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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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European "Authorities"
Linguistic Basis

Historical Evidence

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Visual representation of nature's laws

The most evident problem in trying to outline Indigenous culture of any sort is the paucity of verifiable sources before the coming of the white man when written texts preserved the observations of foreigners. We now know that early ideas of the inhabitants of North America were not based on careful observation, at least not initially, but rather extensions of European concepts of what should be there. For example, the Yup’ik people of the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta, classified as Eskimos by scholars now, did not live in igloos, but in semisubterranean homes built of driftwood; the dealt region itself had as rich a physical environment as one could imagine… indeed it was "comparable to the place of the Nile or Tigris-Euphrates river valleys in Western civilization," according to Fienup-Riordan. (1990, 8) The European idea of the noble and isolated single family, struggling to hunt and fish alone against the inhospitable weather and living on raw flesh in an igloo could not have been more incorrect, for the Yup’ik did not live in nuclear families but in permanent villages in the winter, and only ventured out in smaller family units during the summer. In fact, the whole village was split between the communal men’s house (qasgiq) where all the men lived, and a variety of sod houses (enet) , where groups of women and children resided. The women and children carried out the activities reserved for them in their enets completely, while everything that men did---ceremonies, community feasts, etc. took place in the company of the men in the large communal house. The community waged war, ate prepared meals of fish and fowl more than meat. Seldom was it raw. Still even after over two hundred years had passed from the time of Frobisher, we have Hakluyt’s description that seems to say more about European stereotypes than reality:

Their winter dwellings…are made two fadome under grounde…having holes like to a Foxe or conny berry…They defile these dennes most filthily with their beastly feeding, & dwell so long in a place…until their sluttishness lothing them, they are forced to seeke a sweeter ayre, and a new seate, and are (no doubt) a dispersed and wandring nation, as the Tartarians, and live in hords and troupes, without any certaine abode, as may appeare by sundry circumstances of our experience. (1589, 300-301)

Indeed, this is the ideal of "nature" often applied to the peoples of North America by the first observers from Europe…bestial, less than human, uncivilized… which is why we insist that Nature’s Law be understood in the Indigenous rather than the European sense. This is complicated by the Christian assumptions of the European observers. Into the 1800s, the Europeans regarded the inhabitants of North America as some how or other defective humans. For example, they did not fit any of the categories mentioned in scripture…there were only three races descended from Noah, and the North Americans did not to belong to any of the three. As Pagden has traced it, Christian theologians and humanists alike held that human civilization had degenerated after the fall in the Garden of Eden, so that those furthest away from the enlightened development of Europe could be regarded as the most "primitive" in their humanity, and it was only in the nineteenth century that the barbarous ideas were set aside by Jean Jacque Rousseau. For him, such humans were in their pure state of natural being…a people without the corrupting forces of civilization. Thus emerged the North American Indian as the "noble savage." These opposing views on the meaning of "nature" with concomitant impact on perceptions of North American Indigenous people live with us to today. They are now complicated by those who move towards the Indigenous as model human, as we find in the Gontran de Poncin’s novel Kabloona, or in the French anthropologist’s eulogy at Thule in Greenland …"a return to the Stone Age"…and his praise for the Northern hunter:

To know how the boreal hunter apprehends time and space can become a crucial element in our understanding of archaic thought processes. In watching the Eskimos live, in trying to grasp how they equip and organize themselves…the ethnologist, no matter where he is from, is at the very roots of his own civilization…The Arctic in 1950 was a living museum like Lascaux.(1982, xvi)

Lascaux, of course, is the place in France where the oldest and in some ways most dramatic cave paintings are to be found. Of more moment, however, is the fact that these cultures are not viewed for their own sakes but are read through what Europeans desire to know about themselves. That North American cultures could be viewed this way through into the middle of the twentieth century indicates how difficult it is now to determine what pre-European North American cultures must have looked like and how they understood their laws. At the very least, one must erect massive cultural filters; at most, acknowledge the essential bias of all reportage...

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