Photography by Elijah Wesley
Text by Harvey A. Feit
Because animals are gifts, it is appropriate to ask Cree hunters, “Who gives the animal?” Their answers lead us to features of Cree logic and cosmology. Recurrent answers are that animals do not only give themselves, but they are given by the “wind persons” and by God (Higher Power, Creator, or Providence).
Just as animals are like persons, so are phenomena that we do not consider to be living. Active phenomena such as winds and water, as well as God and various spirit beings, are all considered to be like persons or to be associated with person beings. Because all sources of action are like persons, the explanations of the causes of events and happenings are not in terms of impersonal forces, but in terms of the actions of social persons. Explanations refer to a “who” that is active, rather than to a “what” (Hallowell, 1955) – the world is volitional, and the perceived regularities of the world are not those of natural law but, rather, are like the habitual behaviour of persons.
It is, therefore, possible to know what will happen before it occurs because it is habitual. But there is also a fundamental unpredictability in the world; habits make action likely, not certain. This capriciousness is also a result of the diversity of social persons because many phenomena must act in concert for events to occur. The world of personal action is therefore a world neither of mechanistic determination nor random chance: it is a world of intelligent order, but a very complex order, one not always knowable by humanity.
This way of thinking and talking captures the complex relationships among phenomena that are experienced in the environment and the world. In different cultures, people understand environments using analogies from their own experiences. Scientists, for example, use mechanical metaphors when they talk of the environment as having energy flows or having nutrient or material cycles, and they employ market metaphors when they talk of investing in the environment or the decline in biological capital, and organic metaphors when they talk of biodiversity and an ecosphere.
The Crees, for their part, know the environment as a society of persons, and this view emphasises the relationships humans have to non-human phenomena and the detailed interactions they have with them every day. Their view does not try to know an environment from outside but as a society of which Crees are part. It does not imagine environments without humans, nor does it envision the possibility of protecting environments by trying to remove humans. Environments are social networks of relationships that must be understood and respected by living in them.
For example, the relationship of wind persons to human activities and animal lives is constantly confirmed by everyday experience. The wind persons bring cold or warmth and snow or rain, and with the coming and going of predominant winds the seasons change. They are responsible for the variable weather conditions to which animals and hunters respond. The bear hibernates and is docile only in winter when the cold north wind is predominant. The geese and ducks arrive with the increasing frequency of the warm south wind and leave with its departure. In a myriad of ways, the animals and hunters, and the success of the hunt, depend in part on the conditions brought by the winds.
When a hunter is asked by young people who have been to school why they say that animals are given by the winds, the answer often is that they must live on the land to see for themselves. These relationships can be discovered by anyone who spends enough time on the land. The wind persons also link God to the world. They are part of the world “up there,” but they affect the earth “down here”.