Lecture #2: The World That Coyote and Raven Made

Suggested Readings:

Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury, eds, A Companion to American Indian History (2004).

Richard Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven (1983) [Koyukon, Alaska]

Adrian Tanner, Bringing Home Animals (1979) [Mistassini Cree, Subarctic]

Gilbert Wilson, Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden (1917; 1987) [Hidatsa, Great Plains]
Available online: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html

Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999)


I. Coyote Steals the Sun and Moon:

lecture opens with Zuñi story of Coyote (companion of Eagle) stealing the Sun and the Moon and by so doing bringing cold and ice and winter to the world (this version of the tale taken from Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz, American Indian Myths and Legends [1984])

Trickster figure central to many Indian belief systems, can take several different animal forms: Coyote, Great Hare, Raven

Coyote tricks Eagle into letting him look into box containing moon and sun that they've stolen from Pueblo Kachinas, result is release of moon, coming of winter (and hence seasons)

relationship of Indians to universe of animals and plants far different from European notions of nature that we'll discuss this semester. No comparable monolithic category like "Nature." Instead: multiplicity of creatures and spirits in living universe filled with awareness, gifts, dangers, spiritual complexities, moral responsibilities.

death & violence everywhere: life lives by killing. The burden of the hunter is to take responsibility for the consequences of bringing death to conscious beings like oneself.

II. Opening Caveats and Generalizations

a key danger of this lecture is its tendency to offer sweeping generalizations seemingly about all Indians: inherently a hazardous and misleading undertaking, with problems similar to those of "nature" (with same risk of perceived timelessness)

most reliable generalization: extraordinary diversity of North America's native peoples.

another generalization: intimacy and intricacy of the many adaptations native peoples chose to different environments, with resulting complexity of the niches they chose to occupy

environment not determinative, but offers limits across an (often wide) range of cultural and technological options: people made choices relative to the limits they confronted in a given time, place, and environment

maps of vegetation/physiographic regions of North America are also maps ranges of most likely subsistence possibilities, and these in turn map into classic culture areas (from 1920s anthropology)

III. Living with Fish and Trees

given the immense diversity of the continent, best way to examine these generalizations is to explore a few individual cases in greater detail

take, for instance, the Northwest Coast peoples of British Columbia, and Alaska: Tlingits, Haidas, Tsimshians, Kwakiutls, Salish, etc.

richest and most reliable source of subsistence were salmon, which each year followed their own ecological cycle of traveling far upstream from ocean to lay eggs, give young best chance of survival

hook/spear/net/weir/trap technologies to catch salmon: technology helps define and draw boundaries around different human niches relative to these fish

techniques for handling cedar for boats, tools, houses: complex wood-working technologies used fire before the acquisition of iron and steel in trade with traders from Europe and Asia, then rich growth of new wood-working techniques with the arrival of these metals: cultures embedded in materials of physical world

but: attached to this material world of tools, technology, subsistence was a symbolic world of rituals inviting the salmon to return up the streams, intervening in and expressing gratitude for the continuation of natural cycles

IV. Bringing Home Animals

case of Mistassini Cree east of Hudson's Bay shows one of the many ways these spiritual interventions could occur (based on work of Adrian Tanner in Bringing Home Animals)

hunting strategies and techniques linked to gift relationship with animals, who sacrificed themselves so that hunters may live, in return for ritual gift payments: gifts maintain cycles

behind the animals: keepers of the game, spirits responsible for the well-being of game animals, who must be thanked and supplicated in exchange for success in the hunt

orderly social universe maintained in mobile community by clearly articulated spatial relationships, representing male/female, old/young, single/married, individual/group: spatial arrangement of dwellings and communities reflected these relationships

variability of resource base (animal populations) required spreading of subsistence across numerous species, along with the maintenance of low population densities (Liebig's Law): low human populations essential for survival in environments where availability of food varied widely from season to season

V. The Planters' World

horticulturalists can be more sedentary, storing food in anticipation of hungry times when food was scarce, thereby evening out the seasonal variabilities that might otherwise yield hunger or even starvation

ritual universe applies here as well: cycle of planting, weeding, harvest accompanied by ritual dances, ceremonies

For an excellent concrete description with lots of examples and illustrations of what was involved in managing the seasonal cycles of horticultural planting and harvest, see Gilbert Wilson's classic Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden (1917; 1987), about Hidatsa horticulture along the Missouri River on the eastern margins of the Great Plains, available online at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html

agriculture often linked to seasonal hunting activities too: cycle of planting and harvesting crops tied to cycles of hunting and gathering in complex web of ecological and spiritual interdependence

storage of food critical to maintaining larger populations--and control of such stored foods also helped create the material foundations for more elaborate class hierarchies

except in Southwest, horticulture largely a woman's activity; mixed Mesoamerican crops of maize, squash, and beans were planted in polycultures that made optimum use of land while also yielding a harvest rich in calories and complementary proteins

VI. Fire and its Ecological Effects

native peoples used fire for clearing fields and many other purposes, yielding their greatest ecological effects on North American landscapes

use of fire occurred across the continent, with different effects depending on ecosystems: in Northeast, open, park-like forest in area around villages; in Midwest, the eastward extension of prairie grasslands was at least somewhat aided by native burning; in the West, drier ecosystems both limited the effects of fire and shifted species composition toward fire-tolerant species in locations where anthropogenic fire could make a difference

more often than not, fire also increased game resources by via what twentieth-century ecologists called the "edge effect": producing grassy, open landscapes favored by a number of game species

VII. Sacrificing Buffalo to Make the Corn Grow

fire represented a genuine manipulation of landscape we'd recognize as having been altered by human activity: European beliefs in "virgin land," unaltered by human beings, in many ways promulgated a myth that ignored the role of native peoples in reshaping many ecosystems on the North American continent

but for native peoples, their most important efforts at manipulation came through a universe of ritual gift-giving, honoring the mutual obligations among people, animals, and spirits:

Indian communities recognized their vulnerability to fluctuation in seasons, and sought to regularize their subsistence by supplicating the spirits responsible for controlling such fluctuations

all of these linked in ritual relationships: lecture ends with story of Pawnee chief Petalesharo being told by Quaker missionary that he should stop hunting, settle down, and depend solely on "civilized" farming; Petalesharo responded that to stop hunt would mean stopping the sacrifice of bison meat to the spirits responsible for overseeing the success of the planting, which in turn would mean that corn crops would fail.

for the missionary, this seems like a crazy idea...but who was right?