Published on December 5, 2012 by Carol
Author: ROBERT BRIGHTMAN
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First published in 1973 by the University of California Press, this reprint uncovers the interaction between magico-religious ideology and hunting strategies among the Rock Cree of Northern Manitoba. For many hunters in this foraging society, says the author, the technical conduct of hunting and trapping is embedded in a complex social and moral relationship with intelligent, spiritually powerful animal quarry. In this relationship, which Brightman explores with sensitivity, the decisions of animals can facilitate or obstruct hunters’ access to them. Animals become, in consequence, the object of elaborate ritual treatment intended to maintain a continuous cycle of gift exchanges between hunters and prey.
Seeking an ideology, however, that formalizes Cree representations of human-animal differences and the relationships that should exist between hunter and prey, Brightman finds these relationships to be disordered rather than systematic. Images of animals and of the human-animal relationship, as expressed in dreams, myths, songs, hunters’ discourses, and ritual treatment of slain animals, are inconsistent. Animals are represented simultaneously as like and unlike humans, and as more and less powerful than their hunters. The hunter-prey relationship is talked about as both collaborative and adversarial, while the dominant ideology of hunting as reciprocity exists in unstable equilibrium with images of cannibalism and exploitation.
Anthropologists will see in Brightman’s discussion a challenge to prevailing ecological and Marxist approaches to foraging societies and strategies. Conceptions of human-animal relationships that are “religious” by Western definition have historically influenced Cree practices with respect to resource management, diet, food storage, and the Euro-Canadian fur trade. More broadly, Brightman maintains that subsistence strategies need to be analyzed in terms of the foragers’ own ethnoecological categories and postulates, both sacred and secular. Distinctively Algonquian conceptions of efficiency, risk, labor, dietary value, and ecological causation exert decisive influences on the organization of the Cree production process, and these conceptions are relatively arbitrary with respect to biological currencies and techno-environmental coordinates. Brightman’s perspective on hunting-gathering labor as symbolic action, reactive with but not derivable from human biology or ecosystem variables, is a major contribution to the study of foraging societies.