an Angry God.

While Angry God is justly famous, in my estimation it pales in comparison to Laird’s simply-titled ethnography, The Chemehuevis (1976). This is indeed, as Tom said it was, a masterpiece. Its most remarkable feature is one I hardly expected but might have guessed: the Chemehuevis, having lived in the Mojave for perhaps thousands of years, developed a worldview that has much in common with Australian Aborigines, especially those (such as the Arunta) living in the central desert. In both settings, landscapes are all-important and song-trails are used not just for navigation but also for successful adaptation to these harsh and unforgiving environments. For both the Chemehuevi and the Arunta, lands, songs, trails, dreams, water, plants, and animals are all woven together, ritually and mythically, into worldviews that make sense and enable life.

Having said all this, I can now say that the Curtis gravure of the Chemehuevi home hanging on my wall is now among my favorites. I will have more to say about Laird and the Chemehuevis in the future, but I wanted to share this straightaway so that those interested can start reading.

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Random Superstitions

Sometimes, when making decisions, it’s better not to decide. Or, when faced with a choice, to choose on the basis of chance. When the set of possible outcomes for any given decision and consequent action is normally distributed (represented graphically with a bell curve), then the best decision may be random. But given our penchant for “rational” decision-making, making truly random decisions is exceedingly difficult. When we need to make a random decision, we can of course toss dice or flip coins, but this strikes some as too primitive. For modern sophisticates of chance, “true” random number generators are the answer.

These statistical considerations may, in turn, explain all manner of decision-making (such as augury and divination) that is classed, and thus denigrated, as “superstition.” While I had never before considered the issue this way, after reading this Aeon essay by Michael Schulson, I’m persuaded there is something to it. When faced with uncertainty and wide range of possible outcomes, our past experiences tend to probabilistically guide our decisions. But because our past past experience is so limited, we usually overestimate the extent to which those experiences are relevant. This is of course the problem with small samples. One way to overcome these biases, which can lead to bad decisions, is to choose randomly. As Schulson explains, it seems that some societies may have figured this out:

Over the millennia, cultures have expended a great deal of time, energy and ingenuity in order to introduce some element of chance into decision-making. Naskapi hunters in the Canadian province of Labrador would roast the scapula of a caribou in order to determine the direction of their next hunt, reading the cracks that formed on the surface of the bone like a map. In China, people have long sought guidance in the passages of the I Ching, using the intricate manipulation of 49 yarrow stalks to determine which section of the book they ought to consult. The Azande of central Africa, when faced with a difficult choice, would force a powdery poison down a chicken’s throat, finding the answer to their question in whether or not the chicken survived – a hard-to-predict, if not quite random, outcome. (“I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of,” wrote the British anthropologist E E Evans-Pritchard, who adopted some local customs during his time with the Azande in the 1920s).

His mention of Naskapi hunters is apropos, given that I just started reading Frank Speck’s classic, Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (1935). I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to this important book, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in animist worldviews.

And speaking of hunting, some may have heard about the recent PNAS study which shows that Native Americans in Sonora, Mexico were hunting gomphotheres 13,390 years ago. For those who (like me) did not know what a gomphothere was, here’s an artistic reconstruction of the four-tusked beast:

GomphothereWhile these creatures were no doubt impressive, I was equally impressed by the quartz-crystal Clovis point that was found in archaeological association with the beast. This may be the prettiest point I’ve ever seen, and I have little doubt that the clear quartz carried a significant symbolic or “superstitious” load in the ancient hunt:


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Abrahamic Interviews

Some of you may have been following the interview series on religion being conducted by Gary Gutting for the New York Times philosophy blog, “The Stone.” The series began in February of 2014 when Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, interviewed Alvin Plantinga, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. Because the Notre Dame philosophy department is more or less an extension of the theology department, it quickly became apparent that the interview topic — “Is Atheism Irrational?” — was just a rhetorical question for these two theologians philosophers. The back-slapping interview was about as enlightening, or obscurantist, as a course in Thomist philosophy. I couldn’t help but think that things would have gone better if Gutting had interviewed Willis Domingo, whose NSFW (and potentially offensive) take-down of Plantinga is a thing of logical beauty.

The second interview, with UMass-Amherst philosophy professor Louise Antony, was fairer game. Gutting asked a series of (Abrahamic) questions and got some sensible (atheist) answers. As the interview progressed, an increasingly exasperated and apparently incredulous Gutting stated: “That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.” In a fitting end to the interview, Antony coolly answered:

Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?

Antony’s answer, or rather her counter-question, reminds me of this famous passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

It is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”

As the interview series has unfolded (the eighth installment was published yesterday), Gutting has asked so many God-centric and God-insistent questions that I have wished someone would just say: “Gary, why is belief in God necessary?” Alternatively, albeit more impertinently and personally, someone might ask: “Gary, why do you find it necessary to believe in God?” If Gutting could give a psychologically honest answer to this question, I suspect it would be the most enlightening aspect of the entire series.

I will, however, give Gutting credit for not deviating from his Abrahamic course and consistently asking Christian questions that, if I did not know better, seem perversely designed to illustrate the weakness of his case. In the seventh installment, NYU philosopher-physicist Tim Maudlin did these favors. In the sixth, it was Columbia’s Philip Kitcher. In the fifth, Gutting ventured outside his comfort zone by discussing Buddhism with Jay Garfield. The interview began with this auspicious exchange:

Gutting: Philosophy of religion [especially at Notre Dame] typically focuses on questions and disputes about the ideas and doctrines of monotheistic religions, with Christianity the primary model. How does the discussion change if we add Buddhism, which is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, as a primary model of a religion?

Garfield: What gets called “philosophy of religion” in most philosophy departments and journals is really the philosophy of Abrahamic religion: basically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of the questions addressed in those discussions are simply irrelevant to most of the world’s other religious traditions. Philosophers look at other religious traditions with the presumption that they are more or less the same, at least in outline, as the Abrahamic religions, and even fight about whether other traditions count as religions at all based upon their sharing certain features of the Abrahamic religions. That is a serious ethnocentrism that can really blind us to important phenomena.

Garfield could not have given a better answer to an interviewer who frames most of his questions in Abrahamic terms.


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Reading Aztec Ritual

As an antidote to the vacuous beach reading lists that are ubiquitous at this time of year, I always resolve to read intensively in one area to fill some inexcusable gap in my ethnohistoric knowledge. Last summer, the gap was filled with four excellent books on Australian Aborigines. This summer, I am initially focused on the Mexica or “Aztecs” and just finished these three books:

I was, of course, hoping that this reading would explain why the Mexica ritually sacrificed and heartily ate so many people. While I have previously considered several possible answers, I can’t say these books pointed toward any one answer as better than another. All the possible answers seem viable and the most controversial — that the Mexica lacked animal proteins and thus turned to eating humans — also seems supported. Though none of the above authors make this ecological argument, the Valley of Mexico was indeed lacking in large game animals and domestic stock. This presumably explains why the Mexica so often supplemented their maize-based diet with small animals (e.g., birds, rodents, and insects) not normally hunted where large animals are available.

Among symbolically inclined anthropologists, however, this “protein” explanation is anathema. Also anathema for symbolists is taking the Mexica at their word and accepting what they said about human sacrifice: the gods demanded it. For reasons not entirely clear, symbolists can’t countenance straightforward or literal explanations which are usually denigrated as being too “instrumental.” While the Mexica may have thought and said that the gods required human blood, symbolists and ritualists often claim this can’t really be the explanation for sacrifice. Having dismissed the literal and instrumental, they thus search for deeper answers, hidden meanings, and alternative explanations.

While I think the ecological and instrumental explanations are good, as is the political argument that sacrifice was a dominance display to terrorize tributaries and enemies, most anthropologists still prefer either a Durkheimian (i.e., social) or evolutionary (i.e., adaptive) “ritual cohesion” theory. We are thus told that the Mexica killed and ate tens of thousands of people each year because the sacrifice rituals aroused intense collective emotions and bound the people of Tenochtitlan into a more cooperative community. While there surely is some affective truth to this, as a primary or exclusive argument it is dubious.

This brings me to the books. If you are interested, start with Thomas’ Conquest. It’s an authoritative and detailed history which also happens to be a ripping good yarn. I could hardly put it down and thought it was more exciting, indeed incredible, than most epic fiction. The conquest was in many ways surreal, not least because Cortés was so weirdly indefatigable. Sociopaths in the service of Christian empire don’t usually grip me, but Cortés certainly did.

Soustelle’s Daily Life, which I actually read first (but should have read after Conquest), is a richly textured and deeply empathetic look at the ordinary and more mundane aspects of Mexica culture that are so often submerged beneath the lurid, violent, and ghastly. By all accounts, Tenochtitlan was an astonishingly beautiful, exquisite, and well-ordered city. The Spaniards were floored by its large size, high culture, brilliant architecture, groomed gardens, enchanted bestiary, and teeming market — none (except for the few who had visited Constantinople) had ever seen anything like it. They could hardly believe that Amerindian “savages” were capable of such domestic and civic excellence. Soustelle renders all this so convincingly and lovingly that when he gets to the final chapter, which for Tenochtitlan is total destruction, he seems genuinely heart-broken. For a brief moment I joined him but then quickly reminded myself that Tenochtitlan, however sublime, was also a house of many horrors.

Of the three books, Clendinnen’s is the most ambitious, audacious, and in the end, disappointing. She, like so many of us, stands in imaginative awe before Mexica culture and ritual performance. She wonders, like so many of us, what it was like, how it was seen, what was felt, heard, sensed, and experienced. It must have been, and in some ways was, overwhelming. There was a tautness to Mexica culture that tinged everything and tainted everyone. Fear and uneasiness, bordering on and spilling over into cosmological paranoia, were pervasive. Clendinnen elegantly explores this razor’s edge along which so many, both citizens and sacrificed, were literally and figuratively sliced. Her book, really a collection of essays or evocations, is a lyrical tour de force, theoretically fitting somewhere between Clifford Geertz (good) and Victor Turner (bad). Frustratingly at times, Clendinnen journeys more than she arrives. But in this journey she well and truly conjures the cultural poetry and ritual mesmerism of Tenochtitlan. Her penultimate chapter, “Ritual: The World Transformed, the World Revealed,” is among the best, as Xavier Marquez so well observed in his comment on Clendinnen’s book.

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, Clendinnen really hits her stride at the end, only after she has finished her symbolically affective excursis through the sacred wonderland of Tenochtitlan. In an appendix, “A Question of Sources,” her muse happily alights on issues that apply not just to the Mexica but to all oral and performative societies that we “see” – or try to imagine – through the opaque and distorting lens of writing:

We are professionally text-orientated people in a text-orientated society. That can severely limit our capacity to grasp the possible meaning of texts, and more particularly other kinds of sources, produced by other kinds of societies. How are we to discover the moods and meanings of peoples who, like the Mexica, expressed themselves most readily in song, dance and formal speech, and in “writing” as we know it not at all? [W]hile most of us have no experience at first or even second hand of a less than thoroughly literate culture, we know that vast numbers of people in the past – women, children, slaves, workers, indeed almost everybody – while talkative enough in their own worlds, were retrospectively struck dumb, rendered “inarticulate,” by the selectivity of the written record. (281)

Historians work with those painfully retrieved words pinned like so many butterflies to the page, remote from their animate existence. It is hard to keep in mind their flickering variability, their strenuous context dependence, in life. Words do not always mean what they seem to say…Then there is the question of what is not said; as Jose Ortega y Gasset has observed: “The stupendous reality that is language cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists above all in silences. Each people leave some things unsaid in order to be able to say others.” [U]nderstanding must be sought through the analysis of observed action. (284-85)

The consequences of the mechanical difficulties of representing the spoken word on the page are less manageable. Nahuatl was a language of compound words, and highly inflected, with prefixes, suffixes, and infixes (283). This brushes what is perhaps the most intractable, troubling, and engaging problem of all. Nahuatl was and is a language rich in metaphor, and the Mexica took delight in exploring veiled resemblances…In a differently conceptualized world concepts are differently distributed. If we want to know the metaphors our subjects lived by, we need first to know how the language scanned actuality. Linguistic messages in foreign (or in familiar) tongues require not only decoding, but interpretation (287).

So, unhappily, what most mattered to the Mexica has left no remains, and what does now remain is mute: the dance, the drum, and chant which formed so central a part of Mexica ritual as lost as the wreathing flowers (289). There were particular somatic and kinetic experiences the Mexica identified with the encounter with the sacred. It has been one of the major challenges of this study to reconstruct, from fragile clues, something of the context and content of those experiences (290). A glance at any actual society, with its multiple and cross-cutting networks and ambivalences, teaches us how unreal the most complex reconstructions must be in their unnatural simplicity. [W]e always have to be ready to acknowledge that whole areas of life of high significance to our subjects  might simply escape our awareness altogether: a demoralizing recognition, but a necessary one. (292-93)

While not totally demoralizing, it is sobering to hear – as Walter Ong and Jack Goody have repeatedly said – that oral cultures are completely different kinds of beasts than our own. So much is lost in our translations.

Finally I will say, in partial and tepid defense of the Mexica, that there was something refreshingly honest about their ritual sacrifice of (mostly) war captives. Though few wish to acknowledge it and most tendentiously deny it, all empires are built on slaughter and drenched in blood. I don’t see much difference between killing on battlefields and sacrificing on temples. The aim and result is the same. The difference, in the Mexica case, is the eating. The old proverb – waste not, want not – springs immediately to mind, but this is probably too proteinist and pragmatic. While I can see how the conquistadors found Mexica cannibalism revolting, their double-standard disgust with ritual sacrifice is harder to understand. The Spanish-Christian conquest of both the Mexica and Inca was accompanied by the most sordid kinds of slaughter, not just of warriors but also of women and children. Killing is killing, no matter what forms precede the final deed.


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Unitary Animist Worldviews

It is sometimes said that animist worldviews are unitary, totalized, and seamless. What does this mean? At a first approximation, it means that such worldviews are distinctly and adamantly non-dualist. Animist worldviews neither recognize nor use a series of dichotomies that we tend to take for granted and which are prevalent, if not dominant, in modernist worldviews. These dichotomies include (but are not limited to):

  • Nature/Supernature
  • Physical/Metaphysical
  • Matter/Spirit
  • Material/Ethereal

In the absence of these dichotomies, the world presents – or rather is constructed as – a seamless unity in which people, animals, landscapes, plants, things, ideas, and events are connected, even if the precise nature of those connections is unknown or mysterious. This seamless unity stands in stark contrast to the series of dualisms that dominate the kinds of politico-religious formations that are generally known as “modern” or “world” religions.

It is my contention that these conceptual dualisms arose in conjunction with and as a consequence of the Neolithic transition. The process, I surmise, began with the newly built environment featuring the settlement and house. From this materiality flows ideas about inner/outer and private/public. In these seemingly innocent dualisms we find conceptual seeds that will eventually sprout into ideas about property, ownership, wealth, and distinction. From the early Neolithic through the post-Neolithic present, we find a multiplying or cascading series of dualisms on which everything will come – or be made – to rest. It is this constant sundering and splintering of things that so bewilders animists who are exposed to (or resist) Neolithicization.

As I read and understand the animist ethnographic record, this is what separates animist worldviews from the many different kinds of sociocultural and ideological formations that arise in Neolithic and post-Neolithic societies. This also explains why animist worldviews cannot be made to lie down on the procrustean bed of “religion.” It further explains why I contend that “religion” slowly originates out of the Neolithic transition and is particular to post-Neolithic societies. There is no such parceled and constructed thing as “religion” in animist worldviews. The only people who find “religion” in that worldview are those who conceive religion as a something like a natural, timeless, essential, and universal category.

There is today a growing and sophisticated body of research that is sometimes called the “new animism.” Considered in all its variety and as a whole, this scholarship describes a fully integrated and comprehensive way of being in, knowing about, and relating to the world. Animist worldviews make no distinction between the symbolic world of the mind and the physical world in which minds are embedded. Animist worldviews seamlessly bridge or join those worlds and thus literally and figuratively “make sense.” There is no “nature” that exists separate and apart from “supernature.” There is simply one reality, one world, and one cosmos. Everything within this unified cosmos – perception, thought, action, experience, and event – is connected and hence “real.” Animist worldviews are, in this sense, seamless, unitary, and totalizing.

While I would like to take credit for these ideas, I have done little more than piece them together from various sources. The intellectual godfather of this conception is Irving Hallowell, whose classic work (pdf) on Ojibway ontology paved the way toward this understanding of animist worldviews. His ideas were brilliantly extended by Nurit Bird-David and her understanding of these worldviews as a “relational epistemology” and “cosmic economy of sharing.” Embedded within the latter is an “ethic,” which is a category and construct that modernists (and philosophers) usually treat as something separate and apart. This separateness is of course a legacy of Cartesian dualism. Bruce Charlton, for his part, extended these ideas yet further by considering animist worldviews as a “relational ontology.” This ontological treatment is perhaps most brilliantly expressed in the work of Tim Ingold, whose “rhizomatic” understanding of animist worldviews is profound.

For those who want an “operational” analysis of animist ontology, Ingold’s analysis is the place to start. In a related vein, Philippe Descola brilliantly showed us that Amazonian animists (the Achuar) conceive what we call “nature” as society: the cosmos, therefore, is a singular culture. In a related line of work on “perspectivism,” originated by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, we learn how and why it is that animals are ontological people or what Hallowell called “non-human persons.” There is a great deal more to this new animism, including work done by Calvin Luther Martin, Hugh Brody, Justin SmithRobin Ridington, and Rane Willerslev. The collective upshot of all this is that animist worldviews are properly characterized as unitary, totalized, and seamless.

Given the radical differences between animist worldviews and modernist worldviews, it can be difficult to wrap your mind around them. The best way to do this is, in my estimation, to read long and deep in the hunter-gatherer Record. This will, of course, always result only in partial understanding because animist worldviews are lived and experienced in ways that elude capture through written records. They are deeply embedded in particular lifeways and oral traditions, in addition to being deeply embodied within ancestral or non-agricultural environments.


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Constructing the “Social”

What do we mean by “social”? I will confess to having never given this important issue much thought, which I now realize is a serious mistake. I should have known better, given that half my research is in evolutionary biology and cognitive science (where “social” is used one way) while the other half is in the social sciences (where “social” is used another way). These disjunctive uses of “social” have a history or genealogy. We’ve all heard about the “social construction” of one thing or another, but have we stopped to closely consider how the “social” has itself been constructed? How the concept of “social” has changed over time and what the consequences of such change might be?

I was just made aware of this issue, or oversight, while reading Gregory Hollin’s superb Somatosphere post on “Autism, Sociality, and Human Nature.” In the past, “social” was constructed in Durkheimian ways which were later popularized by Peter Berger in The Social Construction of Reality (1966). Over the past few decades, there has been a substantial shift away from this construction. This alternate construction has been formulated by cognitive scientists and biological anthropologists, and has eventually seeped over into psychiatric medicine. In any event, I encourage you to read Hollin’s piece, which contains this money paragraph:

Within the experimental human sciences this is a really significant shift in understandings of the social.  Under this new regime the social is individualised, essentialised, and biologised, becoming a property of individual persons outside of context, individual or institutional history.  I have an innate, biological capacity to feel empathy and this capacity lies at the heart of my social being.  In other words, ‘the social’ is not something that shapes us throughout one’s lifetime, it is something that we are inherently and naturally.

These different constructions and uses of “social” have profound impacts, not just in our trans-disciplinary debates (which often seem to be at cross-purposes, probably due to differing definitions), but also in a world where “autism” is the diagnosis or pandemic affliction du jour.


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Animist-Religious Discourses

As hunter-gatherers in Alaska, the traditional Yupik (Eskimo) were and perhaps still are classic carriers of animist worldviews. Such worldviews are not, as I never tire of reminding my readers (even if it frustrates Sabio), what most of us call or recognize as “religions.” When, however, traditional carriers of animist worldviews contact colonizers and conquerors, there is always a transformation of such worldviews. In worst case scenarios, those worldviews are extinguished. In middle case scenarios, there is dynamic change which is responsive to new situations and needs. In ideal but rare situations, those worldviews survive relatively intact. The latter tends to occur only in the most remote areas where traditional lifeways have been more or less sustained.

It can sometimes be difficult for outsiders to determine where, on this continuum of transformative possibilities, an indigenous society might be placed. There are several reasons for this, at least one of which is secrecy, but perhaps the most prominent is that these minority societies are surrounded by dominant cultures that neither recognize nor understand animist worldviews. As a consequence, traditional peoples who wish to explain themselves or assert rights often do so in ways that conform to the discourses of the dominant culture. This kind of cultural and conceptual translation inevitably distorts the source materials, which are then presented in ways that “make sense” to dominant culture listeners. It this kind of poor translation, I suspect, which gives rise to and supports the mistaken idea that animist worldviews are akin to modern religions.

A recent feature article in The Atlantic perfectly illustrates this point. The story is about the traditional Yup’ik of Alaska who have been taken to criminal task because they fished for protected King Salmon. The author frames the story using discursive terms that will immediately resonate with dominant culture readers: “When Global Warming Kills Your God: Twenty-Three Alaska Tribesman Broke the Law When They Overfished King Salmon, But They Claim Their Faith Gave Them No Other Choice.” By this rendering or translation, the guardian or master spirit of King Salmon is “God” and the animist worldview from which such ideas flow is “faith.” While it could be the case that the Yup’ik conceive the issues in this way, I have serious doubts. “God” and “faith” are western categories and cultural concepts.

Faced with a criminal prosecution, the Yup’ik have been forced to mount a First Amendment “Free Exercise” defense framed within the confines of American law. We thus have attorneys for the Yup’ik saying things like this:

A Yup’ik fisherman who is a sincere believer in his religious role as a steward of nature, believes that he must fulfill his prescribed role to maintain this ‘collaborative reciprocity’ between hunter and game. Completely barring him from the salmon fishery thwarts the practice of a real religious belief. Under Yup’ik religious belief, this cycle of interplay between humans and animals helped perpetuate the seasons; without the maintaining of that balance, a new year will not follow the old one.

Despite expressing sympathy for these “sincerely held religious” views, the judge nonetheless found all 23 Yup’ik guilty. The case will go up on appeal where it may eventually reach the Alaska Supreme Court. In a previous case, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the conviction of an indigenous hunter who took a moose out of season and defended on the ground that he needed it “for a religious ceremony.” In a remarkable feat of cultural translation, comparison, and distortion, the Court reversed the conviction upon finding that moose meat “is the sacramental equivalent to the wine and wafer in Christianity.” While I’m quite sympathetic to this result, having a moose stand in for Jesus is a serious stretch. Or perhaps it isn’t and I’m just missing the delicious irony of it all.


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