MARRYING BEARS AND BEAVERS . AMERICAN INDIAN LAND ETHICS. AN OJIBWA CASE STUDY. by. J. BAIRD CALLICOTT. Professor. Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies Institute of Applied Sciences University of North Texas. based on a new book. AMERICAN INDIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS:
AMERICAN INDIAN LAND ETHICS
AN OJIBWA CASE STUDY
J. BAIRD CALLICOTT
Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies
Institute of Applied Sciences
University of North Texas
AMERICAN INDIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS:
An Ojibwa Case Study
by J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson
I. Introductory Essay
overview of environmental ethics
tempered cultural relativism
tenability not truth
II. Ojibwa Narratives
collected in 1903-1905
by William Jones, Ph.D. (American Indian)
Ojibwa transcriptions and (rough) English translations
III. Interpretive Essay
literary/philosophical analysis of narratives
land ethics — Ojibwa vis-à-vis Aldo Leopold’s
congregating during summer in fishing villages
harvesting wild rice and making maple sugar
also (among southern contingent) some
cultivating of maize, squash, etc.
dispersing to family hunting grounds during winter
internal organization: no tribe-level gvt; clan-structure
five major totems:
crane, bear, loon, catfish, marten, wolf
in the vicinity of Lake
Superior, mainly to the south-
and northwest of the Lake
by William Jones (1871-1909)
born of an Anglo-American father and
Fox Indian mother in Oklahoma.
educated at Hampton Institute, Harvard
College, and Columbia University (Ph.D.
under Franz Boas), was first Am Ind pro-
collected and transcribed Ojibwa stories
north and west of Lake Superior, 1903-
accepted a position with the Field Museum in Chicago, and (???!!!)
posted to Philippine Islands in 1907, there to be murdered by
natives whom he had gone to study.
To test perennial claim that traditional American Indian peoples had (have) more environment-friendly attitudes and values than their European-American successors—that they had (have) an environ-
Popular method: Interview contemporary representatives of tradi-tional Am Ind cultures.
Problems: subjective, idiosyncratic; liable to foreign influence and political spinning.
“Ethno-historical” method: examine historical and archeological records to ascertain traditional Am Ind environmental behavior.
Problem: behavior often not in sync with attitudes and values.
Worldview (in which environmental attitudes and values is embed-
ded) is collective and commonly held, not individual and personal.
A culture’s language and narrative heritage is a collective possession.
Analyze semantic and syntactical structure of Ojibwa language
(borrowed from A. Irving Hallowell and others).
Plumb Ojibwa narrative heritage with an eye to both explicit and
implicit assumptions about the nature of reality and the human
place in and relationship to that reality.
collected at a relatively early date—1st decade of 20th century—
before automobiles, snowmobiles, airplanes, radio, television.
among people living in a remote area—northwest of Lake Superior.
recorded, transcribed, and published in original (Ojibwa) language.
roughly translated into English (Jones’s plans to polish unfulfilled).
stories have a life of their own—quite literally so from an Ojibwa
point of view—and thus remain relatively static in the midst of
changes in other aspects of culture.
Thus Jones texts provide a window into preColumbian Am In mind.
Here I focus on two stories about marrying animals.
“The Woman Who Married a Beaver”
Married a Beaver”
Simple plot line:
Girl meets boy . . .
No, 1st girl fasts & “blackens”
preparing for an important
encounter. After wandering afar, she met a “man,” who, later we
learn, was “in the form of a human being” & who first invited her to
his home (which was very nice and well furnished) and then asked her
to be his wife. They lived very well by a lake and began to have
children. Only then did she realize that she had married a beaver.
Soon after they were visited by people; and her husband and children
would go home with them and return with all sorts of gifts—”kettles
and bowls, knives, tobacco, and all the things that are used when a
beaver is eaten.” That explains their great wealth.
assumptions in “The Woman Who Married a Beaver”
Outward form is fluid and ambiguous, independent of essence.
Even though the human woman evidently lives in the outward
form of a beaver, she remains essentially human (thus to kill and
eat her would have made cannibals of the people).
(2) Human beings and animals, though essentially different, have
similar affective and cognitive consciousnesses.
(3) Reincarnation: the slain animals come back to life; or as the
story first says, “the people would slay the beavers, yet they really
did not kill them; but back home would they come again.”
(4) The beavers profit by their intercourse with the people; they
receive reciprocal gifts and accumulate great wealth.
“The beavers were very fond of the people; in the same way as people
are when visiting one another.” Importantly, the woman herself never
went home with the people—until she grew old, whereupon she was
discovered by a man who was paying a visit to her lodge, and he had
reached in and felt that she was indeed a human being. Upon her re-
turn to her own kin, she told her story and brought back a message:
“Never speak you ill of a beaver! If you speak ill (of a beaver) you
will not (be able to) kill one.” The people heeded her advice: “they
never spoke ill of the beavers, especially when they intended hunting
them. [For] if anyone regards a beaver with too much contempt,
speaking ill of it, one simply (will) not (be able to) kill it. Just the
same as the feelings of one who is disliked, so is the feeling of the
beaver. And he who never speaks ill of a beaver is very much loved
by it. . . . Particularly lucky then is one at killing beavers.”
Much more complicated plot.
Clothed-in-Fur a human eligible bachelor.
Goes to visit his grandmother and courted by “Foolish Maidens”
(stock characters who appear in other stories).
Escapes their pursuit by climbing various trees and riding on leaves.
Hides in a rough ball that fills with blood of FMs trying to get him.
Emerges all bloody and washes his fur coat in two lakes.
The issue is Who will CF marry? The FMs are foolish be-
cause they think that they are appropriate wives.
When he finally escapes, he is transformed by a kind of re-
birth episode (bloody emergence) into animal form: clothed-in-fur.
CF meets and marries a series of “women” who too prove unsuitable;
they variously cannot carry their loads, move camp, are messy
he beats each with a stick and they reveal themselves to be
a wolf, a raven, a porcupine, and a Canada jay.
Then he meets a woman who is very good at making a fire & cooking
the beaver he brought home, but refuses to eat it herself.
He plants a poplar stick outside the lodge and hears her eating it and
when he peeps out to see, his wife is revealed to be a beaver.
The whole plot concerns finding the appropriate species for
CF to marry.
Each wife-species episode also has a culture-hero creation sub-
plot as CF names each species and declares “‘x’ shall you be called by
the people,” sometimes adding “here [habitat named] shall you live.”
By failing to follow a rule (putting a log over each watercourse he
crosses), CF loses his beaver-wife and their children.
Then he courts a bear woman who takes him to her “village” where
her father is “chief.”
There follow a couple of power duels (smashing a pole and a rock)
with a brown bear (grizzly?) and a white bear(polar?)—both
curmudgeonly—for her hand in marriage.
CF prevails but has to pass a test: staying awake for 10 days, but
fails and the bear village moves away while he sleeps.
When he finds the bears, he kills them all w/ arrows except the cubs.
Another culture-hero creation episode in which formerly huge
bears are reduced in size and the power relationship between people
and bears is reversed, so that now people eat bears not vice versa.
Meanwhile, back at the beaver lodge: CF is living there with his in-
laws, including Muskrat, whom he takes a notion to eat.
CF’s father-in-law gives him permission to do so, but warns him:
“Don’t break the joints at any place.”
After he had eaten, the (unbroken) bones were gathered up and put
in the water; and after awhile Muskrat walked in alive.
He kept eating various of his in-laws; once—just to see what would
happen—he broke a toe bone. That one came back to life but
with an extra toe.
correct treatment of bones: keep them intact; return them to
their proper element; and they will be reclothed in flesh & fur.
As in “WWMB,” the lodge is visited by people, who offer a pipe; and
all the beavers smoke (except CF, of course), as a sign that
they are willing to be killed.
Then—observing that the water level is low—the people believe that
they can just come and take beavers and so do not offer pipe.
The beavers are offended and refuse to be killed. The people try
the pipe again, but to no avail and bring dogs to help, but the
beavers shoo them away.
After several iterations of this, the beavers ask one old worthless dog,
“On what do they feed you?” Answer: “your livers.” Then
they allow themselves to be killed.
The dogs were not fed the beaver’s bones.
assumptions in “Clothed-in-Fur”
CF, like the WWMB, is an emissary linking human society to
specific animal societies—beavers in both, also bears in “CF.”
(2) The link is established through marriage—and just as in human
society, finding a wife of the right kind (clan/totem) is important.
(3) In addition to respect (which “WWMB” elaborates more fully),
the emphasis in “CF” is on the proper treatment of bones. In
“CF,” respect is symbolized by offering the pipe. (An additional
detail: the beavers laugh at the people “with a full set of teeth.”)
(4) The bones should not be broken—and other stories indicate
should not be burned—and should be returned to the habitat of
the game animal so that it can be literally reincarnated.
According to Calvin Martin in Keepers of the Game, “Nature, as con-
ceived by the Ojibwa, was a congeries of societies: every animal, fish,
and plant species functioned in a society that was parallel in all res-
pects to mankind’s.” Jones’s Ojibwa narratives confirm this claim.
Human-animal marriages are the means that human society can enter
into mutually beneficial relationships with various animal societies.
Between societies linked by marriage a gift economy can be set up.
People give the animals what they cannot otherwise acquire—various
artifacts (kettles, knives), cultigens (tobacco,) and r-e-s-p-e-c-t. And
the animals give people all they have to give—their flesh and fur.
Belief in reincarnation makes it seem possible
In other words, mythic human-animal marriages widen the boun-
daries of the community to include non-human nature.
From a communitarian point of view, community membership
generates ethical duties and obligations.
Jones’s Ojibwa stories clearly illustrate some of these duties:
a proper attitude of respect and even affection
proper treatment of bones
This suggests an interesting metaphysical hypothesis. The skeleton
—not the ephemeral soul—is the enduring entity that survives death
and reincarnates. Hence, its treatment is literally of the essence.
in the Ojibwa narratives and the duties and ob-
ligations they entrain suggests a comparison with
The Aldo Leopold land ethic.
Leopold bases his land ethic on the premise that
people are also members of a biotic community.
He follows Darwin in thinking that human ethics evolved to facilitate
social unity and cooperation; and that as human society
expanded in scope and complexity, ethics expanded apace.
Now that ecology “enlarges the boundaries of the community to in-
clude soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the
land,” a land ethic is mandated.
Which “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies res-
respect for his fellow members and also for the community as
And Leopold land ethics
greater-than-human (“biotic”) community concept as foundation
of ethical duties and obligations.
(2) fellow-members deserve respect (but can be killed and eaten).
(3) assimilation of animal societies to human societies
(in AL/LE “mouse engineers” and “goose conventions”).
(4) personification of other-than-human beings (in AL/LE “talking” /
“debating” / “grieving” geese “aware” of the WI statutes).
And Leopold land ethics
greater-than-human communities which generate duties are
more restricted in O/LE, limited to specific (game) species.
(2) Animals have duties to to people in O/LE, as illustrated in “A
Moose and His Offspring.”
(3) assimilation of animal societies to human societies limited to ob-
servable behavior in AL/LE.
(4) personification of other-than-human beings also limited to ob-
servable behavior in AL/LE—no pipe smoking / use of tools etc.
Moose family has a “youth” (teenager), who disparages human speed
Wishes for more snowfall / warned by father that human’s make use
of “bird-hawks” and “swans” to magically augment speed.
Hear drumming (magic) / receive pipe / all smoke except youth who
knocks it away / hunters come and show their entrails (as hunger index)
Hunters kill all the compliant moose, but youth flees, then bogs down
in deep, crusted snow and is overtaken by dogs and hunter.
Who does not kill him, but cuts off his nose. Others receive presents
and return to life and enjoy them, while youth gets nothing.
Moral: people fulfilled their duties, so animal must fulfill his.
Recall the metaphysical hypothesis that the essence of a being in the
Ojibwa worldview is not the immaterial soul, but the skeleton.
Treat it as a metaphor for comparative worldview analysis. The fur
and flesh of the two land ethics—their outward forms—differ;
the skeleton, the bare bones is the same.
The flesh and fur of the Leopold land ethic is the language of evolu-
tionary biology, ecology, and Humean communitarianism; the
flesh and fur of the Ojibwa land ethic is the language of myth.
But the skeletal conceptual structure is the same: human and
other-than-human beings are members of common commun-
ities, which generate ethical duties and obligations