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The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the Worldby Hugh Brody
The Other Side of Eden
Imagine the crystal darkness of an arctic night. A canopy of stars and a glowing arc of aurora, the northern lights. A vast astral flickering and dancing; yet a sense of eternal, unmoving space. Under the moonlight, the surface of the world shines and fades into the distance. The sky is cloudless, open, with clearness that is like a sound, a crackling of frozen silence that many arctic travelers claim to be able to hear. And there is a wind, strong enough to blow the snow across the ice.
I was traveling by dog team with Paulussie Inukuluk. He was taking me to hunt seals at their breathing holes, in a favored area beyond a headland that shapes the southeast corner of Bylot Island. We crossed the sound in front of Pond Inlet and followed the coast of Bylot Island, moving on bumpy sea ice. I was half running, half stumbling beside the sled, while Paulussie ran alongside the dogs, urging them on. I remember a particular moment, close to the shore, when I lost my footing, almost fell, and stopped.
The entire surface of the world was flowing along at knee height. There were no features to the earth; the dog team was half immersed in this strange current of snow. I stood long enough for the sled and Paulussie to be no more than a blurred, gray movement at the edge of the light. I was encased in caribou skin clothing--parka, trousers, socks, and boots. If I faced away from the wind, I felt nothing on my skin but the mix of my breath with the cold air. The world before me was as a vision, an unbelievable magnificence that filled me with awe, disbelief, and at the edge of my mind, real fear. I began to run, as fast as I could, on the uneven surface of the sea ice, my feet invisible in the layer of blowing snow, to catch up with Paulussie and his dogs.
This moment is held in my memory like a film clip--vivid, available for recall, but distanced by time and strangeness. There is a sense in me of a mystery. It comes to mind now, as I begin to write again about the words and people of the North.
In 1969 I spent five months living on the skid row of a Canadian city. Most of the people I met there had lived, or identified themselves and their ancestors, as members of "Indian" communities. I put quotes around "Indian" because it is a word Europeans brought to the Americas and used to categorize a huge range of peoples--none of whom, of course, had any connections with India. What the people I met had in common was that most of them had grown up in societies that were, or had been, dependent on hunting and gathering.
Two years later, in 1971, I first went to the Arctic. I lived and worked in several regions, encountering many people who had lived much of their lives as hunter-gatherers. From then until now, I have continued to work with hunter-gatherer communities, as anthropologist, land-claims researcher, filmmaker, and twice as expert witness in land-rights court cases.
For all that I had written about hunter-gatherer societies, I was left with a deep conviction that I had yet to write about that which is most important. Something lay there that eluded not just me, but many who have experienced another way of life. We write about some facets of it, some surfaces, that we make our business. But the gold we find is transformed by the reverse alchemy of our journey, from there to here, into lead. Not into nothing, not into worthlessness, but into a substance that has more weight than light, more utility than beauty, is malleable rather than of great value. What is this reality that gets left behind? It is not simply some kind of otherness. In fact, anthropologists are often skillful at crossing divides between peoples in their fieldwork, but clumsy when it comes to writing up the "findings." Perhaps the desire for the esteem of peers and critics leads to a tendency to make things unduly complicated or scholarly or heroic--depending on the audience we most need to impress.
This book draws on all parts of my work; it is rooted in my experience of hunter-gatherer ways of being in and knowing about the world. In many ways it is a personal account, with memories of people and places that influenced my life. The influence has been on how I see and understand both history and society, so this book is also about ideas. Several important points need to be made at the outset.
There are virtually no people in the world today who live purely as hunter-gatherers. Many kinds of colonial process have transformed peoples' economic lives, even in the remotest areas. Those who see themselves as hunter-gatherers, and are seen as such by their neighbors, may also be part-time laborers, do bits of farming, have domestic animals, or rely on welfare payments and state pensions. Nonetheless, there are many individuals, families, and societies for whom their way of raising children, using land, and speaking of their culture is rooted in hunter-gatherer heritage. This is something about which people are often proud, and they do what they can to secure it against the incursions and criticisms of others, including the insistence by some anthropologists that hunter-gatherers themselves are a kind of myth. My book takes its inspiration from the courage and determination these people have brought to their struggle for survival, as well as from their skills and wisdom.
It must also be said that I have lived and worked in hunter-gatherer societies as a man; this places a limitation on what I have experienced. I learned far less about gathering than about hunting. I saw far less in the domestic sphere than I did on the land. In reality, the economic, social, and political lives of the peoples I knew were as dependent on women as on men. Despite this imbalance in how I spent my time, I hope to pass on what hunter-gatherers can teach us not only about their own particular human genius but also about human history. I invite readers who are not experts in anthropology, archaeology, or linguistics to come on an exploration that leads to wild places, harsh climates, and concepts that may seem to lie beyond most people's actual and intellectual geography, but are, in reality, central to the history of all societies.
My work relies on that of many others. I have found information and inspiration in a wide variety of sources. There are also passageshere that need some degree of qualification or explanation. To avoid burdening the text with too many references and refinements of argument, I have created a set of endnotes. They are--tike much of the knowledge they refer to--a sort of shadow text.
It is not easy to write about other peoples without falling prey to conceptual and political misconceptions. The stereotypes that capture and tend to diminish tribal peoples in general, and hunter-gatherers in particular, are pervasive and powerful. I attempt to combat some of these stereotypes here. But I would like to establish, as a way of introducing these stories of exploration, three pivotal ideas.
First, hunter-gatherers live at what have become the margins of the "developed" world. Development means profitable farming and towns that exist thanks to the farms that feed them. Where farming is judged not to be possible or profitable, hunter-gatherers can sometimes continue to use and occupy their lands. At these margins, two ways of life meet and sometimes overlap. Yet there is a profound difference between these two ways of life, and an equally profound difference between the peoples who practice them. That difference is at the heart of what I have set out to explore.
Second, the difference between hunter-gatherers and farmers, or between hunter-gatherers and all other peoples, has nothing to do with evolution or with supposed levels of civilization or development. Hunter-gatherers live at the margins of the farmer's world; farmers live at the margins of the hunter-gatherer's world. Each way of life is the center of its own universe. This book places the sophistication of hunter-gatherers alongside the achievements of farmers. Hunter-gatherers, like other peoples, use whatever technologies are available to them, including guns, engines, and manufactured food, and they participate in national economic life insofar as they are able. We are all contemporaries, whatever lands we live on and whatever heritage we rely on to do so. All human beings have been evolving for the same length of time.
Third, a crucial difference between hunter-gatherers and farmers is that one society is highly mobile, with a strong tendency to both small- and large-scale nomadism, whereas the other is highly settled,tending to stay firmly in one particular area or territory. This difference is established in stereotypes of "nomadic" hunters and "settled" farmers. However, the stereotype has it the wrong way around. It is agricultural societies that tend to be on the move; hunting peoples are far more firmly settled. This fact is evident when we look at these two ways of being in the world over a long time span--when we screen the movie of human history, as it were, rather than relying on a photograph.
In one important way, hunters and farmers are not equals. Agricultural peoples, especially in the world's rich nation-states, are numerous, immensely rich, well armed, and domineering. Hunter-gatherers are few in number, poor, self-effacing, and possessed of little military strength. The farmers have it in their power to overwhelm hunter-gatherers, and they continue to do so in the few regions of the world where this domination is not already complete. Yet hunter-gatherers have experience and knowledge that must be recognized. Their genius is integral to human potential, their skills are appropriate to their lands, and their rights are no less because their numbers are small. Political inequality, hostile and racist stereotypes, and conflicts of interest over land have created incomprehension and suspicion of hunter-gatherers. The powerful find it difficult to listen. But listening is what must happen, somehow, on every frontier, for only if the powerful listen will the needs and rights of the vulnerable be respected.
I, as narrator, am in many of the episodes I use here to reveal peoples' needs and rights. At the same time, I reach for underlying ideas, linking societies across great distances and over immense spans of time. I therefore take a double risk: of being both too personal and too theoretical. I take this risk because I believe there are lessons to be learned from the hunter-gatherer world that go to the core of who we are as human beings. These are lessons about the nature of history, the way in which those who dominate the world have achieved their ends, and the extent to which language is inseparable from the identity and well-being of any people. There may also be lessons and explanations, of a kind, for some of the malaise and sense of inadequacy that afflict so many of us.
The journey from personal memories of the Arctic to these speculations is dependent on many trails. These trails come from places where I have worked as an anthropologist and filmmaker but lead into the meaning of myth, into issues of language and archaeology, into the history of many aspects of the human condition. The trails cross one another often and are never far apart. When ideas and experience are set side by side, each makes more sense of the other. But the truth is that I begin with memories of the North and move from there to what I have learned.
The Other Side of Eden explores an original and fundamental frontier, and therefore it is about the history that has shaped us. It is a search for what it has meant, and can mean, to be a human being. The book's title is intended to evoke somewhere not within the usual divides, somewhere not heaven or hell, not modern or ancient, not civilized or primitive, but a place where all human beings can be more fully themselves.
Imagine the darkness of the far north. Not as something in which the adventurous traveler moves in awe, but as a beginning, for those for whom the Arctic is home. Imagine the inside of a skin tent, or a snowhouse, or a government-regulation low-rental prefab. In this home, an Inuit baby girl wakes in the night. She is held, fed, cuddled--and talked to.
What words does she hear? The sounds of whoever is talking in the same space. The voice of her mother, encouraging her to eat. Words that tell the baby, over and over, that she can decide when to feed, when to stop feeding. Words of endorsement. After feeding, the baby girl dozes. With words of welcome, she is lifted into the amautik, the pouch shaped into the hood of her mother's parka, where she can lie curved against her mother's back. After a while, the baby begins to defecate. The mother, sensing the movements, lifts her out and holds her over the ground, murmuring encouragement. "Unakuluk, anatiakulugit." "This sweet little one, have a lovely little shit." The mother wipes her baby's bottom, saying "Kuinijuannu saluitutinnai." "Gorgeous and plump, aren't you nice and clean." The mother's father comes over to watch his granddaughter being wiped. He leans forward, his face close to the baby's, and talks to her softly: "Nuliakuluga. Nuliagauvit? Ii, nuliaga una." "Sweet little wife. Are you my wife? Yes, this is my wife." The baby's mother smiles, holding her daughter for her father to adore, and says, "Anaanangai. Ii, anaanagauvutit." "Mother? Yes, you're my mother."
In these words, the child is given the sounds of love and can know that she is safe. Not safe just to feed, to sleep, but safe to do these things as and when she wants. For she is a baby who carriesthe atiq, the spirit and name, of her late grandmother. She is the adored baby; she is also her mother's mother, her grandfather's wife. Her grandmother is alive again in the baby. This means the baby is doubly and trebly loved. And she must be treated with respect. She can no more be denied food or refused the choicest morsels, be told to sleep when she wants to be awake or told to wake when she wants to be asleep, or be chided for being dirty than could her grandmother, were she still alive. But her grandmother is alive--in this baby who is also someone else. To her grandfather she will be "wife," and with this word, as well as all the pet names he used for his dead wife, he will call out to her. And the baby's mother will address her child as both "daughter" and "mother."
Imagine this little girl a year or so later, as she learns to speak. Like children in all societies, after making all possible human sounds, she learns to use the special consonants and vowels of her own language. Then some simple words. She begins to name things. Here, in the corner of her home where food is stored, is the body of iqaluk, an arctic char; the flipper of qairulik, a harp seal; the skin of natia, a juvenile ringed seal. Outside are the skins of nanuq, a polar bear, and several tiriganiat, arctic foxes. But there is no "fish," "seal," or "bear." In the Inuktitut the child learns, there are no such categories. It is the specifics of the natural world that are named. As the child gets older, she will learn to speak of puijit, the "breathers" that are the sea mammals; and of uksuk or tunuk, the fat of sea creatures or land creatures; and of sijjarsiutit, the "shoreline seekers," wading birds. But she will not hear generic words for mammal, fat, or bird.
From the beginning of her life, the little girl will listen to stories. No one censors or limits that which is told. Her ability to make sense of what she hears is the only constraint. Her grandfather may give the details of the creation of sea mammals, at the earliest time of the world in which Inuit now hunt, with all its sexual and bloody details. He may tell a comic story about jealousy and fear. The small child listens for as long as she wishes--she is, after all, also her own grandmother. And she discovers that stories are always a mystery, for they have much that cannot be understood, and much that comesfrom knowledge and experience beyond understanding. There are words she knows, things she can make sense of; and these are both the border and the small gateways to an immense edifice of facts that she may not understand in any full way, but that creates questions, wonder, and puzzlement.
As she gets older, the child recognizes stories. Stories that are told many times. Details vary, but the same characters and principal events recur. This repetition is both the lessening and the maintaining of mystery. For the stories tell of events that are inexplicable and use words that are incomprehensible. No one would claim to understand every part of these stories, or to have a ready explanation for people, events, or processes that are confusing and strange. These are stories that defy any complete understanding. To tell and to listen to them is to experience the delight and enigma of incomprehension. Mysteries are repeated, not explained. The ultimate wonder about the world remains.
As the little girl learns to be with her friends, in the community of children who roam on the tundra, play on the sea ice, share chores in one another's homes, or sit listening to the talk of adults, she hears the ways in which people deal with one another. She will notice the way in which individual choices are respected. More and more she discovers that she is embedded in a web of relationships that link her, through her atiq, to so many others. Her uncle calls her "mother," and she can call him "son." Some of her playmates are both cousin and nephew or niece. Others are her in-laws because they are her grandfather's siblings, or her sisters and brothers because they have the atiq of one or other of her grandmother's brothers and sisters.
The words with which the girl is addressed place her in a group of families, in a community. They also show that she is an individual--child and adult. She has a large, strong, unquestionable family, but she is expected to make her own judgments, take her own initiatives, be clear about her own needs and preferences. She is given a place in a system that is both communal and individualistic.
She hears men and women talk about where they have hunted, gathered, and traveled, and she begins to learn the names of the landaround her. She learns that many animals have to be given water when they are killed to ensure that some of their number will be willing to die again when she and her family need food. She discovers that animals and humans must be at peace with one another. Inuktitut has no words for "vermin" or "weed". There is no demarcation between the life of an animal and that of a human--no word for "it." There is no hierarchy of classes of people or, within her community, of rights to use land. Bit by bit, she will come to understand that the world around her is shared both among people themselves and between people and the other creatures that belong there.
She hears individuals referred to as the miut of particular places. They are "of" this or that hunting area, or a particular camp, or even of a country. She learns that she is a miutaq of both where she now lives and the place her family thinks of as home, an area where they lived when they were young. In these places nunaqarpuq: "she has land." Not land that she can buy and sell. Dealing of this kind is only in relation to whites and their trading posts or shops. Money, brought to the North by newcomers, is called kiinaujaq, "resembles a face"; its archetype is coins that showed the faces of monarchs and presidents. Beyond kiinaujaq there is no medium of exchange. Inuit did not have title deeds or contracts, prices or measurements of equivalent value. Inuktitut is without the categories and mathematics on which these depend. There are numbers for one to five, and words for ten and twenty, but no arithmetic system beyond these. The ways in which the girl's elders talk of belonging to or living in the places they have always known show her that the land all around her is irreducible, indivisible, and inalienable.
This land to which she belongs is the subject of many kinds of stories. Stories about its creation, or the first appearance of various creatures. Stories about traveling on it and living from it. She listens to her elders describe ancient times and recent times, passing on their knowledge about what this place is, what inner meanings it may hold, how best to make use of its creatures. From stories of creation and the hunt the girl builds an image, or a set of images, of her world. As in all great narratives, history, geography, personal adventure, and mysteries intertwine. There are misadventures, murder, andstarvation, to be sure, but spiritual powers and every kind of humor mean that even the worst is part of being in the best possible place, in one's own land. Inuit nunangat, "the people's land"--the expression Inuit use for referring to their part of the world--is an ideal. To change or abandon such a place, according to this worldview, would be dangerous and foolish.
Thus is it possible to imagine this girl growing into the mind and land of Inuit culture, which is the northernmost example of hunter-gatherer societies. To go to the far north is to visit the most recent frontier between the languages of hunters and the languages of farmers--a place where it is possible to experience the divide between these two ways of being in the world. It is also the place where those who wish to describe this frontier, and the encounter between hunters and farmers, can experience some of the deepest difficulties with language--that of the hunters as well as their own.
Copyright © 2000 by Hugh Brody All rights reserved
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