Dreams of Fair Game

George Woodcock

  • Maps and Dreams by Hugh Brody
    Jill Norman and Hobhouse, 297 pp, £7.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 906908 76 0

The White Man’s inability or refusal even to see the existence of Indian economic systems is the one theme that threads its way through the story of the New World,’ says Hugh Brody in Maps and Dreams. ‘European beliefs that hunting people occupied the bottom rung of an evolutionary ladder, together with contrary views of the hunter as an ideal of human existence alongside which contemporary European or American destruction of the Noble Savage could be judged and condemned, are two of the rhetorics that, in different ways, consign hunting peoples to the dustbins of history.’ Maps and Dreams is an impressive attempt to dispel popular errors about peoples whom anthropologists used condescendingly to call ‘primitive hunters’. Brody is also seeking to prove that hunting economies can continue to be viable even in modern North America, and that the way of life associated with them is worth preserving.

The attempt to prevent Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional package being passed by the British Parliament is one example of the militancy which the leaders of Canada’s native peoples have recently been displaying. Another is their revival of aboriginal claims to land use and, especially in the cases of peoples like the Inuit and the Indians of the boreal forests, to hunting territories. The growing sophistication of their campaigns has led, among other moves, to studies by professional anthropologists, sponsored by native groups with a view to reinforcing claims based on tradition and on tribal treaties with 19th-century Canadian governments. Hugh Brody was commissioned in 1978 by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs to study the economic and social systems of the Beaver Indians in northeastern British Columbia, whose way of life is threatened by the proposed Alaska Highway natural-gas pipeline. He went to live on one of the Beaver reservations, and Maps and Dreams deals with his year’s experiences, while also presenting the conclusions he reached about the viability, in the 20th century, of a more or less traditional hunting economy.

Brody had a number of advantages which contributed towards the cautious optimism his book reflects. First, he was moving into anthropological terra incognita. There has been massive research among Western Canadian Indians in recent generations, but it has been largely concentrated on the Pacific coast, where the sophisticated Kwakiutl, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, with their elaborate ceremonial life and their traditions of high primitive art, have lent themselves to the acrimonious disputes in esoteric jargon that delight contemporary academic ethnologists. Very little work had been done among the Beaver Indians before Brody moved in, and he started with a mind uncluttered by other men’s theories and presuppositions.

Brody had the further advantage that he was observing a hunting economy that still had a viable resource basis. The most famous hunting societies of North America, those of the plains Indians, were destroyed because of the virtually complete extinction of the great herds of bison on which they depended. But in the territory of the Beaver Indians, around the headwaters of the Peace River in the eastern foothills of the Rockies, the world’s densest moose population still exists and for millennia has provided the essential staple of the local Indian economy. Indeed, Brody conjectures that this corner of Canada may have been the earliest concentration-point for the proto-Indians who made their way from Asia into the new continent, and that the Beavers may therefore be heirs to the oldest continuous hunting economy in the Americas. There is not enough archaeological evidence to prove such a theory, but there is no doubt that the Beaver Indian way of life in the 1980s does combine archaic and modern elements in an extraordinary way.

Maps and Dreams is a double book: an account of Brody’s observations and experiences during his year of reservation living, and a statement of the conclusions he reached as a result both of his own experience and of his historical studies of the background to the hunter’s contemporary predicament. The division of intention is reflected in the physical structure of the book, in which chapters of narrative and chapters of exposition alternate from beginning to end. The narrative chapters are written with a directness and clarity that remind one of the fine travel accounts of Victorian field naturalists, like Bates on the Amazons or Belt in Nicaragua: one is pleased and surprised to find that anthropological writing can still be literature rather than jargon. Brody’s daily companionship with the Beavers and his participation in their hunting life bring his own attitudes and responses closer and closer to those of the Indians, so that in the end he is on their side, not out of theoretical sympathy or because he was commissioned by the Union of Chiefs, but because he has seen at first hand how efficient, in its own terms, the economy of the native hunters is, how content and happy the Indians are with a life that from the outside appears to be one of perennial destitution, and how effective in conservationist terms are the practices and techniques they have evolved over the millennia.

Those who are familiar with the elaborate culture, rich in ceremony and artifacts, created by the prosperous and largely sedentary fishing peoples of Canada’s Pacific coast, will find a simplicity verging on barrenness in the life of the still semi-nomadic hunters whom Brody describes. The Beavers would have found the paraphernalia of complicated ceremonial too cumbersome for their wandering life. Their ancient legends have been largely overlaid by haphazardly acquired Christian notions. They believe in sorcery to the extent of regarding no death as natural, and Brody describes a fight at a funeral between two women who differed about who had bewitched the dead woman. But he never mentions encountering a shaman or seeing any evidence of shamanistic practices of the kind that have been described among the coast peoples and the Inuit. Since such practices are widespread both in Siberia, whence they derived, and among North American peoples, it is unlikely that they have not survived among the Beavers, but clearly they were never revealed to Brody in a way he felt justified in describing.

His pattern of research did, however, lead him to some striking insights into the system of beliefs associated with the hunting life. One of his functions was to support the case for recognised hunting territories by working with his Indian informants to create maps showing the places used by the various Beaver bands for hunting, trapping, fishing, and berry-picking. He was surprised to find that mapping was nothing new to the Indians. Among them, as the title of the book suggests, it was closely associated with the faculty of dreaming. A good traditional hunter would often dream an encounter with a moose or some other big-game animal, and then, following the indications of his vision, go out and eventually meet the beast at the spot that had been dreamed of. But dreams and the power associated with them went far beyond mere hunting. For it was by dreams that men could find their way to heaven. The heaven dreamers were few, but their maps helped other men to find their way.

These native maps, explained to Brody early in his life among the Beavers, drift into the back of the reader’s mind as he is taken into the daily life of the people and follows the moose hunts and the beaver hunts and the sprees in town on which the writer accompanies his Indian friends. Obviously dream maps, where they exist, are generally kept secret. But towards the very end, when government and business bureaucrats visit the highway gas pipeline, one of the maps is dramatically introduced late in the meeting, when the Whites erroneously imagine everything important has been said.

But the people had more to say. The Whites may have completed their work, but now that everyone was eating the Indians’ food and talking to one another without agonising and distorting formality, the hearing could get under way on the Indians’ terms. Relaxed and scattered around the hall and kitchen in small groups, the visitors and officials failed to notice when Jimmy Wolf’s brother Aggan and Aggan’s wife Annie brought a moosehide bundle into the hall. Neither Aggan nor Annie had spoken earlier in the day, but they went directly to the table where the elders had sat. There they untied the bundle’s thongs and began very carefully to pull back the cover. At first sight the contents seemed to be a thick layer of hide, pressed tightly together. With great care, Aggan took this hide from its cover and began to open the layers. It was a magnificent dream map.

The dream map was as large as the table top, and had been folded tightly for many years. It was covered with thousands of short, firm and variously coloured markings. The people urged the chairman and other white visitors to gather round the table. Abe Fellow and Aggan Wolf explained. Up here is heaven; this is the trail that must be followed; here is a wrong direction; this is where it would be worst of all to go; and over there are the animals. They explained that all this had been discovered in dreams.

Aggan said that it was wrong to unpack a dream map except for very special reasons. But the Indians’ needs had to be recognised; the hearing was important ... Everyone must look at the map now ...

A map like this one illustrates how the hunting lore of the Beaver Indians combined accurate observation of the habits of animals with animist beliefs in a spirit world where men and animals come together. It serves as a symbol for the gulf of understanding between Indians and Whites which is the real subject of Brody’s book.

In his expository chapters Brody offers two themes. One is that hunting societies are far more resilient than was once imagined by historians and ethnologists. Our failure to understand this comes from our inclination to apply white standards of poverty to a society in which they are inappropriate. Beaver Indians wander around the country in worn-out clothes, sleeping in primitive bivouacs even during the winter, and to most white men they seem wretched and feckless. The real criterion, Brody suggests, should be not whether they still endure hardships that they have always endured, but whether their way of life provides a sufficiency of the things they need and want and a satisfaction in living. ‘There is a great difference,’ he remarks, ‘between a poor household that has a reliable and large supply of meat, and a household that experiences the remorseless and debilitating effects of urban poverty.’

As Brody demonstrates, up to now the Beavers have always had ‘a reliable and large supply of meat’: depending on the reservation and its closeness to good hunting grounds, they consume between one and two pounds of meat per day per head. Furthermore, as such a figure shows, the hunting economy of this northern people has up to now been remarkably flexible in adapting itself to the inroads of ranchers, miners, trappers, while still ensuring a very traditional way of life. The proof that this life remains preferable in Indian eyes to urban living is shown by the fact that the Beavers have chosen to stay on their reservations, hunting those of their old lands that are still available, rather than retreat into the towns, as some other Indian groups have done with socially disastrous results. An important result of Beaver resilience, as Brody shows, is the way they have developed their own ways of rotating hunting grounds to conserve their area’s limited stocks of food- and fur-bearing animals.

Now – and this is Brody’s second theme – the intrusion of large pipeline projects has led to the creation of a road and track network that in turn encourages the appearance in this remote area of many more white hunters than in the past, and the Indian hunters are facing a graver threat to their way of life than ever before. It is a threat which – Brody argues with perhaps an excess of optimism – can be met. ‘Again and again people have said that one or another Indian society was dead or dying – only to discover, sometimes fifty years later, that it was still alive. Indians in north-east British Columbia have shown just how resilient a society can be.’

Brody contends that hunting economies are still viable where there is land enough for stocks of wild animals to be sustained. It is a curbing of the white man’s insatiable desire to dominate the frontier that is needed, so that hunting territories can be preserved. The Indians must have their own lands, to do with as they wish, free from intrusion. All this, of course, is true, and Brody proves it by observation as well as argument. We go to a great deal of trouble to preserve animal species threatened by extinction, so that the full variety of the natural world can be preserved. Perhaps we should take as much trouble to preserve human life-styles so that the full variety of man’s potentialities can be sustained. For a day may come, as Brody suggests, when we shall be glad to learn from the peoples who have survived so many potential disasters.