You Animal

By | January 3, 2011

Have you ever wondered why we refer to ourselves as people and other creatures as animals? Are we not animals as well? I believe we could change our relationship with the natural realm by simply changing the language we use to address it. Try referring to spiders and herons and moose as the other animals and see how it feels. (Notice that I said, “our relationship with the natural realm,” which implies that we humans are not a part of that realm. Oh the power of language!)

Animals appear as main characters in the stories of nomadic hunter-gatherers around the world. In some stories, animals are the only characters, and in others, animals and humans interact as though it were an everyday occurrence. In the stories of sedentary peoples, we find all-animal casts rare outside of children’s books and films. Richard Adams’ Watership Down and Animal Farm by George Orwell are the only noted pieces of contemporary adult literature with animal characters that come to mind, and I don’t know of any films.

I doubt that traditional storytellers give a second thought to the easy exchange between human and nonhuman characters in their stories. After living with the four-leggeds, wingeds, and finned every day in close, symbiotic relationship, native people find it quite natural to have these creatures be central story characters. With the other animals acting as teachers and guides, it is normal for natives to have conversations with them. Hunters become the animals they hunt, and healers and seers shapeshift into animals. Wolf, Human, and Hawk are all people—all sister and brother.

How might living in such a relationship with the rest of life change the way you live? If we all did it, what would happen to our culture?

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