Calvin Martin

on Beavers and Indians

In three books combining history, ethnography and philosophy Calvin Martin has made much of beavers without really focusing on the animal itself. The trajectory of his career has been a deeply personal effort to understand the way hunting and gathering societies understand the world, culminating in his giving up his academic career. He confessed in one of his later books that he wrote his first book about the fur trade before he had ever seen a beaver. Of course, one need not see a beaver to understand the fur trade if one writes about it as an economic activity. But Martin explored what might be called the spiritual aspects of the fur trade, and that might explain why he wanted to get his unfamiliarity with beavers off his chest. Indeed, the title of his book is The Keepers of the Game, and one of the keepers, who controls the hunting essential to survival, is a beaver.

In that book, Martin explains the reason why the Indians, despite professing a special kinship with beavers, virtually exterminated the animal in order to trade with whites for pots, guns, baubles and liquor. He rejects the traditional and common sense view that the Indians simply wanted what they got in return, and suggests that the Indians declared war on the beaver because the beaver no longer cared for the Indian as evidenced by the epidemics decimating Indian populations. These epidemics spread across the country before white's made settlements. Seamen who were the earlier traders seeded the germs in North America and they spread like wildfire through a population that had no immunity. Thus even before most Indians saw a white man, the epidemics had destroyed their previous amicable relationship with beavers. Beavers, in the Indian view, deserved extinction, dead as this beaver I found on the ice, its eyes plucked out by crows.

Martin's quotes the opinion of David Thompson who wrote a Narrative of his travels dating from 1784 to 1812:

Casting about for some sort of meaning to all of this, David Thompson concluded that it was inevitable, and that was all there was to it. "Previous to the discovery of Canada... this Continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, may be said to have been in the possession of two distinct races of Beings, Man and the Beaver." The two were locked in mortal combat, with the Indian the perennial underdog. Man's primitive tools were pitifully inadequate to penetrate the fortress-like lodge, reasoned Thompson. So the Indian stood by and watched, helplessly, as beaver multipled and became a nuisance, and then a menace, assuming possession of every waterway that lent itself to their purpose.

Every River where the current was moderate and sufficiently deep, the banks at the water edge were occupied by their houses. To every small Lake, and all the Ponds they builded Dams, and enlarged and deepened them to the height of the dams. Even to ground occasionally overflowed, by heavy rains, they also made dams, and made them permanent Ponds.... Thus all the low lands were in possession of the Beaver, and all the hollows of the higher grounds.... the dry land with the dominions of Man contracted, every where he was hemmed in by water without the power of preventing it.

And still they increased, and the Indians sullenly retreated before the plague. Thompson, a sober man, was not indulging himself in a mere flight of fancy; Cree legend confirmed and very likely informed this passage.

On the next page, Martin quotes Thompson again, recounting a legend told to him by "two aged Cree in the vicinity of Lake Winnipeg":

They said, by ancient tradition of which they did not know the origin the Beavers had been an ancient People, and then lived on the dry land; they were always Beavers, not Men, they were wise and powerful, and neither Man, nor any animal made war on them.

They were well clothed as at present, and they made no use of fire, and did not want it. How long they lived this way we cannot tell, but we must suppose they did not live well, for the Great Spirit became angry with them, and ordered Weesaukejauk to drive them all into the water and there let them live, still to be wise, but without power; to be food and clothing for man, and the prey of other animals, against all of which his defence shall be his dams, his house and his burrows....

The old Indian paused, became silent, and then in a low tone talked with each other; after which he continued his discourse. I have told you that we believed in years long passed away, the Great Spirit was angry with the Beaver, and ordered Weesaukejauk (the Flatterer) to drive them all from the dry land into the water; and they became and continued very numerous; but the Great Spirit has been, and now is, very angry with them and they are now all to be destroyed. [emphasis added by Martin].

Certainly not seeing a beaver before writing this made it easier for Martin. And for that matter, I'll have to read Thompson to see how familiar he was with beavers. In my experience, beavers have some telling limitations in their competition with man. The first is that, as far as I can tell, they have no intention, not the least inclination to harm man or for that matter, any other animal that passes their way. Secondly, their mobility is limited, not only by their physical attributes, but from their imperative to respect the territory of other beavers. We might say that Indians prepared for their war against beavers by warring against other Indians. We can't say that about beavers. Nor have I seen evidence of one beaver colony trying to defeat the intentions of other beavers by their dam building. Beavers make a progression through a valley as they harvest trees and move on. They could easily get in the way of the progression of other colonies. They don't seem to. Finally, just beavers being the way they are, they would be unable to be anything more than a nuisance to human society. I happen to harvest wood for my stove during the winter and sometimes I find myself in competition with beavers. We are both equally discriminating; we don't clear cut. We both let our harvest for a time lie on the ground. So far, the beavers have not touched my leavings. And I have not touched theirs. However, it is painfully obvious to me that I could snatch up one of their logs much more easily than they could snatch one of my mine. As for floods, I don't see how this would impact the hunter-gathers; and it seems the agricultural Indians adjusted well enough.

Of course, Martin as a historian needs have no interest in reality per se. What is important is what the Indians believed and how that effected their behavior. Ironically, while Martin presented his thesis to exculpate the Indian for their decimation of beavers, as Martin hammers out his thesis he at times makes the Indian appear like a capricious operator with a shallow belief system. While epidemics strengthened western religions, epidemics destroyed Indian religion. Martin, as historian, might well have moved on to other theses, letting others sort out the damage he had done with his provocative slant on the fur trade, but Martin, as a person, was fascinated and awed by Indian culture. His subsequent books redeem the enduring strength of the hunter-gather's way of looking at the world. Indeed, to the degree that modern man learns once again to talk to the animals so our chances of survival in the world increase.

In his last book The Way of the Human Being, one chapter title presents a striking image: "Einstein's Beaver." In his previous chapter, "Cartier's Bear", Martin explores how the French explorer Cartier couldn't understand the Indians relation to the bear, or rather the Bear, the great mythological but to the Indians very real, Bear. So he moves to the beaver:

Notice, it's not that these animal beings don't exist, and it's not necessarily that these animal beings don't exist in the vicinity of the People. The problem is that the People cannot find them. The People cannon see them, cannot connect with them. It's wholly a problem of Perception. But what is Perception here? It is, as we will soon see, perception of an utterly fundamental sort; it is, I am proposing, essentially the vision of quantum reality

"There is a women living in this camp of the People, and she says to her husband, 'Go out once more. Maybe you will have good luck if you try just one more time.' So he puts on his snowshoes and goes out into the snow." And gets lost. Except that one never gets lost in this realm of Perception. In fact, just when you think you're lost is when interesting things begin to happen, and they emphatically won't happen until you lose your usual frame of reference. When you're lost is actually when you are opening yourself up to being found by a different reality.

It is in this state that "he sees something," the wording is noteworthy. The narrator, I should add, has become the snowshoed hunter himself. The speaker is not telling someone else's story; he speaks his own. Being a myth, the story is alive, and whoever says it enters it. "He sees something": each time in this living narrative when something powerful is introduced, it is referred to by this nebulous word "something." The reason is that "something" powerful is "plenipotential" (if I may borrow a term from embryology). It is full of potential for being a number of things at once. It is like the embryonic cell, a germ cell, a stem cell, which can differentiate into several cell lines, hence forming several quite different sorts of tissue....

And so Martin goes on, and in this case the "something" turns out to be snowshoe tracks leading to the lodge of an old man:

"He sees something" means that he sees what he wishes to see - and that is more quantum reality. By that I mean that he helps create what he sees. "He sees the tracks of other snowshoes." At first he is alarmed, fearing that there must be lots of other hunters around and hence game is probably scarce. But then he remembers the principle of altruism (the Gift): "but perhaps they have something to eat."

The old man in the lodge asks if the visitor had seen his sons. Soon the sons come with caribou meat, plenty of it. They have a feast and then the visitor explains that at his home people are starving. So they give him much meat to take home. When he reaches his own lodge, he goes in and tells his wife:

"There is a small bundle of something outside," he repeats, quietly. Something. Plenipotentiality. What the qunatum physicists call superposition: matter (which, as Einstein perceived, is itself energy) exists in many states at once. The Micmac hunter has left the Gift in the plenipotential realm; he has not measured it as meat, but left it unspecified, capacious, full of potential - as something. When his wife unwraps it, however, "behold! It is not meat at all. It is mitiey maskwi, poplar bark! It is food for beavers, not for humans."

This hunter has not been with People at all - he has been in a beaver lodge. He has been visiting Kopit.

Kopit. Old Beaver People.

This man has seen Kopit.

Kopit has Power. He has shown this man his human shape. He has shown him a wigwam of the People. He as shown him his children hunting, and shown him a caribou head to eat.

This man has eaten with Kopit. And Kopit has sent food home with him.

Martin extracts more deep lessons from this. The man in story takes comfort in the fact that at least he has found a beaver lodge and now can go back and eat beaver.

During the time I was reading Martin, I was out checking on the beavers. It was winter and for several weeks they had limited their activing to going out of one hole and getting trees for food. That day I saw a beaver going up a slight hill on the other side of the frozen pond. It went up quite a ways, collected some small sapplings and brought them down the hill. I was viewing this through my camcorder. The beaver went behind a clump of grass and disappeared. Putting the camera at my side, I walked over to find the hole. I went to the path he had gone up and there was no hole! Suddenly I had a queasy feeling. A la Martin, I wondered if I had seen a spirit beaver, and, to punish my skepticism it had disappear without even looking at me. Well, my mistake was to assume it came down the path it went up. I tracked it in the snow and found the hole.

I talk to beavers and have longed to join them in their lodges. Yet in my great empathy for beavers, I've come to this realization: if I were a beaver and wished a special relationship with another living thing in which I could change bodies and realities, I would not want that relationship to be with human beings. I have seen beavers watch otters and watch geese. If I were a beaver I would much rather be an otter for a season, or a goose, not a man. I'm not sure what Martin would say to this but the Indians seem to understand this problem. They make the point that beavers were once just like people, and that they are in a fallen state, and so must relish the chances to be people once again. And this is what I have trouble with. Even in these mythological constructs which seem to ennoble animals there is this element of degradation, especially in the case of the beaver. I respect the Indians' relationships with beavers and those like Martin who seek to understand and build on them, but personally I'll take beavers as I find them. The vagaries of the dying light around the ponds at night suffice to create deep plenipotential problems of perception. I'll leave quantum mechanics on the pages of Scientific American.

Bob Arnebeck

March 2001

Beaver Lore