Respecting Nonhuman Beings
In the late 1990s, Cree elder David Bird visited my Aboriginal Literature class at the University of Winnipeg. Bird spoke of many things during the class, all in an unassuming voice and a polite, almost shy demeanor. One part of his talk especially sticks with me today: he spoke about his role as a hunter and stated that the greatest attribute of a good hunter was being “piteous”; the hunter must thank the animal for taking pity on the hunter and allowing itself to be caught. The deer permitted the piteous hunter to find its tracks and to shoot it, if and only if the hunter was respectful.
I have been pondering this for decades. I am decidedly not a hunter and have been a pescetarian (eating local fish) for over 20 years. But Mr. Bird’s statements have resonated with me, not in terms of how to hunt properly, but his very non-European sense of what animals are and the agency they have.
The concept of a closer relationship among the various beings on the planet is not uncommon and there are various versions of it in many First Nations’ traditions. Ethnobotanist Charles Hill-Tout noted that the Salish people believe(d) that when we eat another creature it has been “voluntarily and compassionately placed in [our] hands by the goodwill and consent” of the creature. This consent is contingent on the person meeting certain conditions of “respect and reverent care” before the honour is bestowed.
This way of relating to nonhuman creatures seems to me foundational to any human-led recovery of some sense of planetary ecological stability. A profound respect for the nonhuman would necessitate a more sustainable and healthier ecology and economy. It would not mean ceasing to eat plants and animals, but it would mean that these interactions are placed in a larger context of relationships. Dr. Enrique Salmón, a Raramuri, believes this relationship should be what he calls “kincentric”—all creatures are related and equal. The measure of how we consume would radically change because it affects our relatives.
For those of you who know an animal well—a family pet or domesticated creature—you know full well that the being in front of you has agency, thought, pain, communication—all the conditions of a fully sentient being. You also know that the “value” of that life is quite high for you, and that you are affected by its happiness or despair. Why would this value not apply to all creatures?
In Haida traditional thinking, the concept of yah’guudang governs the interactions between human creatures and non-human creatures. The term yah’guudang means “respect” for land and all living things, and seems related to the UNBC Dakelh motto en cha huna: “respect for all living things.”
I would not define myself as a religious person, and this all might seem a bit “spiritual” to you. It might be, but it is more about seeing beyond how we have been trained to think about other beings on the planet: seeing plants and animals in a different way; seeing how there might be another way. The new way of seeing has something to do with respect, something to do with our own sense of ourselves, something to do with being on the planet together collectively.