To understand the climate crisis, look to Indigenous stories

Caribou. Image: Dean Biggins

Today is Earth Day, an event that becomes more important every year as the climate crisis escalates. Our collective failure to address climate change makes it clear that mainstream society needs to think about nature differently. Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. But Indigenous stories also suggest a different way of thinking about the natural world, as populated with sentient beings that have as much agency and political standing as humans do. In this excerpt from the forthcoming book The Nature of Canada, Julie Cruikshank shares her experiences of listening for different stories from her decades of work with Indigenous communities in the Yukon.

At a modest one-day conference on early human history in southwest Yukon, held in Haines Junction in 1982, scientists, historians, archaeologists, and members of local First Nations discussed the environmental factors affecting regional history. Late in the afternoon, Mrs. Annie Ned, then in her eighties, rose from her seat to ask, "Where do these people come from?" 

Having lived, hunted, fished, trapped, and raised children and grandchildren in the region, she regarded most of the participants as outsiders. "You people talk from paper," she said, "I want to talk from Grandpa." After sharing something of her experience, revealing radical differences between Indigenous and Western perspectives on the environment, she advised participants to "listen for different stories." This, she implied, required more attention, engagement, reflection, and curiosity than simply listening to stories.

Most of the Yukon women I worked with were born shortly before or just after 1900, and I expected to hear about the impacts of the Klondike gold rush, construction of the Alaska Highway, and the increasing intrusion of the state into family lives. The majority of the stories they asked me to record centred on an encounter between a human and an unexpected visitor who looks like an ordinary person but is soon revealed to be an animal in human guise.

From the beginning, in these stories, it is clear that human hubris has prompted this meeting. Sometimes the human protagonist is described as "playing with" or "fooling around with" an animal, offending that species. This act sets the story in motion. The animal-person entices the human protagonist on a journey across an identifiable boundary (under a log, through a cave, beyond the horizon) to an unfamiliar world often described as a white or colourless wintery place. They reach a village in which everyone looks human, but they are soon revealed as other-than-human animals, recognizably "persons," but animals nevertheless.

The human visitor struggles to make sense of it all. When the visitor feels hungry and asks for something to eat, the hosts are shocked by the choice. In one story, a boy lured away by salmon asks for fish eggs but, for fish-people, it is unconscionably rude to think of this as food. In counterpoint, the visitor's kin would never eat the food offered by the hosts. Everything is strange. Confusion abounds. This is a world turned upside down. Gradually, the protagonist becomes accustomed to the new surroundings but at great risk that acculturation will transform him or her into a member of the host species, unable to return to the human world. The rest of the story traces the complications of return; if successful, the traveller brings back specialized knowledge of value to humans who depend on that species for sustenance.

These narratives never identify what we now call nature as a separate category. Beginning with the view that knowing one’s environment is largely a matter of overcoming the boundary between self and the world, these stories mobilize a complex set of humans and nonhumans entangled in relationships characterized by transformation and mutual interdependence. Yet for all their initial strangeness, it gradually became clear to me that these were life histories, because they dramatized an ongoing concern about how humans should properly situate or comport themselves in relation to other sentient beings -- beings that many non-Indigenous people might now consider part of "nature."

To elaborate this point, consider Mrs. Ned's conversation with a wildlife biologist about the substantial herds of caribou found in the southern Yukon Territory when she was young. Scientists knew that two subspecies, Rangifer arcticus stonei and Rangifer arcticus osborni, had once inhabited this region, and they were puzzled by their disappearance in the late nineteenth century. In response to the biologist’s specific, thoughtful questions about these matters, Mrs. Ned volunteered a narrative about one of the last times caribou were seen in the region.

By Annie Ned’s account, caribou once enticed a man gifted with shamanic powers to follow them. He simply disappeared. Sometime later, his kinsmen saw what appeared to be a single caribou on the lake ice, but when they heard the animal singing the shaman’s song, they understood that he had been transformed, and they recognized their obligations. Gradually, and with difficulty, they coaxed him home and drew him back into the human world. The transition was alarmingly difficult, and his newly acquired powers prohibited him from ever hunting or eating caribou again.

Mrs. Ned's story was long and evocative, and as daylight faded, she sang the shaman’s song in her powerful voice. For Mrs. Ned, knowing caribou meant understanding the reciprocal relationships that bind humans with the animals they hunt. Her story's human protagonist would have returned with privileged insights about the caribou's expectations governing responsible human hunting practices. If caribou left the region, she indicated, responsibility lay at the feet of humans. The biologist agreed on the last point and was intrigued by Mrs. Ned's apparent mixing of "nature" and "culture," but concluded that this sort of thing had no place in the "expert knowledge" his research required.

Listening for stories, I came to appreciate the First Nations concept of sentient landscapes, specifically the agency of glaciers. The Saint Elias Mountains separating the Gulf of Alaska from the high-country interior include some of North America’s highest peaks and provide scaffolding for the world’s largest nonpolar ice fields. The Icefield Ranges include glaciers that surge, or advance, without warning after years of stability, sometimes for several kilometres. They frequently create ice-dammed lakes that build up and eventually disgorge when the ice thins. In the 1970s, the women I interviewed often included glacier narratives in their life-history accounts. In the accounts, these glaciers appear as willful beings that respond directly and dramatically to human activity, often with catastrophic results.

One story from Indigenous oral tradition concerns the Lowell Glacier, which drains to the Alsek River. This glacier's name in Southern Tutchone language is Nàlùdi (Fish Stop) because it interrupted salmon migrations up the Alsek River. Nàlùdi was reportedly provoked to surge when a young boy travelling inland with coastal Tlingit traders recklessly joked about a balding inland shaman -- comparing his head first to a stump, then to a knobby glacier. The aggrieved shaman withdrew to the top of a high bluff across the river from Nàlùdi and began to dream, summoning the glacier to advance. The glacier crossed the Alsek, reached this bluff, and walled off an upstream lake.

Scientists estimate that the advancing Lowell Glacier created a two-hundred-metre-high ice dam that impounded Neoglacial Lake Alsek (100 kilometres long) in the mid-nineteenth century, as it had several times during the previous 2,800 years. When that dam eventually tunnelled, then fractured, the outburst discharged water through the Alsek Valley in an enormous flood, emptying the lake in one or two days, with devastating downstream consequences.

Human hubris and its consequences are consistent themes in these glacier narratives. Women narrators insist that strict rules apply to cooking near glaciers: food should be boiled, never fried, and no grease should escape from the cooking vessel lest the glacier (or glacier spirits) take offence. The refined grease -- processed animal fat -- used for cooking provides solid, white, high-quality lard. The tallow liquefies when heated and melts, crackling noisily when used to fry food, in ways that might be imagined as "mimicking" a glacier and causing a cacophonous, retributive surge. But surges, in turn, are interpreted by some as glaciers mimicking the offence of "cooking with grease" as they begin sliding over surfaces. Some Elders speak of enormous heat accompanying an angry surge.

Some forty kilometres north of Nàlùdi, two sheep hunters returned to their camp at the end of a long day in October 1921. At a pole bridge, the first man to cross the river was killed instantly by an explosion of ice from an outburst flood that erupted without warning on the Donjek Glacier. Though deeply distressed, the survivor attributed his companion’s death to poor judgment. The victim had insisted on cooking bacon for breakfast that morning, despite warnings that he should not cook with grease near a glacier. Worse, he had joked that "a glacier has no nose" (hence no sense of smell). It was generally agreed that this act of hubris within the glacier’s hearing contributed to this death.

I have been struck over the years by how contemporary narrative strategies (especially those shared with me by Yukon women) echoed those advocated by philosopher Walter Benjamin many decades earlier. Information, he observed, is static -- useful when it is new, but then absorbed and gone: "A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its energy and is capable of releasing it after a long time." 

The enchantment that pervades a universe inhabited by a community of beings in constant communication and exchange offers a hopeful (and possibly necessary) vision. It deserves more space in our modern world. Such ideas could provide crucial insights to guide future actions, given the cracks developing in the modernist project. In thinking about the nature of Canada, we might well listen for different stories, as Annie Ned advised all those years ago, because her counsel captures both the possibilities and fissures that reverberate through contemporary discussions of Indigenous knowledge.

Image: Dean Biggins

Excerpted with permission from The Nature of Canada edited by Colin M. Coates and Graeme Wynn, published by On Point Press, an imprint of UBC Press. For more information go to www.ubcpress.ca.

Julie Cruikshank is the author of Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. She is a professor emerita at the University of British Columbia and her research centres on oral tradition and oral history.

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