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.