In 1978 former Rutgers historian Calvin Martin published Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade. A year later, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, a panel convened to consider Martin’s book. In 1981 the panel members published their collected response papers in Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade: A Critique of “Keepers of the Game.” By any measure, this was a strange sequence of events. Panels don’t usually convene to critically assess a book within a year of publication. And panels don’t usually feel compelled to publish a response book.
Keepers of the Game obviously struck an academic nerve. And after the initial strike, the panel’s pain apparently didn’t go away. Martin’s book had to be countered with another. Why?
Before getting to the issue that caused so much consternation, let’s consider Martin’s argument. In Keepers of the Game, Martin contends that pre-contact Native Americans had an unusual (he calls it “spiritual”) relationship with animals. They considered animals to be non-human people; animals, in other words, are just like people. The only difference between humans and animals is in outer appearance. But on the inside, animals are no different from people. Everything that humans do and think, animals also do and think. This means that humans and animals can communicate with one another. There are various “spiritual” ways in which this can be done, including through dances, dreams, sweats, visions, rituals, taboos, etc.
In terms of ethnohistory and ethnography, this is all clearly correct. Martin is describing what has come to be known as the “animist worldview.” While there is today a substantial scholarship on that worldview, entering it can be a daunting task. There are few, if any, concise statements of the animist worldview. It’s not something that is easily discovered or explained. Because an understanding of this worldview usually develops only after years of reading or fieldwork, treatments of it tend toward the expert and esoteric. Martin avoids all this because establishing the fact of this worldview is not his primary purpose. He simply needs to sketch it as a premise. And this Martin does. In fact, I would argue that anyone who wants to understand animist worldviews should begin with Martin’s book.
In this passage, Martin quotes Murray Wax (an anthropologist who did fieldwork among the Oglala Lakota):
To those who inhabit it, the animist world is a “society,” not a “mechanism,” that is, it is composed of “beings” rather than “objects.” Whether human or nonhuman, these beings are associated with and related to one another socially and sociably, that is, in the same ways as human beings to one another. These patterns of association and relationship may be structured in terms of kinship, empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, sexuality, dependency, or any other of the ways that human beings interact with and affect or afflict one another. Plants, animals, rocks, and stars are thus seen not as “objects” governed by laws of nature, but as “fellows” with whom the individual or band may have a more or less advantageous relationship.
This “profoundly animistic view of the universe,” Martin explains, means that “animals are psychologically identical to humans” (pp. 76-77). Because humans depend on these animal-people for food and life, killing them is fraught and shot through with all manner of social considerations. These considerations entail rituals and taboos. Hunting, therefore, is not simply hunting in the sense that we understand it. Because killing is profoundly anti-social, rules must be observed and amends must be made.
For Martin, this “spiritual” conception of animals and approach to hunting is a matter of ecology and conservation. By obeying the rules and observing the taboos, hunter-gatherers limited their kills and conserved game. The overall effect was to maintain ecological balance and ensure a future food supply. This sort of edenic equilibrium, Martin claims, was the general rule before European contact. While this may have been the case (there is certainly ample evidence in the archaeological record to suggest that hunters in many places overkilled to the point of local and even global extinction), Martin claims that the spiritual-social relationships between hunters and animals was profoundly disrupted by European diseases.
These diseases, he persuasively argues, devastated aboriginal America long before European colonizers actually lived on the continent or had a chance to observe anything like a pre-contact society. By the time Europeans actually settled and began moving inland from the eastern coast, they were encountering Native American societies that had, during the previous 50-100 years, experienced disease-mortality rates on the estimated order of 60-90% of the population. Microbes, of course, travel further and faster than people, and Martin argues that coastal trading and fishing exchanges during the 1500s initially exposed Natives with no immunity. The first contact, therefore, was with European microbes rather than people. The second contact, between Natives and colonists, occurred only after several rounds of decimating epidemics. These were not pristine societies: in many cases, they were feeble remnants, and in others they were newly constituted or hybrids.
So far so good: Martin’s first premise, that Native Americans adhered to an animist worldview and hunted in accord with this social conception, is correct. His second premise, that Native Americans had been devastated by European diseases before settlement and observation, is both sobering and plausible. It certainly sheds an entirely different light on societies that many have assumed were frozen in time and relatively static.
Martin’s next move, however, is on less solid ground. He argues that Native Americans, bewildered by the disease devastation and no longer confident in their worldview, searched for explanations. Because they had not yet encountered Europeans who could shoulder the blame, it had to fall elsewhere. This elsewhere was on the only others in the vicinity: the animal-people. As humans were dying in droves, the corresponding effect was to increase the numbers of animals (who were no longer being hunted by healthy Natives living in social-ecological equilibrium with them). So the hunters blamed the animal people. Because the hunting rules and taboos had failed, they were no longer observed or were modified in ways that led to devastation and overkill. This, Martin claims, explains how and why Natives had little or no compunction about slaughtering huge numbers of animals (beavers in particular) for the fur trade. This overkill eventually led to the destruction of several other species on whom the Natives were dependent for food.
This is the part of Martin’s argument that generated so much controversy. Most scholars have argued or assumed that Natives engaged in the fur trade for material or economic reasons: they greatly desired European trade goods such as knives, kettles, cloth, guns, and powder. Martin’s alternative argument is, for scholars of this stripe, far too idealist and “spiritual.” He was, as a result, roundly attacked for it.
While I think there are several problems with this last part of Martin’s argument, I don’t think it is insufficiently “material.” Its premise, after all, is that all this was brought on by biological-disease factors that had devastating material and social effects. In the aftermath and continuing presence of such effects, it would be hard to imagine Native worldviews not changing and being modified to accommodate, explain, and negotiate the new post-contact realities.
But all that is, for my purposes, neither here nor there. Keepers of the Game clearly describes animist worldviews and succinctly explains how those worldviews manifest in hunting cultures. Martin calls this worldview “spiritual” and accounts for it, as an academic outsider (i.e., from an etic perspective), in ecological terms. My own etic perspective accounts for this worldview in cognitive-evolutionary terms, but that is for a different post. Actually, it’s for a forthcoming book.
But until then, it’s interesting to note that Martin eventually came round to this worldview, resigned his faculty position at Rutgers, and is now apparently living in animist ways. He has written some good books along the way, including The Way of the Human Being and In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time. While some may find his current views overly romantic or nostalgic or pained, he is still an academic in mind (if not heart) and has some keen insights into animist worldviews vis-a-vis agricultural worldviews. I find them valuable.