The indigenous and modern relationship between people and animals

January 17, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIndigenous groups hold a fundamentally different view of their relationship to animals than do modern industrialized societies. The latter tend toward the view put forward by Descartes (1641) that non-human animals are simply automata, with no ability to reason or have an ability for self-awareness. There are exceptions for animals used as pets, and perhaps those living in zoos, but the general treatment of the vast majority of animals which reside within the agricultural, fishing and pharmaceutical industries belie a disregard for animals as sentient creatures. Even pets and zoo animals are still considered to be items of property without independent legal status. Opponents of these views, such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Defence League (ADL), are highly marginalized. Some religions also promote vegetarianism, such as Jainism where it is mandatory and Hinduism where it predominates, but the majority of people in the advanced industrial nations are meat and fish eaters.

Indigenous hunter-gatherer societies treat other animals as fully sentient beings which have equal status to humans, and must be shown respect even when they are hunted. Many of their spiritual beliefs and myths involve the movement between human and non-human forms, and even the development of humans from non-human forms, somewhat paralleling the theory of evolution. In this paper I will cover examples of the treatment of animals by indigenous peoples and show how this reflects their worldview of being within nature rather than the enlightenment separation between humanity and nature. I will also raise the question of which is closer to the truth, the indigenous or the modern industrial society practices and beliefs.

The Yup’ik Eskimo of Alaska view animals as non-human persons (Grim, 2001), and the ongoing relationship between animals and humans is central to their worldview. This relationship is seen as one of reciprocity, with the animals only giving themselves to the hunters who have respect for them as persons in their own right. The similarities between humans and animals are emphasized, rather than the differences. Both are believed to have immortal souls which participate in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. They are also seen as sharing the ability for self-awareness and the ability to control their own destinies. In such a worldview, humans are just one group of persons within a much larger group of animals which are also persons. The Haisla and Henaksiala peoples of Northwest British Columbia also share such a relationship with animals, as shown in the Legend of the Hunter (Harris, 2002). This tells of a hunter shown the personhood of animals by a mountain goat that had taken human form. The hunter was shown many other animals that had taken human form, reinforcing the equality between human and non-human. The Gwich’in indigenous population of Northern Canada and Alaska also share the same respect for animals as persons, and the ability for humans and non-humans to switch places. For example, Gwich’in legends have it that Caribou took human form before deciding to turn back into Caribou, and that a human turned into a Caribou for a year (Gwich’in Elders, 1997). The need to respect animals, so that they will give themselves up to the hunter, is a concept shared across the indigenous groups with a myriad of differing ways in which such respect is to be given. In the case of the Gwich’in and the Caribou, the many rules of respect include the imperatives that none of the killed animal must be wasted, that a wounded animal must never be left to die, and that no one must step in the killed animal’s blood.

The Rock Cree also see animals as judging the conduct of humans towards them when deciding whether or not give themselves up to the hunter (Brightman, 1993), including the treatment of the animals bones and blood. These are detailed in extensive myths that relate to animal-human relationships. As with the Cree, most indigenous hunter-gatherer communities have some prohibitions specific to women, especially during adolescence, menstruation, and pregnancy. The perceived impacts of lack of compliance can be both on the hunter’s success and the women’s fertility. These prohibitions could be seen as a way of the men keeping control over the high status hunting activities, but in many cases such women-specific rules cannot be seen to serve such an exclusionary function. For example, they do not prohibit Cree women from hunting, and those women routinely snare small game, trap furbearers and trap fish, as well as being involved in the hunting of larger game such as moose, caribou and bears. As Brightman notes “A man who would be outraged if his wife stepped over a beaver pelt will boast to other men of her accomplishments in trapping the same animal … Crees of both sexes say that women are especially lucky as trappers of martens” (Brightman, 1993). The practice of such prohibitions can be extremely variable between individual communities and households, as was observed by researchers working with the Cree (Brightman, 1993). The Cree also share the view of animals as having souls, and experiencing rebirth, in the same way that humans do.

The relationship between humans and animals seems to be substantially affected by the ways in which they interact. In hunter-gatherer societies where humans interact with wild animals, non-humans are seen as having a level of equality with humans. As humans gain more control of their environment through herding and agriculture their worldview does seem to change towards a separation with nature, and thus between humans and non-humans. The latter become more and more resources to utilize, rather than independent actors which have control over their own destiny. The movement from a hunter-gatherer existence to one of domesticating animals can be seen as a great watershed in human-animal relations, “Wild species that might earlier have been considered ancestors or embodiments of sacredness were increasingly classified as predators (on humans and their domestic livestock), quarry for human hunts, competitors for space and resources, vermin, or spectacles for observation as captives or in staged fights. The more sophisticated categories and conceptions of animals, together with the expert knowledge of nature that went with them, lived on in the groups that refused, sometimes down to the present day, to make use of the domestic species they had access to. But people living in domesticity generally looked down upon people living in pre-domesticity” (Bulliet, 2005).

These very different attitudes to animals can be seen in the livestock raising communities of the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard, 1940) and Sebei (Goldschmidt, 1976) where the herd animals are treated as property. The Nuer generally refrain from serious hunting, seeing it only necessary for those without cattle. With herding comes actions which hunter-gatherers would probably find deeply disrespectful to other non-human persons, such as the castration of bullocks. With the Sebei there is an ambiguity around whether or not animals dwell in the lands of the spirits, but it is instructive that in their creation myths humans and animals are still separate rather than being interchangeable as in many hunter-gatherer myths. Also, the Sebei myth of the original involvement of humans with cattle reinforces a hierarchical relationship between human and cattle, even while accepting that cattle can understand words although they cannot speak. It does seem that the lived experience of humans with animals shapes the way in which those animals are viewed. For hunter-gatherers whose experience is with wild animals, their relationship with the animal kingdom is one of equality and respect. For herders, which experience animals predominantly as domesticated creatures, or as threats to those domesticates, animals are seen as subordinates, property, and competitors to be kept at bay or eradicated.

Recent scientific findings point to some levels of sentience and self-awareness in animals such as dolphins (Lemieux, 2009), pigs (Bekoff, 2011), and cattle (European Commission, 2001). High levels of familial and emotional relationships have also been observed across many species, as I myself witnessed when helping to rescue a beached adolescent Beluga whale in the Arctic. A number of the other whales waited for the adolescent to be rescued and certainly seemed to celebrate when it was able to swim back to them. Such insights do not sit well with a ruling ideology which condones the mistreatment and over-exploitation of animals in many areas of society. A move towards the hunter-gatherer relationship with animals would both bring humanity closer to the scientific reality and bring a more sustainable relationship with animal species in general.


Bekoff, Marc (2011), Animal Emotions: Do animals think and feel?, Psychology Today. Accessed at July 9th, 2013.

Brightman, Robert A. (1993), Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships, University of California Press

Bulliet, Richard W. (2005), Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships, Columbia University Press

Descartes, Rene (1641, 1993 translation), Mediations on First Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Company

EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (2001), The Welfare of Cattle kept for Beef Production, European Commission

Evans-Prichard, E. E. (1940), The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press

Goldschmidt, Walter (1976), Culture and Behavior of the Sebei: A Sudy of Continuity and Adaptation, University of California Press

Grim, John (2001), Indigenous Traditions and Ecology, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions

Gwich’in Elders (1997), Nanh’Kak Geenjit Gwich’in Ginjik: Gwich’in Words about the Land, Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board

Harris, Ken (2002), Legend of the Hunter, n/a

Lemieux, Leah (2009), Rekindling the Waters: The Truth about Swimming with Dolphins, Troubadoe Publishing Limited

Roger Boyd

I have a BSc in Information Systems from Kingstom University U.K., an MBA in Finance from Stern School of Business at New York University, USA, and a MA in Integrated Studies from Athabasca University, Canada. I have worked within the financial industry for the past 25 years, and am also a research member of the B.C. Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) looking at the linkages between issues of sustainability and models of ownership and finance. Most recently I have completed a book, to be published shortly by Springer, titled “Energy and the Financial System”.

Tags: indigenous practices