Saturday, February 2, 2019

Reflections After Studying the Indigenous

A few years ago a bit of curiosity came over me about the indigenous of North America. Usually when people think about natives they think of the post-colonial era, and the political battles they've had with Europeans, but that's not what interested me. What interested me was what had happened during the thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

I wondered:
  •  How they survived
  •  What their cultural customs were
  •  About their religious beliefs

When I started out down this path it was difficult to find books on the topic, as a lot of what I came across focused on the colonial era. But with enough persistence I eventually stumbled on some decent books that had both compiled missionary accounts and given a good overview of how natives actually lived.

And after going through the books it seems like many Canadians have had their views of the indigenous shaded by the caricatures we see of them in popular media. Many of us look at Native culture as flat, two-dimensional, and, even if sub-consciously, inferior to the European brand, while in reality their lives were much more interesting than given credit for.

And while it may be true that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was a simpler mode of life, it was really just that - a lifestyle granted to communities who were in a different stage of technical progress, and who were based in a different environment.

But I digress.

The Indigenous in Contrast

What fascinated me the most about the Native way of life was the essentialism of their lifestyle. Because the majority of tribes in North America hadn't developed robust agriculture, their technologies were still fairly unspecialized. This meant that their way of life was 'close to the land' as they say, in sharp contrast to the Agrarian societies of the world.

The things they did to survive were closely tied to seasonal cycles, and subject to famine and the elements. They were close to nature.

This created a situation where the lives of different tribes were tightly tied to the environment they lived in. If they lived in the Arctic they could only hunt for animal life that lived there, and they could only build housing from the materials they had available to them. If they lived in Mexico they could only produce alcohol from the plant-life indigenous to that region, the Agave. 

But at the same time, and this is the kicker, when you pared back the complexity that was present in fuller, Agrarian societies of the world the basic elements of life were still there. Natives were not much different than those living in Europe:

  • their lives centered around finding food
  • they developed communities with a hierarchical structure
  • the family unit existed
  • they developed and discovered drugs and alcohol
  • conflict was a problem
  • tribal groups had religions and creation stories
The Agave

Indigenous Religion

One of the big reasons I set out to study natives at all was to learn about their religious customs. I've been studying religion for a few years, and the beliefs of hunter-gatherers was something that I'd not come across yet. 

One major thing I ended up noting here was that the religions of the indigenous were similar to that of Europeans in that they all contained a creation story. Before the invent of science the people of most communities around the world had a need to explain their existence, and so wherever you went in the Americas you'd find natives with beliefs about the world's creation and the Gods who controlled things.

The other major aspects of their customs were animism and educational myths.

On the first part, they believed that the animals they hunted had spirits, and that if they respected these animals it would lead to more successful hunts.

On the second part, in the majority of native tribes there came to be myths that were instructive for their youth. Children were taught that survival in the wilderness was serious, and that they had to adhere to strict rules and customs if they wanted to survive.

Flipping Over to Africa 

After studying the natives of North America I also spent some time with African culture. And in a lot of ways their lives were analogous with their North American counterparts. If someone wanted to study modes of living as a whole they wouldn't want to contrast different groups of hunter-gatherers, but rather hunter-gather communities with agrarian and modern ones.

On the whole I found it surprising how closely the lives of the African indigenous paralleled those in North America. Similar religions, similar hunting methods, similar tribal structures and habitation. In some sense their lives came about because that's what the environment dictated.

Wrapping Up

I know that blog posts and articles often have a teachable, lesson, or insight, but this one doesn't. Instead, this is just a topic that I've been interested in reading and writing about, and this site gives me a vehicle to do that writing. 

With subjects like this I'm also getting into territory where few people would have any interest, but that's not a concern. A while back I was writing on Medium and over time you could see the things people writing about becoming a bit clickbaity, and based on topics that would gather wide audiences, and inevitably profit. I'm not writing for profit, or for any other reason beside it being an enjoyable way to spend my time, and share with friends, family, and acquaintances.

And in that way writing about stuff like this is serving an even greater purpose than making money: doing something in my life that isn't about making money.