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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:

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Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies

Institute of Applied Sciences

University of North Texas


based on a new book


An Ojibwa Case Study

by J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson

Prentice Hall




I. Introductory Essay

overview of environmental ethics

worldview concept

methodology: literary/philosophical

tempered cultural relativism

tenability not truth

II. Ojibwa Narratives

collected in 1903-1905

by William Jones, Ph.D. (American Indian)

linguist, anthropologist

Ojibwa transcriptions and (rough) English translations

III. Interpretive Essay

literary/philosophical analysis of narratives

land ethics — Ojibwa vis-à-vis Aldo Leopold’s


Ojibwa: Algonkian speaking, woodland culture

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


At European contact living

in the vicinity of Lake

Superior, mainly to the south-

and northwest of the Lake


Ojibwa Texts, 2 volumes: 1817/1919

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-

fessional anthropologist.

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.


General scholarly goal

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-

mental ethic.

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.


The literary/philosophical method

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.


The William Jones Ojibwa texts

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.


Our book contains thirteen stories from Jones’s Ojibwa Texts.

Here I focus on two stories about marrying animals.

“The Woman Who Married a Beaver”



“The Woman Who

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.


Initial literary/philosophical plumbing of implicit and explicit

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 Woman Who Married a Beaver” (continued)

“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.

Preliminary analysis:

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.


“Clothed-in-Fur” (continued)

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.

Preliminary analysis:

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.”


“Clothed-in-Fur” (continued)

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.

Preliminary analysis:

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.


“Clothed-in-Fur” continued

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.

Preliminary analysis:

reincarnation again.

correct treatment of bones: keep them intact; return them to

their proper element; and they will be reclothed in flesh & fur.


“Clothed-in-Fur” (continued)

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.

Preliminary interpretation:

The dogs were not fed the beaver’s bones.


Initial literary/philosophical plumbing of implicit and explicit

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.


So, what’s up with these human-animal marriages?

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


Community membership as the foundation of ethics

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

reciprocal gift-giving

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.


The centrality of transhuman social relationships

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



Similarities between the Ojibwa

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).


Differences between the Ojibwa

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.


“A Moose and His Offspring”

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.


The fur, flesh, and bones of the Leopold and Ojibwa land ethics

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