Hunting Primordial Spirits

If we were to sketch a genealogy of scholarship on animist worldviews, A. Irving Hallowell (1892-1974) might justly be listed as a founder. His classic paper on Ojibway ontology and world view (pdf) laid the foundations for the field. Less well known is Hallowell’s mentor, Frank Speck (1881-1950), whose Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (The Civilization of the American Indian Series) (1935) is perhaps the first full-scale monograph that describes animist worldviews. Speck and Hallowell, both of whom spent decades living with aboriginal hunters in Canada, were deeply impressed by these people and their cultures. Though their combined ethnographic work is impressive in terms of descriptive detail, neither was content with mere description: they wanted to penetrate these “primitive” cultures and treat these with the analytical seriousness accorded to “modern” cultures. The overall result was that Speck and Hallowell provided us with a cogent philosophy of aboriginal hunting societies.

From this foundation, scholarship on animist worldviews has burgeoned in several different directions, and Speck-Hallowell can count many intellectual descendants. One of the more famous, or infamous, is former Rutgers historian Calvin Luther Martin, whose book Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (1982) ignited a major debate about pre-contact Native American worldviews. Martin’s primary protagonist in this debate was Shepard Krech, an anthropologist deeply familiar with Native American hunting practices and history. Without putting too fine a point on things, Krech argued that Martin’s views were romantic, idealist, and without foundation in fact. Martin apparently harbored nostalgic longings for a pre-contact past that had never existed, and if it did, we have no evidence for it.

Krech published his larger views on this subject in The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), which is a rather sobering examination of American Indian hunting practices, land use, and “conservation” history. In Chapter Seven, simply titled “Beaver,” Krech presents what I presume to be his argument against Martin’s Keepers of the Game thesis, which was largely built on beaver hunting and the beaver trade. In the midst of this chapter, Krech touches on Frank Speck’s work:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white trap­pers, loggers, and others placed Northern Algonquian lands under increasingly relentless pressure. Like the Hudson Bay Company (“HBC”) earlier in the nine­teenth century, several outsiders demonstrated a heightened interest in helping relieve the pressure. Filling a similar role taken by HBC traders in the 1820s to 1830s was Frank Speck, an anthropologist. In 1908, Speck began three decades of ethnographic observations among the Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi, Ojibwa, and other Algonquian people. From the 1910s through the 1930s, he was the single most influential proponent of the primordial nature of conservation and hunting territories. An anthropologist-activist dedicated as much to helping native people articulate their political causes as to the analysis of culture, Speck helped native people develop strategies to protect themselves from outsiders who wanted their lands.

As Harvey Feit, an anthropologist, revealed, Speck, drawing liberally on a letter by Armand Tessier, an Indian Affairs governmental employee, claimed that Indians pos­sessed “instinctive” understandings of nature and that conservation was a “natural law” among them. In opposition — here was the rele­vant context for his remarks — hypocritical white intruders “often accused” native people “of being improvident as regards the killing of game,” and of being wasteful and thinking only about the present, and sought restrictions on Indian hunting and control over Indian lands.

Chief Aleck Paul of the Temagami Ojibwa confirmed this conservationist sentiment: “So these families would never think of damaging the abundance or the source of supply of the game, because that had come to them from their fathers and grandfathers and those behind them. . . . We would only kill the small beaver and leave the old ones to keep breeding. Then when they got too old they too would be killed, just as a farmer kills his pigs, preserving the stock for his supply of young.” In con­trast, Chief Paul noted, was the white man “who needs to be watched. He makes the forest fires, he goes through the woods and kills everything he can find, whether he needs the flesh or not, and then when all the animals in one section are killed he takes the train and goes to another where he can do the same.”

Except for the ending, the imagery and language were largely Speck’s (and Tessier’s). Chief Paul showed that he could co-opt the language and imagery of private property and conservation to score points against outsiders who threatened. To achieve their goal — control over the exploitation of resources — all three mounted an argument based on primordial possession of private property and conservation principles. The Cree and Montagnais co-opted a similar imagery (pp. 195-97).

Here we have essential historical context for what Speck and Hallowell often presented, in their writings, as ancient or timeless practices. Martin took this a step further and presented these Native American worldviews as “pristine” and inherently conservationist. But as Krech bluntly notes elsewhere in the chapter, we simply have no evidence of a “primordial pre-European time.”


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11 thoughts on “Hunting Primordial Spirits

  1. Bob Wells

    While we have little direct evidence of pre-contact life, I think it would be fair to generalize and say that the worldview of animistic “religion” lends it to a much more sustainable relationship with nature. In other words, thinking of all of nature as “All My Relations” makes one damage the earth and other species much less than thinking of it as “fallen and corrupt” as Christianity does.

    Were they perfect and faultless? Of course not. Were they infinitely better than the European invaders? Of course they were.

    Animistic tribes had no reason to exploit the earth and many not to. On the other hand, “civilized” men have a double reason to hate and exploit the earth: 1) the religion of their childhood that told them nature was fallen and corrupt and good only to be destroyed 2) the science of their adulthood that told them it was a machine, with no intrinsic value except to be used in any way they see necessary for mans good.

    Those unlikely and evil bedfellows combined to lead us to where we are today, on the verge of making our eco-system extremely hostile to humans.

    Worse, the ones leading the fight for the environment have that scientific mind-set that says we need to protect the earth just like we need to change the oil in our car. They don’t care about the car, they just want it to keep running so they can continue to exploit it.

    The future of our great-great grandchildren depends on us returning to an Animistic mindset that says we care about the earth because it is our relations, not so we can continue to exploit it. “If we must suffer to heal the earth, so be it.”

    It is possible, but exceedingly rare. A perfect example is Aldo Leuopold on the New Mexico mountain, watching the dying of a wolf. From that came his “Land Ethic” which typifies an Animistic mind.

    If only we would go to the mountains for some reason other than to try to destroy them.

  2. Cris Post author

    Bob, in this post, I was tempted to say and almost said, in a postscript: “By the way Bob, you should read Krech’s book.” I really think you should; it’s a fantastic corrective to generalizations and the widespread idea that Native Americans were ecological conservationists. If you don’t have any easy way to get it, please send me your address and I’ll send you my copy. As much as I appreciate your views (and I certainly do), I also think you need to read this book and consider it seriously.

  3. Gyrus

    I agree that there need to be correctives for generalisations about indigenous conservationism, but at the same time I don’t think we should underestimate the extent to which our culture desperately wants to believe that ‘it was always thus’. I guess it depends on the context. Krech-type correctives are useful among people who genuinely believe in some kind of ‘pristine’ pre-contact situation. But, in our wider culture, where neo-Victorian views of progress are rife, Krech’s presumably careful work can be very rapidly assimilated into justification for our own unfathomable impact on planetary ecology.

    I always appreciated a snippet of Daniel Quinn I picked up in a piece by Jason Godesky ( about indigenous cultures being ‘as harmless as a shark, tarantula, or rattlesnake.’ I guess a major debate here is about the megafauna extinctions, in the New World and in Australasia. When I studied this, it seemed to be a very complex issue (as ever!), with many caveats about climate change around the time humans entered these places to complicate simple ideas about humans rapaciously wiping these species out. But I think even taking the ‘worst case scenario’, there’s something very different between these situations and agricultural / industrial cultures. It’s a basic ecological fact that if a predator enters an ecosystem unused to their presence, they will probably, in the short term, have a drastic impact. I imagine there may have been quite a population explosion after we first entered these worlds, full of vast lumbering feasts – and there was probably a population crash after they were hunted out. The question as to whether such species extinctions are part of the natural flow of ecologies or an aberrant human rapaciousness is obviously a foggy philosophical grey area, but I do think that if we look at the more general equilibrium hunter-gatherers find compared with the ongoing relationship of agricultural and especially industrial cultures to ecology, there is another level of disequilibrium to be found in the latter.

    I wonder how much hunter-gatherer conservationism is to do with scale. Bar the unusual circumstances of entering a virgin ecosystem, the inherent limitations on HG populations mean they don’t have to be terribly conservationist in intent to have a low impact on their environment. But I found a problem here when I studied this issue in that ‘intent’ is considered hugely important in modern assessments of ‘conservationism’. Raymond Hames’ piece on this debate is very useful (, and he says:

    For the U.S. government, “Conservation commonly refers to the maintenance of genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity in the natural abundance in which they occur”; for evolutionary ecologists, “… conservation acts are by definition costly and entail the sacrifice of immediate rewards in return for delayed ones”; and for conservation biologists “… researchers with more applied interests
    typically consider an intent to conserve, as evidenced by institutional design, to be sufficient.

    I find this staggering. If a hunter-gatherer culture has a relatively low environmental impact because of their social scale, they aren’t considered as ‘conservationist’ as an industrial culture with the best will in the world which is nevertheless catastrophically trashing the environment.

    This whole debate seems to be of very minor significance in terms of indigenous cultures and our view of them per se. It seems rather to be a small cog in the giant machine of denial in our own culture. The very same scientific revolution that has enabled large-scale ecological impacts has also enabled an unprecedented ability to measure and assess these impacts. But how much heed are we paying, collectively, to our astonishing ability to be aware of our impact on the environment? Sometimes it seems we’re paying more heed to the supposed destructive impacts made by ‘primitive’ cultures, who entirely lacked such a ‘God’s eye view’, and still allowed their environment to generally thrive.

  4. Joe

    Would you recommend Raymond Pierotti’s Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology? He tackles a lot of the same topics covered in this post. Also, Harvey A. Feit is highly critical of Krech’s account of beaver trapping in Canada in his contribution to this volume on Krech’s book.

  5. Cris Post author

    I would not have recommended it simply because I did not know it existed! As always, I (and I presume other readers) are grateful for this fantastic link. After the download, I immediately read Krech’s “Afterword” and found it temperate. I would think that readers such as Bob and Gyrus would be especially interested in this volume, as am I, though the entire topic is a bit tangential to my interests in the evolution of “religion” (or more precisely, animist worldviews which are not religion).

  6. Gyrus

    Thanks for that review by Kimberly Tallbear Cris, very interesting. It reminds me of something Steven Pinker said. I have many problems with Pinker’s work, but I think he made a deeply important point in The Blank Slate, talking about over-zealous refutations of indigenous violence:

    Surely indigenous peoples have a right to survive in their lands whether or not they—like all human societies—are prone to violence and warfare. Self-appointed “advocates” who link the survival of native peoples to the doctrine of the Noble Savage paint themselves into a terrible corner. When the facts show otherwise they either have inadvertently weakened the case for native rights or must engage in any means necessary to suppress the facts. (p. 119)

    I’m not sure that how closely the issue of conservation can be paralleled to that of violence, but at the moment Survival International are fighting a campaign ( on behalf of indigenous people being evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation. Beatings and torture are happening here, so the issue of how we perceive indigenous conservationism has serious repercussions. I think Survival do excellent work and balance the intricacies of the issues with the urgency of the activist work very well. But it must be tough. If too rosy a picture is painted in defence of indigenous rights, hard evidence apparently to the contrary implicitly undermines those rights.

    The image of the ‘Noble Savage’ is dangerous, in raising expectations too high. But it’s also revealing that so often indigenous rights seem to depend on such unattainable images – whereas white rights seem to be completely unshaken by the most atrocious track record.

  7. johncbalch

    Weighing in to say that I think the Pierotti book is fantastic, he has a great way of blending his own experience as a scientist with Indigenous knowledge without being dogmatic about either perspective.

    Cris, have you read Sacred Ecology by Fikret Berkes? His analysis of change in caribou hunting in that book is a valuable depiction of how an indigenous worldview is not conservationist by default, but instead can function as a learning system.

  8. ben andrew

    I find that 99.9% of experts who write about indigenous peoples and their belief systems have no actual experiences and what comes out is a mixed mishmash of their own cultural upbringing and the supposed translation that can be misinterpreted. So the ideas that come out from these supposed experts is a construed view of indigenous knowledge and world views.

  9. Cris Post author

    Thanks Ben. While I was looking at your Innuit Nation website, I noticed a long list of references to writings on your society/culture. Which of these, if any, would you recommend? Also, are there any “experts” who write about indigenous peoples whom you would recommend?

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