by: Paul Udstrand, James Kaagegaabaw Vukelich, and Carter Meland
There is a way of living in which we do not create harm or conflict for any of our relatives. It is a way of living in peace and balance. In Anishinaabemowin, this way of living is called mino-bimaadiziwin, the good life.
~ James Kaagegaabaw Vukelich
“… I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion”
~Dr. Walter Palmer regarding his killing of Cecil the lion.
July 28, 2015 (read the full statement)
Let me begin by saying clearly that as far as I know, no member of the Hefner family nor their magazine “Playboy” endorses “big game” hunting in any way. However when Hugh Hefner launched Playboy Magazine in 1956, he marketed it as a portal into the “Good Life” for (mostly white) American men. The image of the contented man in a smoking jacket with a pipe or cigar in hand, surrounded by other objects of his desire, was supposed to be the ultimate image of the civilized man content with his affluence. For such men the world is an oyster full of pearls… there for the taking.
On one hand Playboy is just a magazine, one man’s ultimately successful attempt to make a fortune and live the good life himself. In another way, the “Good Life” Playboy promotes represents a Western Culture that places man outside of an objectified nature that exists solely for human gratification. The problem with Playboy’s notion of a “Good Life” is it may put human beings on a collision course our own extinction.
By now most people on earth with any kind of access to “news” are aware of the sad demise of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American dentist living the “good life”, taking an object of his desire in a Zimbabwe wilderness. For a mere $50k (US dollars)plus change it seems a hunter of trophies can let loose an arrow from his trusty compound bow and lay waste to one of the world’s most magnificent animals.
Obviously the notion that killing an animal that doesn’t even know it’s in danger is some kind of “sport” is simply absurd. Even in a bullfight the bull recognizes at some point that it’s fighting for its life. We convert killing into sport by re-imagining animals as “game”. The transformation of animals into “game” converts them into objects that can be “taken” as Dr. Palmer would have it, not killed. Cecil wasn’t “taken” anywhere. He was beheaded and skinned on site, and Palmer and his guides left the carcass to rot. Cecil’s killers, in a sad commentary on their notion of responsibility, attempted to hide their beloved activity from the authorities, but a well designed radio collar foiled their design.
Truth be told, maybe the problems of one lion don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, but the mentality that classifies killing a lion as “sport” may well lead to our own extinction. In his statement Palmer suggests that his killing for pleasure is not merely legal, but can be done responsibly. I think it’s clear that a hunter who insists they’re taking game rather than killing an animal is devoid of honor. We don’t use euphemisms to describe honorable actions. But how does a human being in the year 2015 conclude that killing a lion for a trophy is a “responsible” thing to do? Maybe trophy hunting is a symptom of a larger problem. From the Savannah’s Zimbabwe to the shores of Lake Mille Lacs we might do well to step back and look at the big picture.
We are currently in the midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction. According to biologists and other Earth scientists over 20,000 species are currently near extinction and that rate is one thousand times the normal rate of extinction. Unlike the previous five extinction events, this mass extinction has been caused entirely by human beings. If human beings weren’t on this planet, THIS mass extinction would not be taking place. So what? Well, we depend on this biosphere and it’s diversity for survival so if nothing else we could consider the possibility that this mass extinction may end as well with the extinction or near extinction of human beings. If not extinction, consider a nightmare world nearly devoid of plant and animal diversity, which would likely lock human communities in a constant state of combat over dwindling resources.
Once upon a time theologians of Christianity decided that humanity was above nature and theorists of Capitalism decided that nature is a commodity, put there by God for the taking. Long before trophy hunters turned animals into objects (i.e. “game”), Christianity turned everything that wasn’t human into objects, devoid of souls and destined for oblivion. Eventually Capitalism took those objects and commodified them as an efficient way of “taking” them for human designs and pleasure. These mindsets alienated their followers from nature. Bent with this pathological alienation, Europeans poured out into the world five centuries ago and unleashed an unprecedented wave of ecological, cultural, and genocidal devastation. The Indian wars may be over but the colonial mindset is still wreaking havoc on the planet. Ask Cecil.
The mentality that killed Cecil doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it limited to the domain of self-deluded “sportsmen.” Trophy hunting is a vestige of European colonialism. It assumes that humans have a God given right to “take” what sustains them or pleases them. In that regard a lion is no different than oil, trees, or water. Palmer may have paid good money for his lion, but the “market” he exploited is nevertheless a product of colonial conquest. Maybe it’s time to trade a model of conquest for a model of sustainability?
It may interest people to know that Playboy’s idea of the “Good Life” isn’t the only idea of a “Good Life”. Recently James Kaagegaabaw Vukelich and Carter Meland began a project that seeks to introduce a different understanding of what the Good Life can be to a culture alienated from its own nature. In their work they discuss the Anishinaabe Indian idea of mino-bimaadiziwin, which translates into… you guessed it: “The Good Life”. Basically the Anishinaabe world view is that the earth is our home, and everything in nature is a relative with whom we share a home. We cannot destroy or assault our relatives without destroying our home. As Vukelich and Meland note:
As social beings, humans should seek to live well with all manner of other living and non-living beings. Though modern society labors under the illusion that it is otherwise, human beings are not independent from the animals, plants, waters, and minerals that compose the Earth and its environments. Humans depend on these other beings for life—remove any one of them, and humans would likely face their own extinction as a species, but remove humans from the Earth and all these other ways of being would carry on without them. Human beings are really quite pitiable in this regard. All the bluster about their power to reshape the world—even as that power makes the world less livable for all—is just canary song in a coalmine filling with gas.
Vukelich and Meland plan to discuss many of the intertwining principles of the good life—mino-bimaadiziwin— and what they mean from an Anishinaabe perspective. Three of these principles reveal a distinctive perspective on the “taking” of Cecil by Dr. Palmer. If we use these ideas as a measure of what constitutes living the good life, we can see that Dr. Palmer acted irresponsibly. He acted with the sort of baseless self-indulgence that is typical of the colonialist/capitalist mindset that depletes landscapes, poisons our waters, and is arguably the main driver behind the sixth great extinction event. The three ideas are as follows:
- We are all related. “We” embraces all manner of being found on earth, animal, plant, mineral, water, spirit, etc.
- In this relationship with others there is interdependence and interconnection, which is to say that we need each other to survive. Every single thing we do affects one another.
- There is a way of living in which we do not create harm or conflict for any of our relatives. It is a way of living in peace and balance. In Anishinaabemowin (the language of the Anishinaabe people), this way of living is called mino-bimaadiziwin, the good life.
In looking at Cecil, a colonialist mindset sees him as game to be taken, but from the Anishinaabe perspective, he is a relative and in bringing harm to him we disturb the balance we should seek with all our relations. We are interconnected: human-to-lion-to-environment. We are a large, extended family here on Earth—here at home. When we indulge in the “good life” that Dr. Palmer pursued—of fulfilling our desires, regardless of the cost—one risks shooting him- or herself in the foot, as Palmer appears to have done given the public outcry that has followed the revelation of his act.
Let’s not think that all this discussion is really about a man and an animal though. It has become more than apparent in the days since the killing was revealed that Cecil and Dr. Palmer have become more than just a hunter and a lion. Cecil and Dr. Palmer have become symbols of humanity’s broken relationship with nature. The killing reveals a relationship that is deeply dysfunctional. Rooted in harm and conflict and egotistic self-indulgence, this dysfunctional realtionship—the likes of which most of us would not stand for in our own homes—speaks to larger issues of how modern people relate to the environments where they live. What we do to Cecil, we do to ourselves. If we fail to step outside egocentric and self-indulgent notions of what constitutes the “Good Life,” we fail to gain the kind of perspective on Cecil’s killing that we need in order to understand what is really at stake: the way we should want to live within our home.
Obviously we don’t kill our relatives for food, but neither do we kill them for pleasure or sport. Mino-bimaadiziwin doesn’t require that we forego sustenance, but it asks us to acknowledge the reciprocal nature of the relationships in our home. From an Anishinaabe perspective, hunters don’t “take” animals, rather the animals give their lives so that humans might live; their sacrifice is an act of grace that an Anishinaabe hunter acknowledges with a gift of tobacco. The animal’s sacrifice of itself is a gift to the hunter’s people, one the hunter repays with the gift of tobacco. Where a Christian blessing may give thanks for the animals, the Anishinaabe give their thanks to the animals. Theirs is a direct relationship.
Do Meland and Vukelich demand that Christians abandon their religion, or atheists like myself become fluent in the Anishinaabe language? Of course not. They offer a perspective that changes our orientation towards nature and each other. Maybe we’ve reached a point where re-arranging the deck chairs isn’t going to work—if it ever did; we don’t need to change where we sit on this Titanic, we need to jump ship. The philosophy of Anishinaabe people offers us a lifeline. We can’t save ourselves without saving our home. Cecil’s killing can help us reconsider what sort of relative we’ve been to all of our relations, and what sort of relative we ought to be.