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On Indigenous People and Animals


 A couple of years ago I catalogued the dozens of excuses/rationalizations from well-meaning, compassionate people about why they eat animals, and all fell into one of six categories:

  1. It's what god wanted (and other versions, such as: That's why they were put on the earth. . . . By god.)
  2. God thinks vegetarians are evil, and we want to please god. Not to be confused with #1, this one comes directly from The Bible. Cain was a farmer, Abel was a herder. Cain was the bad guy, Abel was the good guy. Net message? Cain=farmer=evil murderer; Abel=slaughtered animals=victim/good son.
  3. We are physiologically carnivores. First of all, very untrue factually. Second, if the people who believe this would eat all of their "meat" unseasoned and raw, after having killed the source animal with their bare hands and ripped open the carcass with nothing but said hands and some teeth, I'd feel like maybe their argument was at least sincere. In fact, I'd even permit them to not ever kill anyone, but rather to eat the kill of another that has been quietly decomposing for a day or two, as many carnivores do. And let's not forget they'd eat no grains and the only vegetables they'd eat would be the partially digested ones from the stomachs of carcasses. Now, who's a carnivore?
  4. We can't get everything we need without eating animals. We simply cannot survive without killing them! It's us or them! Tell that to the American Dietary Association.
  5. We're smarter and more evolved and have more to offer the planet, so we should be able to do as we please. This speciesist rationale, also known as because we can, should be replaced with because we have a conscience. Because we have a conscience and can choose nonviolence over destruction, domination and death, we should. Why choose violence if you don't have to?

And my personal favorite:

6.  As long as you say a prayer for their souls and thank the beasts, you can eat them without bad karma, just like indigenous people. If you've seen Avatar, you know that this excuse has gotten a fresh boost from the people of Pandora, who, in their Gaia/Lovelock-ian splendor kill animals and teach the lead male, Jake Sully, how to properly do so. The lead female, while teaching Jake, is even excited when she shoots her bow and kills a . . . whatever he was. Of course, she teaches Jake the prayer that makes killing the animal all better. Not sure if the animal sees it that way.

If you're going to claim that it was good for Native Americans so it's good for us, please know that they had an ecological ethic that we simply don't share. They killed only what they would eat, used practically every part of the beast, killed him themselves, and didn't consider animals beneath them as we do. Saying a prayer and thanking the animal are parts of a larger spiritual context and a relationship with "Mother Earth" that most mainstream people in the developed world don't ordinarily live by. And yet they romanticize and even fetishize indigenous people's practices when it's to their advantage. The fact remains, however, that if you don't need to kill anyone to survive, no amount of storytelling and mythmaking (or myth borrowing/co-opting) around that slaughter excuses it.

Finally, as for saying a prayer for the soul of the animal you've just killed or are about to eat, I find that backward. When you eat the flesh of another, it's your own soul (if you believe in souls) you should be praying for. Ingesting suffering can't possibly be good for anyone's karma.

A disturbing trend I've seen among the used-to-be-called-New-Age, but now called "spiritual" people, is the co-opting of all things Native American (both North and South). They do their sweatlodges (I actually did one out of curiosity, and yes, it's really hot in there! And they make you smoke, which is something I am very much against and I'm sorry, but I don't believe that tobacco is healing my spirit). They have their dream catchers, their animal skin rugs and their drum circles. They burn their sage, they claim to have read all of Carlos Castaneda, and they couch their eating of animals in spiritual terms. They say they are taking the abundant gifts Mother Earth gives them and they are grateful for the sacred experience of  communing with her. The "sacrifice" of the animal will feed their souls. They speak of their part in the universal circle of . . . .

Are you annoyed yet? 

All of the talk of ritual and the flinging around of "sacred" and "spirit" doesn't change the cold, hard fact of killing someone, or having someone do it for you, and then eating that someone when it's not necessary–no matter who you are or what tradition you come from. But in my experience, humans will draw from anybody's history–or dig their heels deep into their own–in order to justify what they want to do: Eat animals because they enjoy the taste of them.

—Photo of dreamcatcher from Flickr user deimiannn

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rafeal Widad #

    May I ask one question?

    What can you do to change yourself? In this little 'rant' you are complaining about others and their wanton destruction of the world around them, their justification of eating meat, their other problems and attempting to ease their own conscience.

    What about you? Have you taken a good look in the mirror and found all of the bad things you were doing and attempted to correct or makes amends for them?

    Instead of pointing out the difficulties others have and your 'being annoyed' with them… fix your own life first…

    Then and ONLY then will you be able to offer at least somewhat meaningful criticism of another. And that will be because you attempted to live your life the way you seen fit for you to do… just like everyone else.

    January 24, 2010
  2. Mary #

    Rafeal Widad,
    I'm fairly sure you're not a regular reader of this blog. Perhaps you've never read it at all. Otherwise you wouldn't be asking that question.

    January 24, 2010
  3. What a great post. I'm bookmarking this. I've heard these myself. They get real tired real quick.

    I think I might have to discuss this on my LifeTips blog:

    January 24, 2010
  4. Rafeal,

    *I* don’t have to be consistent to level a criticism against an illogical or poorly reasoned argument: the reasoning remains valid (e.g., you are inconsistent if you believe both X and Y) even if I, myself, am a complete hypocrite, or make bad arguments. Nor do I have to be "perfect", for the same reason. By your reasoning, social progress would be quite literally impossible. Indeed, working through our own inconsistencies, and helping others to do the same, seems to be essentially good; a good definition of "reason", perhaps.

    January 24, 2010
  5. Rafeal,

    Why would you ask one question? Why would you even bother writing or posting your comment when you could have said a prayer to/for Mary via the sacred spirit? Why would Mary even need to fix her own life when she can simply make sure for certain…through giving positive chakra…. that she is communing with the spirit of mother nature in regard to fixing her own life. As long as one is grateful and channels that appreciation with positive energy out into the universe with good vibes it really doesn't matter whatever else they do.
    Please let Mary be as she is conscious of your spirit anyway…. and please use the sacred spirit of the great goddess to bring your worthy message to her or us… rather than post it on a blog website.

    Peace and blessings of love and life to all beings and you too,


    January 24, 2010
  6. I'm new to your blog, and thanks very much for a very thoughtful and provocative post. I too have been struck by the cynical co-opting of spiritual structures developed over centuries by cultures with efficient, thoughtful hunt-based economies, by people who are simply chomping down on factory meat and stealing this stuff in a bogus attempt to justify their habits. Not only is this morally and spiritually bankrupt, it is a thoughtless insult to people who wrestled with genuine moral conundrums and integrated their solutions with a carefully considered eco-theology. If you're buying hamburger at the supermarket, this has nothing to do with you, asshat! And, even if you're eating happy meat or hunting with a rifle, you better find some other way of justifying your choices. Thanks again – I'm now a fan, and grateful to Google Reader for pointing me here.

    January 24, 2010
  7. PS I used the past tense in my post above because this used to apply to relatively large numbers of people, but the numbers are now vanishingly small in North America.

    January 24, 2010
  8. Chastity #

    I swore I saw this posted awhile ago…I'm glad it's new because it gives me the opportunity to make this comment and have others see it. To add even more insult to the "The Native Americans prayed for them, why can't I?" excuse, it has been known that the consumption of animals was a European influence. Another excuse I get from people is "veganism is new, there were no vegans back then!" which is false because the term "vegan" was coined in 1944, meaning that vegans were the "vegetarians" and the "Pythagoreans" back then. Some vegetarians did consume animal secretions but many others followed a plant based diet.

    January 25, 2010
  9. Eileen #

    Thank you, Mary, for another great blog post. And I agree that "Rafael" must not be a regular reader because throughout your blog you've consistently looked at your own choices, admitted your own failings, and presented your ideas and opinions in a respectful and thoughtful way. I appreciate it.

    January 25, 2010
  10. Dear Mary Martin, what a great post! I am an AR blogger who tried to write these thoughts recently and was frustrated in the process. Your efforts here capture it well and helps me renew my effort.

    Writing it down was difficult for me because I truly believe in justice for indigenous peoples, who have been historically wronged (and still are in many cases such as open-pit mining).

    So it was hard for me to deconstruct the way in which their traditional respect for and co-existence with nature – with the context of survival – has been co-opted to excuse meat-eating in an industrial culture, especially by some non-natives.

    But this last year I'd heard two statements from non-natives that they eat animals out of "respect" like indigenous people and that the soul of the animal willingly gave itself to them, after they prayed, and one guy actually said they are his "brothers and sisters." This is so wrong it just begs to be refuted. You have done a good job doing it, in a short space.

    The people doing this live middle-class lives. They are not poor. They are certainly not starving to death in the wilderness. They can easily eat a plant-based diet and be healthy doing so. But they want to eat animals, because the like the taste of it. That is the reality, no matter the rhetoric they use.

    I believe they actually believe what they're saying, in a dogmatic way, on some level, but on the unconscious level they know it's wrong, so they justify it with Aboriginal religion.. This creates a split in them, psychically — a cognitive dissonance — that culminates in hatred for those who expose it — the vegans and animal rights activists. That is why they are defensive about it and call AR activists racists.

    No animal wants to die to become another animal's meal. And for these people to use indigenous culture – which was based on _subsistence hunting_ to excuse selfish desires – is just wrong.

    It's really about power, not justice – power over animals, power over other people. And it's also ironic – this charge of racism – because speciesism is the moral equivalent of racism, so essentially, by indulging in speciesism they are prejudiced against those who look different than them, thinking of them as inferior and expendable. This is the real racism.

    I also think that the non-natives who use this excuse are corrupting an article of Aboriginal religions by shaping it justify their self-interest in a context quite outside its origin. They do indigenous peoples and religions more harm that AR activists do, in this respect. It is exactly the same as the use of Christianity – another religion – to justify self-interest among some of its practitioners. Not all Christinity is used this way – much of it is very valuable and conveys a good message of love and forgiveness – but that aspect of it where the practitioner uses it to mask an evil deed behind the cloak of righteousness is a big problem. This is hypocrisy and abuse of power. Here we seem the same: the USE of First Nations religion, which arose in the context of survival, to disguise a morally wrong act as a good one because native people do it. And the attack on those who expose this evil as racists, which is the modern equivalent of heretic or non-believer, and carries with the price of social ostracization.

    Anyway, I could not find the right words to express my concern for animals who do not need to be killed to make meals for these folks. Thank you to Mary Martin for saying what I wanted to say and what needed to be said!

    August 6, 2010
  11. Liz #

    so let's not kill any animals. at all. they will reproduce and overpopulate. I love animals, I really do- lots. but there's a balance.
    also, let's say I prefer to hunt some deer every season instead of buying packaged store meat. Let's say I eat this deer, use the hide for clothing, and the remains to compost my garden in order to grow vegetables.
    we kill too many animals right now, for sure… but there's a balance. we just need to find it.
    I'm glad to see this post. You make a strong argument and excellent points, I appreciate seeing this side of things put so eloquently.

    November 14, 2011
  12. Liz, in wilderness areas, animal populations manage quite nicely without human intervention. Even in suburban areas, there is wide disagreement on what constitutes deer "overpopulation."

    Humans are the only species that populates out of control. I don't imagine you're in favor of a "balance" that lets us "cull" some humans, and use all their body parts. That's because you respect human indivduals' lives. Please show the same respect for nonhumans; they enjoy their lives and want to live just as much as humans do. I say this not as a "gotcha" but as a heartfelt plea.

    But for lack of funding and lack of will, there are nonviolent deer population management methods that will work just fine. Anyone who loves animals should advocate for those as strongly as possible. (Note: At one time trap-neuter-return was pooh-poohed as a feral cat management strategy; now it is widely used by municipalities and businesses throughout the world. Where there's a will, there's a way.)

    If you're concerned about habitat and species preservation worldwide, one of the best things you can do is go vegan. If you consume no other animal products other than deer you kill, you're almost there.

    Our "balance" should be to strive to act with compassion and empathy, and to refrain from inflicting avoidable harm.

    December 2, 2011
  13. Although the Indians seemed to have much more sensible policies toward the environment than we do today, they weren't cookie-cutter monolithic and they weren't perfect. No culture is. Some tribes were violent. Others were peaceful, and mostly vegetarian, making clothes from fibers and dwellings from earthen materials, and cultivating a diversity of grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.

    We honor neither the Indians nor the animals by pretending that we have the same constraints today that Indians had hundreds of years ago. We honor both by striving to do as little harm as possible to animals and nature, and today, for most of us in the developed world, that includes going vegan. Our ancestors would be proud of us for moving forward.

    December 2, 2011

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