Europeans and immigrants believe that meat is a critical part of the human diet, but ancient Native Americans had a much more varied diet. Linda Fisher believes her American Indian ancestors would say it’s time to stop the suffering and the killing.
14 August 2011
Amid my large colorful paintings and hundreds of nonhuman animal photographs, hangs a small black-and white photograph—carefully placed in a shrine-like niche. This picture of Chief Seattle is the focus of my studio.
Being part Ojibway and Cherokee, I attend powwows and other Native American functions and proudly wear my inherited Ojibway beaded jewelry.
But as I become lost in the hypnotic and joyful sounds of drumming, I cannot ignore the uneasy feeling that consumes me as I glance around: Hundreds of leather goods, feathers, and trinkets made of nonhuman animals’ bodies—bear claws, cougar teeth, turtle shells, and whalebones—surround me, all in the name of the proud Indian and commercial trade.
I feel torn and saddened by what I see.
In modern Western culture, most of us, including the American Indian, no longer need to hunt to survive. However, we almost always associate the Indian—even today’s Indian—with wearing and using nonhuman animals’ hides, furs, and feathers.
I assure you, even though I avoid hides and furs and choose a vegan diet, my Indianness is critical to who I am.
The same is true of my mother, who is both an elder of our Ojibway tribe and a vegetarian. It is not our dark hair, dark eyes, or Indian facial features that speak for who we are, but something much deeper, something not visually apparent: our commitment to the teachings of our ancient Ojibway ancestors.
When I am uneasy, surrounded by furs and hides amid my own people, I reflect on the words of Chief Seattle. His wisdom inspires me, and makes me proud of my Indian heritage. Chief Seattle was alive in the 1700s and was considered one of the greatest Indian orators. A man of great wisdom, he was honored and respected not only by his own people, but also by many non-Indian people.
Mostly, he spoke about our ways, traditions, and spirituality; he offered a simple plea to respect Mother Earth and Her living beings.
The Indians of yesterday were true conservationists. They understood the inherent dangers of overtaxing the earth and her creatures. So much so, in fact, that no species would ever be hunted to scarcity or depletion, not even for religious purposes.
There was a time when Native Americans were considered heathens because they regarded the land as Mother. They believed that not only nonhuman animals but also rocks and trees had spirit. Indians noted the Earth’s messages when they made decisions. They took their direction from nature. They killed only to stay alive.
As early as the 1700s, historical records indicate that the white man’s pollution and dirty ways offended Indian people. But as centuries passed and Americans became more aware of their pollution, the Indian concept of conservation and protecting the environment gained legitimacy even among non-Indian people.
Native American philosophy, once considered heathen and barbaric, is now an accepted way of thinking; in fact, it is now the politically correct way of thinking.
Yet, when I hear that some of today’s Indians are slaughtering whales in the name of tradition, killing eagles for the sake of ceremony, or destroying any nonhuman animal for the sake of vanity and “tradition,” I wonder what has happened, what has changed.
In a world where most people have traded in guns for cameras, has Indian philosophy become unfashionable and politically incorrect among my own people? Can we maintain such traditions and consider ourselves to be ecologically minded?
At one time Mayans sacrificed young maidens each season, throwing them into deep pits to appease the gods. Tribes in the jungles of New Guinea and New Zealand have recently practiced cannibalism for spiritual and religious purposes.
When Europeans invaded those territories, such religious practices were outlawed. So what about those tribes’ right to retain tradition?
Long ago, an American Indian ceremonial drum ended up in a prestigious, non-Indian museum, where it was safely protected in a climate-controlled environment—until recently.
One day the original owners began to fight a vigorous legal battle to retrieve their drum. The Native tribe regained custody of their sacred possession, and I felt a sense of vindication for my people. The drum would be used once again for ceremonial and spiritual purposes.
On reflection, I realized that this drum—protected and carefully guarded for over a hundred years—was instrumental in educating millions of people about the beauty of an ancient culture.
This drum will no doubt offer a sense of spiritual awakening for the tribe, but what about their children’s children? How many more decades of pounding can this ancient drum withstand? In time, it will disintegrate, and a piece of history will be lost forever.
Reflecting on the recent renewal of the whale hunt by northern tribes, I can’t help but see the analogy. The whale is like the drum. Perhaps it is sometimes better to protect and cherish what we have left so that our children’s children can also appreciate and witness the splendor of their history.
The conventional, Hollywood depiction of the Native American diet and lifestyle is false. The Americas were a rich and fertile land, providing plentiful berries, vegetables, nuts, beans, squash, roots, fruits, corn, and rice. Most tribal people survived comfortably eating meat sparingly, while thriving on the cornucopia of the land.
European influence introduced Native people to commercial trade, and fire power, and buffalo began to be killed in great numbers. Only recently has meat become an important staple.
Europeans and immigrants believe that meat is a critical part of the human diet, but ancient Native Americans had a much more varied diet.
Europeans are carrying their meaty ways overseas to other lands, as well. In China, meat is now served much more heavily in restaurants where European/Americans eat, whereas locals have for centuries eaten a mostly vegan diet.
It now appears that this introduced diet of “heavy meat” is harming native cultures and causing health problems such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Again I reflect on words attributed to Chief Seattle:
The beasts are our brothers, and we kill only to stay alive. If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts happens to man, for we are all of one breath. All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
As the new millennium approaches, it appears that the white man and the Indian are at last on the same course: Both white man and Indian pursue selfinterests without listening to Earth and other animals.
As I sit in front of my easel and a stark white canvas, I gaze into Chief Seattle’s eyes and wonder what wisdom he might share with us today. I believe that he would be pained by the death of millions of untold feathered spirits—for the sake of the pet trade, and for the sake of meat that we do not need.
And I also believe, if my Indian ancestors could comment on our present “right to hunt” in a world with so many people and so few nonhuman animals, that they, who listened to the land and killed only as was necessary, would not be wasteful.
I think my ancestors would tell us that it is time to stop the suffering and the killing.
This is an edited extract from ‘Freeing Feathered Spirits’ from Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice. Edited by Lisa Kemmerer. Copyright 2011 by Lisa Kemmerer. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This material may not be published, reprinted, distributed or reposted online without the permission of the publisher.
Linda Fisher is professional artist and animal activist, who has dedicated much of her life to educating society about the plight of captive parrots. She was thrust into animal activism at the tender age of 11, on seeing a tiny parakeet suffering and dying in a department store.
Linda soon discovered that she had an uncanny ability to communicate with nonhuman animals and to feel their emotions, and she was consequently inspired to tell their stories through art. Linda’s sensitivity and remarkable connection to other animals has gained international recognition for her work.
Visit Linda’s website for more information and to view her art.