Calvin Luther Martin. The Way of the Human Being. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. xii + 266 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-07468-0.
Reviewed by Adrian Tanner (Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland)
Published on H-AmIndian (July, 2000)
Rethinking Our Relations With Nature
Wherein lies the source of the modern environmental crisis? Is it the genius of modern science single-mindedly dedicated to the service of consumerism? For some this is only a symptom of something more deep-rooted -- philosophical attitudes that support competitive values, and a worldview that provides a charter for the domination of an objectified Nature. Yet there are many indigenous peoples who claim a different understanding of the environment, along with a more harmonious relationship to it. Over the past few centuries this kind of disagreement has been a central theme in North American aboriginal encounters with European settlers.
Calvin Martin offers his sympathetic view of this indigenous perspective. Martin is someone who, while willing to question the assumptions of his own culture, tends to take the exotic beliefs of others at their face value. In his first book, Keepers of the Game, he noted that some North American aboriginal peoples believed that there was a pact of mutual obligation with the animals they hunted. Assuming this conviction to be unwavering, he posited an ironic scenario in which the Indians were blindly and self-destructively led by these very beliefs to over-hunt game animals. While the book gained him some fame among his academic historian colleagues, anthropologists generally rejected the thesis as lacking empirical support. Since then Martin has left the academy to more widely address North American aboriginal transcendental beliefs. On the evidence of his latest book, he now seems prepared to go further in engaging their exotic ideas at face value.
Martin begins The Way of the Human Being by generalising his earlier starting point, the aboriginal belief that animals are moral beings whose relations with humans are based on balanced exchange. He then goes on to construct a series of examinations apparently intended to poetically celebrate, as much as to logically demonstrate, the further implications and basic wisdom of this "profoundly courteous" aboriginal attitude to Nature, and to assert its superiority over the Western one.
Martin identifies the root of the difference in religion, particularly a wrong turn taken by humanity thousands of years ago, at the time of plant and animal domestication. He notes, "There is a growing consensus that religion as we know it [including gods, priests, calendars, sacred texts and liturgy] was invented to legitimate the presumption of the cultivated field and barnyard and shepherd's flock ..." (p. 9) - in other words, to authorise human control and exploitation of nature. Peoples who cultivated plants or raised animals for slaughter became enslaved to celestial time, just as for Martin academic historians have remained enslaved by linear time. But all is not lost; "... contemporary hunting and gathering economies furnish a window or, more appropriately, a membrane through which we can perceive that preagricultural, pre-pastoral realm - a pre-Neolithic glimpse of the earth and the heavens" (p. 8).
The ensuing book is one whose contents are difficult to briefly summarise. To share his diverse glimpses of the pre-Neolithic with his readers, Martin flits from one narrative strand to another, to many of which he returns periodically. These include anecdotes, aboriginal stories and legends, literary allusions, self-effacing accounts of his encounters with Navajo and Yup'ik, and historical narratives by European explorers, with the author speculatively providing a divergent aboriginal commentary. Some of the themes that emerge from these strands are familiar ones. There is the critique of conventional academic history, the idea of the potency of landscape, the implications of animals as persons, the human-animal kinship implicit in totemic belief, the meaning of the Trickster, and the corrosive influence on colonised peoples of the missionary and the bureaucrat.
Other themes were unfamiliar to me. One such is his analysis of a class of mystical aboriginal ideas that he brings together, somewhat idiosyncratically, under the term 'shape shifting,' and which he then tries to comprehend at face value. He asserts that quantum physics offers a surprisingly congruent perspective on this matter. When this branch of modern science found itself faced with issues of uncertainly, multiple realities and observer effect, it developed the concepts of 'super position' and 'nonlocality', which Martin argues are relevant to the otherwise puzzling phenomena entailed in the shape shifting idea.
As noted earlier, Martin suggests that contemporary hunting and gathering peoples afford a window on the pre-Neolithic. "Go find a functioning hunter-gatherer society and see what they think; I have" (p. 9). Yet such a "functioning hunter-gatherer society" is hardly in evidence in Martin's accounts of his experiences in aboriginal societies. His encounters with hunters - mainly among the Yup'ik of Bethel, Alaska - reveal a hunting way of life seriously undermined, sometimes against their will and in the face of their active opposition, but sometimes with their own apparent acquiescence.
It is hardly surprising Martin fails to present us first-hand with the pre-Neolithic, as the whole notion that cultures could be frozen representations of past stages of human development, while still popularly held, is highly questionable. Actually I applaud the author's clear-headed refusal to selectively present or romanticise his experiences. He speaks at length of the pervasive alcohol abuse of many Yup'ik. Nor does he present their social breakdown as a recent phenomenon. He cites the Yup'ik author, Harold Napoleon, who attributes the crisis to despiritualisation arising from the widespread epidemics and deaths of a century ago.
In Chapter Five he shows that, because of their beliefs about bears, the Yup'ik generally opposed the use of radio collars on this species by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. But he also shows that, despite consultations soliciting their views, these were set aside in favour of those of scientific game management. Given the general current predominance of government restrictions on their hunting, Martin tellingly asks at what point do the Yup'ik stop being themselves (p. 114). A hunter is quoted as saying that snowmobiles, aircraft and guns mean hunters no longer need rely on animals giving themselves to the hunter.
Given this not-quite-pristine world of the hunters, what understanding do we get of Martin's purported pre-Neolithic society and its worldview? The context of external bureaucratic influence and social pathology is not only disturbing, it raises questions about the Yup'ik beliefs he does present. Take the example of the Yup'ik man who agreed to a government game harvesting plan, but asked that it not be said aloud, since this would be offensive to the moose. From my perspective, this needs to be seen in the context of analogical thinking, rather than simply at face value as Martin presents them. In an animistic worldview, the transcendental is often humanly frail, seldom omnipotent. Entities in the realm of Nature that have human-like understanding may also have human-like limitations. Communications with this realm, as with other humans, may well involve deception.
A hunter is quoted as saying in the old days they were not supposed to declare they are going after a certain animal, as this would appear to be bragging, and presumably offensive to the animals in question. But it is unclear how we are supposed to understand what could be seen as duplicity towards animals (using the term in a non-moralising sense). By this I mean cases where hunting plans are made, but they are purposefully hidden from the animals, with whom one is supposed to have friendly relations and who are supposed to give themselves to the hunter willingly. In Martin's account it is unclear if these ideas a part of pre-Neolithic thought, the same thought after being subjected to an epistemological shift, or merely attempts to subvert the bureaucratic control of hunting?
While Martin asserts that Western religion is engaged in self-deception, he simply accepts hunters' beliefs, and does not ask if they might not also sometimes involve self-justification. On the contrary, his purpose is to show that, while most ideas that arose from the invention of agriculture and pastoralism involve falsehood, self-deception and conflict with Nature, only wisdom pervades the ideas of hunters and gatherers. Yet if the legitimisation of exploitation is a human potential, Martin fails to explain how pre-Neolithic thought remained exempt from what came to be central to post-Neolithic religion.
Martin representation of the Neolithic 'revolution' is close to the account of V. Gordon Childe,  even though more recent discoveries have necessitated its considerable scholarly modification. While Martin does concede there were several independent inventions of agriculture, he lumps them together without acknowledging that they spawned many traditions and diverse worldviews. Many agricultural and pastoralist peoples humanise their domesticated plants and animals. For instance, the Iroquois refer to domesticated corn, beans and squash as the 'three sisters' (like Childe, Martin never so much as acknowledges a North and South American Neolithic), and the pastoralist Nuer write poetry and sing songs to their cattle. Martin's references to the Navajo fail to mention their post-Neolithic economic base. Most problematically, Martin overlooks the influence of another revolution on the modern Western view of Nature, one directly involved in the encounter between aboriginal people and Europeans, namely the rise of industrial market capitalism.
Despite my misgivings, I cannot but admire the skill and sheer poetic force of Martin's prose. Nor can I discount his honest concern for the contradictions faced by the modern aboriginal hunters he has encountered. This is a highly literate book, disturbing but difficult to set aside, and one I found myself re-reading several times. I happen to be of the view, one that is now increasingly being questioned, that, left to their own devices, North American aboriginal people generally managed to avoid rampant overexploitation of their environment. Despite its appreciation of this way of life, in the end the book fails to comprehend the worldview the author sets out to understand.
. Calvin Luther Martin. Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
. Harold Napoleon. Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being. Ed. Eric Madsen. Fairbanks: Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska, 1991.
. V Gordon Childe. Man Makes Himself. London, Watts & Co., 1936.
. Shepard Krech III. The Ecological Indian. Myth and History. New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.
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Adrian Tanner. Review of Martin, Calvin Luther, The Way of the Human Being.
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