December 12, 2018

Native Tradition v. Militant Veganism

Rylee McCallin

Let’s talk about vegans. For the uninitiated, veganism is a growing movement that seeks to minimize the impact of animal abuse and use in the world we live in. This means refraining from the consumption of meat, animal byproducts, and any other items made from the bodies or byproducts of animals. Veganism is largely seen as simply a dietary preference, but it is truly so much more than that. It has become a lifestyle, a way to move through our daily lives in a more ethical manner. A main focus among the movement is to criticize and dismantle the factory farm systems, in which animals are living in harsh conditions, awaiting slaughter. Over the last decade, vegans have flocked to the internet to seek support in one another, discuss meal ideas, and spread the word in order to expand the message of compassion.

As a vegan for almost 3 years, I have seen the many different forms that vegan activism can take. From my vantage point, it seems that most of our very small community (less than .5 percent of the United States population) seeks to help people understand animals as living beings that should be treated with kindness and respect, support people that are looking to make the change, and give helpful advice. Then there are others, which I affectionately call “militant vegans,” that are only out to shame and guilt non-vegans, especially those with religious or cultural connections to meat. I believe a lack of understanding and respect from these “militant vegans” can give the rest of the community a bad reputation.

Online discussions between militant vegans and non-vegans often become arguments, with many vegans taking the fight in the wrong direction, directing their battle to communities that use animals as part of their cultural traditions—specifically Native American and indigenous cultures. This, unfortunately, has become recently a flashpoint in interactions between some vegans and Native Americans on Twitter. And the volume of the anger is deafening.

Such vegans do not represent me.

Real tweet in response to @LakotaLaw

Blame directed at indigenous people for the effects of industrialized animal slaughter is wrong and misplaced. Indigenous animal husbandry has been around for thousands of years without permanent desecration to the earth or depletion of animal populations; meanwhile, factory farming and capitalism’s insistence on competitive animal agriculture is slowly but surely destroying ecosystems planetwide.

“The Indians of yesterday were true conservationists,” says Linda Fisher, a Native American vegan from the Ojibwe and Cherokee nations. “They understood the inherent dangers of overtaxing the earth and her creatures. So much so, in fact, that no species would ever be hunted to scarcity or depletion, not even for religious purposes.”

And many Native nations continue to preserve and reclaim this legacy.

The Lakota people have a deep, long-standing social and cultural relationship with the buffalo that wander their plains. The animals, in the Lakota language, are called the Pte Oyate — meaning “buffalo nation” and are seen with the same sovereignty and independence inherit to Native peoples. If the bands of the Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires) didn’t have buffalo, many of the things needed to survive would not be accessible. Buffalo not only provide food, they also provide materials to make tools, shelters, even clothes. The bones are used to make hoes, digging sticks, cups and spoons. Skins provide winter moccasins and tipi covers. The buffalo’s scrotum is made into a rattle and used in the Shoshone sun dance. Even the dung can be used to make fuel. When slaughtered by the Lakota, every single part of the animal goes to good use.

In actuality, many Indigenous tribes have strong roots in agriculture, with vegetables and other plants furnishing many of their main food sources. The Three Sisters refers to three staple vegetables: corn, beans, and squash. The corn offers the bean plants support as they grow up the corn stalk, while the squash protects the soil from dry conditions and pests that may try to eat the plants. Combined, the three sisters can be made into dishes like stews, casseroles, even breads. Another important vegetable to many people living on tribal land along the Missouri River is Mouse Beans, which are filled with protein and low in fat. Traditionally, women would ask the mice for permission through songs to gather the beans from the mice in the grounds of the cottonwood forests and the women promised to leave the mice plenty of beans left to eat during the winter. This plant-based protein resource was largely wiped clean thanks to the four dams built in response to the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act between 1946 and 1966. Upon the destruction of these vital food resources, reservations and tribal nations began to rely more on heavily processed foods such as canned meats and vegetables, typical of those provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Asking Indigenous communities to give up their values and traditions of hunting to make up for the mistakes of colonial settlers and industrial capitalism is like asking Native people to apologize for the occupation of land that was rightfully theirs in the first place.

The Makah people of  the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State source the majority of their meat from fishing and whale hunting. Historically, a crew of eight men would load into a canoe on hunting days, each tasked with an important part of the hunt. Using harpoons, the men would make direct contact with the whale upon striking, etc. The hunters never left a single trace of their actions other than removal of the animal from the water. When the whale reached shore, the animal was thanked and blessed before being processed for materials. After the meat of the whales was divided and distributed amongst the tribe, the dorsal fin was treated, hung, and decorated ceremonially for days. The whale’s meat was then used for food and oil, and the guts used for storage.  

In 1920, whale hunting in Makah territory came to a halt due to low numbers of grey whales, thanks to commercial hunting. In 1994, the federal government ended the protections for grey whales given to endangered species, and in 1995 the Makah Tribe petitioned to resume their right to hunt. Groups such as the Humane Society, the Fund for Animals, and Greenpeace were among the groups that challenged this petition. Despite these efforts by animal rights groups, on the morning of May 17, 1999, the Makah people legally hunted their first whale in several decades. In the almost 80 years between hunts, the Makah were stripped of their right to practice something sacred to their culture and way of life in order to respect settler conservation efforts.

Now, the Makah people are requesting an allowance of hunting five whales per year to maintain their tradition while also conserving whale populations.

Asking Indigenous communities to give up their values and traditions of hunting to make up for the mistakes of colonial settlers and industrial capitalism is like asking Native people to apologize for the occupation of land that was rightfully theirs in the first place. Indigenous peoples of yesterday and today were and are truly the original conservationists. They understood the dangers of misuse and overuse, and would never hunt to depletion, only what was necessary to survive—unlike the exploitative overabundance that our modern capitalist society promotes.

Chief Seattle was a Suquamish and Duwamish chief that is widely known for giving a speech about conservation and having respect for the land. Though the speech was delivered in 1855, his words are still relevant to this day:

“When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by the talking wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.”

Under modern treaty law, tribes tend to comanage fish and wildlife, working with the US government on local, state, and federal levels in order to preserve the environment while protecting sovereign rights to fish and game. Tribal members are almost always given explicit permission to decide the rules and laws pertaining to the hunting and fishing that occurs on their own lands. Laws range from attempts at banning animal testing to classifying animals as living sentient beings as opposed to personal property. For example, the Susanville Indian Rancheria in California has laws in place preventing any animals from being used for lab practices.

Allowing Indigenous communities to make decisions about the animal life happening on their land is incredibly important for the conservation and preservation of their culture and the animals involved with it.

As a vegan in this state of climate chaos, it is important to focus our energies on things that are causing our world to decay for the sake of profit. Challenging communities with a deep connection to the environment and animals will only create a deeper divide in a time when we should be working together. Rather than shaming and criticizing Indigenous cultures for their traditions, we as a connected people—through the common interest of the earth and all its creatures—should follow the lead of Native cultures and their practices when it comes to the environment.