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Why We Eat Our Relatives – Difference in a Not-so Post-Colonial World

January 31, 2015

Above: Daniel Heath Justice, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture; Chair of the First Nations Studies Program, University of British Columbia

by Rachael Nickerson, Comparative History of Ideas

Justice explained the Predation Perplex by asking, “What does it mean to think about personhood yet kill and eat beings we claim to be in deep relationship or connection with?” This question does not remain within the realm of animal rights activists. As Justice pointed out, there are various communities that believe that non-human beings matter and who recognize the significance of maintaining and rekindling relationships with the non-human world. However, these communities don’t always agree on how to show recognition of such personhood or how to define and acknowledge these relationships.“I have more questions than answers,” Daniel Heath Justice confessed to his audience huddled together in Thompson Hall on a Thursday evening in November. These questions made up what Justice calls the “Predation Perplex;” the subject of that night’s talk. Justice (Cherokee Nation) is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture and Chair of the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia. His current work explores other-than-human kinship in indigenous literary expression while considering where different ideas of kinship create conflict. In other words, Justice is examining some complex intersections.

Personhood, or what I see as the recognition of an individual with needs, desires, fears, and the right to pursue a life of their own choice, can be extended to non-human animals in a way that does not make them human but does make them a person. Whether personhood should be extended beyond human people continues to be a controversial topic in philosophy, law, and politics as personhood has specific ties to rights, protections, privileges, and responsibilities. Disagreements on personhood often stems from the fact that different cultures understand personhood differently. Justice offered an example of such disagreement from the Canadian Arctic – the current politics surrounding the Inuit seal hunt.

Hunting seals is a traditional practice for the Inuit of Arctic Canada. Those opposing the hunt, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argue it is cruel and unnecessary as modern culture no longer requires hunting seals for survival. Those supporting the hunt see it as a part of indigenous revitalization efforts and as an act of claiming cultural identity, operating independently from the colonial state, and supplying an important food source. Native proponents of the hunt consider this part of an active relationship between the hunter and the seal that both respects and acknowledges the personhood of the seal. For non-Inuit people, taking indigenous epistemologies seriously means considering it a legitimate possibility that the hunted animals give themselves to the hunter as a part of that kinship relationship. Aggressive disapproval of the hunt is seen by many as a continuation of colonial violence against the Inuit people who consider seal hunting vital to their traditional culture and survival.

Justice pointed out this challenge to Inuit sovereignty with frustration. He nevertheless asked us to consider the profound power humans have over many non-human animals in our lives. Even when animals are hunted with respect, honor, and recognition of their being, they die often leaving behind their own kin. “Do the ceremonies make it better? I hope so. Does hunting come without consequences? Absolutely not – our ceremonies even tell us so.” Acknowledging that animals do not want to die doesn’t have to dismiss the connection between animals and humans. “We are not the only moral agents,” Justice continued, “but we have the power.”

What are the connections between human and non-human beings? “We don’t come together smoothly,” Justice said, “and connection does not always mean understanding.” Kinship outside of the world of Disney is not a peaceful ‘circle of life’. Kinship is hard. Critical kinship asks us to consider not just what connects us to non-human beings, but also what sets us apart and what sets us apart cannot be universalized. For some communities kinship may exist on a material level while for others it exists on a spiritual one, or both. Justice wondered if it was possible to make room for those varying kinships, while also reminding us that a critique of kinship is incomplete without the recognition of the colonial and imperial histories that frame current human and non-human realities. As Phillip Armstrong writes in his article, “The Postcolonial Animal,” “several of the most potent and durable intellectual paradigms produced by European cultures at the height of their imperialist arrogance owe simultaneous debts to the colonial and animal worlds” (2002: 414). Humans are not the only ones who have been impacted by settler colonialism.

“Why do we eat our relatives?” I understand why Justice has more questions than answers as I attempt to chew on the politics of life discussed during his talk. I wonder if his cautioning against creating absolutes where there exists only a right or wrong is at least a place to start. “Hunting isn’t bad, but it’s also not inevitably good.” Our kinship with the non-human world is not innocent, but maybe that is okay and acknowledging this lack of innocence is a step towards responsibility and accountability to our various relations. Animal studies and indigenous studies have much to offer one another but having these conversations will not always be easy. Daniel Heath Justice’s work asks us to consider how to begin these tough discussions while surrounded by discomfort. “We learn so much from these conversations, but we don’t usually have them.” Making room for discomfort allows us to address the distances between humans and our non-human relatives, as well as between one another – human to human.

Rae Leigh Nickerson is an undergraduate student at the UW majoring in Comparative History of Ideas with a focus in wildlife biology and inter-species conflict zones. Her current research focuses on the return of grey wolves to the Pacific Northwest using postcolonial and post-humanist frameworks. Heath’s visit was made possible, in part, by a 2014-15 College of Arts and Sciences grant, “Comparative Intellectual Traditions: Indigenous and Western Worldviews in Area Studies.