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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10 thoughts on “Animist-Religious Discourses

  1. Larry Stout

    My worldview, and that of many others, is that nothing is sacred — nothing. Anything regarded by some as somehow sacred will in due time prove to be transient, as history, I think, very well demonstrates. Particular sacrosanctity is a notion, and the product of a particular psychological state; when the inevitable time comes that no-one’s psychological state produces such particular notion, the ostensible sacrosanctity of [whatever] is no more. When Yellowstone next blows (any geological day now), all the sacred moose and salmon will be quickly eaten to extinction, and Jesus himself would be cannibalized, should he dare a second coming. In my regard, worldviews are interesting, but not precious. Neither science nor religion is intrinsically precious.

  2. Bob Wells

    As a person who 1) admires the animistic worldview and is trying to adopt it even more into his life, and 2) having lived in Alaska for 45 years, I may have something to offer. While it is a different topic, it’s hard for m to imagine it wouldn’t have played a role in the legal case. The Constitution of the state of Alaska forbids any racial group from having subsistence preference over another and Alaska courts have upheld that. On the other hand, Federal courts have consistently ruled that the US Constitution does afford native Alaskans preferential treatment. It has become such a contentious issue that the Federal Government stepped in and took over control over subsistence in Alaska, stripping the state of it’s authority.

    That doesn’t reduce the point you’re making of the obvious misunderstanding that the white judges and lawyers had about a native spiritual belief but I suspect it had a strong influence on the ruling. Alaskans are a stubborn and rebellious group–we honestly don’t give a damn how they do it Outside (you can even buy a T-shirt with that slogan)!!

    I try to incorporate both Eastern and Native American worldviews into my life and have found that the problem is that it is so foreign to the linear Western thought-process. Our way of thinking is so incredibly narrow (There is only ONE way to think, and every other way is wrong and stupid!) that for many of us it simply can’t be expanded to accept it or even truly comprehend exactly what it is saying.

    This is a perfect example of that!

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Wow, an ignoble mention — I am honored.

    In reduced form, you said something like, “Classic Animist worldviews are not “religions”.

    And your definition of “religion” is “What must of us call or recognize as religion”.

    So in defense of my, perhaps, your misunderstanding or misrepresenting me.

    My repeated objections to your posts on “hunter-gather animism” is what I detect as an idealizing of animism. You repeatedly deny such a thing, of course. But I keep trying to point out that your denials don’t sound wholly genuine.

    One such example is the classic move to pull one’s favorite religion out of the religion category. “Christianity is not really a religion.” “Buddhism is not a religion.” and so on, which we often hear among believers. Why? Well, they want to show why their view is different and better and thus should not be categorized with the common folk.

    Now, I repeated argue against Atheists on my blog who argue that “All religion is stupid”. And my common tact is to show that they have a specific definition of religion in their head that is much narrower than the extent of their claim. Like Dawkins, when they say “religion”, they mean the belief-centered, doctrinal worshipping believers in an all-powerful, intervening, tribal god. But when you point out to them that their claim includes forms of religions that have no gods, they say, “Well, that is not real religion”.

    On the other hand, I also argue against Liberal Christians who defend religion by telling Atheists that they have religion too because religion is our worldviews .

    So, I am very happy that any animist group you pick has views radically different from any monotheistic, buddhistic, Shintoistic or other modern religion. But until you tell us exactly what a “religion” is, then I won’t be able to test if your favorite animism is such a creature.

    But in the end, as I constantly write, arguing about words is ridiculous. Seeing through the manipulative way we use words is very important — something which both you and I agree on.

    So, I hope I have some how save myself for the implication of being stubborn and narrowly modern-minded and such.

    As to the rest of your post:

    Fantastic photo-shop of Jesus with antlers. I’d like to see a hunter-gather pic where a noble thin hunter is standing on one foot, gazing off at the beautiful landscape with a bubble above his head, showing that he is daydreaming about a brand new TV for his village.

    Oh yes, that Western theorists of religion (scholars or hacks like me) force fit other cultures into theirs is obvious — and you continually illustrate it very well. I love reading your stuff.

    That worldviews change when they collide is obvious. This is true of economic systems, languages, and even genes. Is something loss when that happens? I guess it depends on what we think is the preferable traits a worldview should have. Me? I selfishly love variety.

  4. Larry Stout


    I love variety, too. I wouldn’t call that being selfish. As geological history demonstrates, organic evolution produces fantastic variety, but also involves inevitable ultimate extinctions (of each and all). Human worldviews are no different. Species, including the human species, are not sacred, nor are worldviews, no matter how much some may love them. Handwringing and lamentations are to no avail. C’est la guerre.

  5. Cris Post author

    I was happy to give you a hat-tip Sabio! I understand your assessment of those who claim that their “religion” is not really a religion and those who claim that atheism is a “religion” because it’s a worldview (which it really isn’t because it is defined by a negation of theism). I insist, perhaps for analytical and heuristic reasons, that animist worldviews are not “religions” because they are defined by a unitary, seamless, or totalized cosmology, one in which dichotomies such as physical/metaphysical, natural/supernatural, and spirit/matter are completely alien. Those ideas are characteristic of modernity, which for my purposes essentially begins with the advent of agriculture and later Neolithic transition. In those societies where this transition occurred, “religions” eventually developed.

    As for my ostensible idealization of animist worldviews, I can think of three reasons why you might think this. First, there is a long history of characterizing those worldviews as “primitive,” “savage,” simple, and undeveloped. Because this is the entrenched and accepted view, I am at some pains to correct these falsehoods. Second, I have never felt any need to point out the obvious, which is that animist worldviews did not result in peaceful societies or people who lived in harmony with the “nature” and the environment. This is romantic fiction. Hunter-gatherers around the world profoundly impacted environments and caused extinctions. Finally, I spend a great deal of time considering animist worldviews because they are probably closest in concept and form to ancestral ways of cognizing and socializing. Given that I’m doing evolutionary history, this intense focus may give rise to the idea (mistaken) that I’m smitten by such worldviews and aspire to them myself.

    While I think there is much to admire, contemplate, and perhaps even adopt from such worldviews, my focus on them is not driven these considerations. I think the best thing they offer is the awareness that there are some profoundly different ways of encountering and conceptualizing the world. I have always found it salubrious to be aware of alternatives, both ancient and modern.

  6. Sabio Lantz

    Oh yes, that Western theorists of religion (scholars or hacks like me) force fit other cultures into theirs is obvious — and you continually illustrate it very well. I love reading your stuff.

    That worldviews change when they collide is obvious. This is true of economic systems, languages, and even genes. Is something loss when that happens? I guess it depends on what we think is preferable.

    Thanx Cris.

    I’d have to have you show me, in operational ways, how peoples’ moderns religion are not “unitary, seamless, or totalized cosmolog[ies].

    But I do love your writings for showing us the different perspectives of animist views.

    And as you wrote, I have learned from you about the bias of the primitive, savage, simple, undeveloped classification. You have helped me get it out of my circuitry — I did not even think I had that bias. I’ve undone the primitive bias for languages (dialects, ideolects … being equally rich as standard languages) but I did have residual bias against animists, for sure. ANd you helped with that — and there by helped me be more consistent in my use of evolutionary thinking.

    I think pointing criticism of animist societies is important — it is not obvious to me. I think that would balance your writing. But I am only one reader.

    And I do understand that your immersion and depth of research may make you appear different that you are. And I apologize if I ever get fuzzy on your complexity.

    Thanx for the reply.

  7. Gyrus

    Following Sabio’s question about how modern religions are not “unitary, seamless, or totalized cosmolog[ies]”, I found this as a characterization of pre-agricultural animism interesting because in my research, I’ve come to take “totalizing” as a characteristic of agricultural and modern cosmologies. Of course we’re dealing in gross generalizations here, but I take the rise in importance of abstraction in agricultural and civilized societies as leading to more systematized, unitary cosmologies – the emblematic framework being the geocentric idea of the universe hinging on an axis mundi, with the planets ordered concentrically, etc., within which all phenomena are contained and ordered. Animist hunter-gatherer cosmologies, as opposed to this vertical, systematic structure, seem to be more based on horizontal, contingent relationships. Not that there’s no structure to them, but their emphasis in orientation on specific earthly landmarks (as opposed to the growing emphasis in civilization on stellar reference points) reflects to me less concern with folding everything within a systematic whole. There’s more of a sense of relativity, as opposed to the sense of the absolute that grew in civilized religions into the idea of the space of the cosmos being contained within the infinite, transcendent, all-embracing empyrean.

    Also, I recall hearing anthropologist David Graeber discuss at a talk work he did in Madagascar with indigenous people there, where he realized that a lot of their “cosmological tales” were being made up by his informants. He thought this was neglected in much anthropology – in societies without writing, and without an authoritarian sense of the sacred, much cosmology is improvised. Not willy-nilly, and without value, but contingent and fluid. Again, less systematic and totalizing.

    Can’t quite put my finger yet on the difference between Cris’s sense that animism is “totalizing” and my sense that it isn’t, but I don’t necessarily think we’re at odds.

  8. Cris Post author

    Gyrus and Sabio — I’m going to answer, at least partially, some of your questions about “unified” or “totalized” cosmologies in a separate post so that this discussion does not get buried in the comment section.

  9. dave

    There can be no civil discourse about religion because all religious people think theirs is the only true religion and everyone else is going to hell. I consider myself a spiritual person,not religion. One has nothing to do with the other. I know a lot of very spiritual people,who follow Christian teachings,who never set foot in a church. On the other hand I know a lot of devout church going “Christians” who haven’t a spiritual,or compassionate bone in their body. Spirituality is a gift from the Creator. Religion is man made. Invented by people to control others,and to create God in their own image,to fit a socio-political agenda. I could never worship a God that is vengeful,a God that hates,or a God that plays favorites among His children. In fact I do not believe that GOD is religious at all If He was, there would only be one religion HIS! And,He would allow no other.

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