Tuesday, March 20, 2012


You may have missed the March 13, 2012 edition of the New York Times “Science Times” section in which the proposed law legalizing the hunting of wolves in the state of Wisconsin was discussed. The article by James Gorman appeared under the headline “Before Wolves May Be Hunted, Science, Faith and Politics Clash.”

The article is an admirable discussion of a proposed bill (and it subsequently passed if I heard correctly) in the Wisconsin legislature allowing for a “wolf harvesting” season (bureaucratese courtesy of the authors of the bill) to run from mid-October every year until the end of February. I find the idea of a wolf hunt repulsive: the only reason to hunt a wolf is for a trophy—and if the amendment allowing for the hunting of wolf by dog pack passed one has to wonder what kind of shape the trophy would be in following “harvest.” I find it both morally reprehensible and befuddlingly absurd.

What interests me about the article is not the question of the hunt itself, but rather the fact that it gives extensive space to Anishinaabe testimony opposing the hunt. While this aspect is admirable, the other part of the article that interests me is the phrasing of the headline. Where the part featuring Anishinaabe testimony heartens me, the headline disheartens me, as it is rooted in notions of that science and faith are two different worlds and that when brought into dialogue (through politics) they must “clash.” The article simultaneously legitimizes Anishinaabe knowledge and delegitimizes it as “faith,” not science. Native knowledge is not real (the way science is), it is a matter of belief, of—dare we say it—superstition. This American cultural trope of Native superstition is the all-too-obvious foundation of the headline.

Three Anishinaabe men are given voice in the article, while only one majority culture scientist is. The majority culture scientist, a professor of Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, discusses the matter of the wolf hunt in, not surprisingly, strictly materialistic terms, focusing on demography and the ability of the environment to support wolves. He feels that the woodland of northern Wisconsin can carry a capacity of 1000 wolves. The implication is that an annual “harvest” will keep the wolf population below 1000 and so save the wolves from catastrophic die-offs if their numbers grow too high. Harvest is seen as responsible wildlife management and, perhaps, it can be seen that way.

The Anishinaabe men consulted in the article feel otherwise. All three men are professionals, one is a retired professor, another is the executive administrator of GLIFWC, and the last is a scientist, a conservation biologist who also works for GLIFWC. All three men discuss the importance of the wolf in Anishinaabe sacred history. James Zorn, GLIFWC’s executive administrator points out in written testimony presented to the legislators “that Ma’iingan (wolf) is a brother to Original man” in the Anishinaabe creation story. The author of the headline chooses to read “creation story” as religion, as faith (and thus by implication, I think, as “superstition”).

It’s a good story, but it is not demonstrably true (the way, say, an environment’s projected carrying capacity for wolf populations might be). It’s interesting, as we Midwesterners say when we try to dodge the bullet of something so (seemingly) strange that we risk misunderstanding it (the way sushi is “interesting” to a hotdish grandma, or eating rough fish is “interesting” to the catch-and-release fly fisherperson).

Yet this “interestingness” of the spiritual faith in Native creation stories, ignores the knowledge—demonstrable historically, perhaps even statistically, in the best tradition of material scientism—that Zorn’s statement goes on to provide. He writes, “The health and survival of the Anishinaabe people is tied to that of Ma’iingan.”

This simple statement contains a wealth of historical reflection, tying Anishinaabe experience to the experience of the wolf in the United States. Hunted, trapped, chased from environments in which they provided very responsible wildlife management, wolves were driven to the edge of extinction by American culture and policy at both federal and state levels. Only when they were on the edge of extinction did the feds intervene and create policies to help wolf populations recover and grow.

Likewise, the same generations of Americans that encouraged wolf decimation, also encouraged the “killing of the Indian to save the man” (as Richard Pratt, architect of the Indian boarding school program, put it). Anishinaabe people saw their protected lands whittled away in these generations, saw programs initiated to “help” them assimilate to (superior, non-superstitious) American ways, and watched as their language was driven nearly to extinction here in the United States. In recent generations though Anishinaabe populations have grown and the revitalization of cultural practices, including a revitalization of language education, is spreading.

Wolf recovery and Anishinaabe cultural revitalization are coincidental from the rational perspective of Western science, but from the perspective of Anishinaabe science—of knowledge gained from ongoing experiential observation and of thorough knowledge of sacred histories of creation stories and the secular histories of the recent past—the recovery and revitalization of the wolf and the Anishinaabe in their woodland homelands are implicated in one another. Implication is a demonstrable connection: for instance, our lives as humans are implicated in the lives of the trees. We inhale what the trees exhale. It is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of fact.

The Anishinaabe resistance to the wolf hunt is not a matter of faith, but a matter of fact. What happens to the wolf happens to the Anishinaabe, history demonstrates as much. Debate about the wisdom of hunting might imply a clash, but let’s not be so foolish as to believe it’s a clash between “faith” and “science.” Let’s not let newspapers like the Times fall prey to cultural tropes about the religious superstitions of Native people that I see this headline engaging. Let’s think about ways to discuss knowledge. Let’s call Anishinaabe insight knowledge, not faith.


  1. Of course let's not forget that even in science there sometimes controversy and disagreement. While government scientist claim that wolf populations have reached self sustainable levels, scientists who actually study wolves dispute this.

    Wolf packs are not herds, they have a complex hierarchical social structure. When a pack loses a member, especially older members, it throws the entire pack in discord and disarray. Wolves don't have natural predators aside from people, so their social structure has evolved around a fair amount of stability. This is why wolves were almost hunted to extinction in the first place despite their obvious advantages in the wild. It's not just about killing individual wolves, but disrupting their social structure which puts further pressure on the individuals.

    Packs also can become MORE unpredictable when their disrupted by a losses in the community. This could actually increase problems with wolves in some cases.

  2. Thoughtfully put Pudster. Amazing what actual knowledge can produce when lobbyists are not forcing reality into their talking points.