Cannibals!

October 1, 2009

I went to a seminar given by a visiting scholar on Cannibalism in Canada. Specifically, the limits of cultural relativism and the search for meaning when discussing the events he talks about.

The speaker’s points centered around two events, plus the Cree understanding of the Windigo spirit. For background, the Windigo is a creature that the Cree believed possessed people and made them lose control of themselves. Many sociologists have speculated that the rise of the Windigo myth came about in response to people practicing survival cannibalism and/or losing their minds. These people were said to be possessed by a Windigo. Say you were a hunter in a family and your wife was acting kind of batty, and it is the dead of winter. You need to go out and hunt, but you daren’t leave your kids alone with your wife because you’re scared of what may happen. It is easier to kill the Windigo possessing your wife in this case than it is to just kill your wife.

From our perspective, the end result is the same: the person ends up dead, but in the Cree mindset the person was already dead and only the Windigo was killed. This understanding of the Windigo spirit is critical to understanding what happened in the first incident. Basically a supply expedition went out in the dead of the Canadian winter is 1817, and got stranded. Eventually everyone died with the exception of the half-Cree wife of the leader of the expedition. To feed herself during this time she ate her dead companions. When some Cree who were sent to find the expedition found her, she was acting a bit weird and they killed her; or rather, they killed the Windigo. The English guys in charge at the Hudson Bay Company did nothing, and accepted the report of the Cree rescuers.

Fast forward to 1831, and during another particularly harsh winter a group of about 24 Cree came to a supply outpost asking for provisions as they were starving. As it happens, the leader of the Cree group was the father of the Cree who killed the woman in 1817, and the man running the outpost was her brother-in-law. TENSION! The quartermaster refused to provision the group, but not for the reason you’d think. See, his supplies were running short and he was already feeding about 14 other Cree who had come to him for help. He just didn’t have any extra food. Nonetheless, a few days later one of the Cree boys who was living at the outpost visited the camp of this large group of starving Cree and noticed they were all cleaning their guns. Sure enough, the next night the outpost was attacked, and only four people made it away.

All the Cree in the area fled, fearing what they saw as a Windigo spirit in this group of starving Cree. There’s no conclusive evidence of cannibalism in this case, but before arriving at the outpost the group had killed an elderly member of the group that wasn’t able to keep up. Over the course of the winter all the men in the killing group were captured and killed themselves.

Now, traditionally this event has been seen in the light of 1492; a simple Natives rising up against their white oppressors story. The lecturer argued that this simply wasn’t a satisfying way to describe the events in light of the Cree WIndigo myth. Furthermore, he argues that to simply cast this as two opposing forces– cultures diametrically opposed to each other– does not allow for all the interaction that the Europeans and the Natives in the area had with each other. All in all, fairly interesting, although time didn’t allow him to get into the cultural relativism part of his lecture in a way that satisfied me. In the end I was just confused by what he was saying there.

Additionally, during out question and answer period he was vigorously and aggressively questioned by one member of his audience. The guy was angry that the French living in the area were completely ignored by the lecturer’s research. (The story is taking place around Hudson Bay in Quebec territory) He was also upset that the lecturer had said that cultural relativism forbids you to make absolute claims on other cultures until you understand more about them. The lecturer dealt with the first question well, and in answering the second contention he flubbed in my mind.

To the first: The French weren’t in the story because the French weren’t in the story. Maybe if this talk were expanded out into book length some discussion of the influence of French traders on Native and European relations would be in order, or of French and English relations, but in the context of this specific speech the French were non-actors.
To the second: I have always felt that the fact that much of postmodern and poststructuralist thought rests on denying absolutes with an absolute is one of its best points. Namely, it encourages people to always and forever be examining their positions. And so even in its statement of intent, saying that there are no absolutes, postmodernism is undermined by its own manifesto, encouraging dialogue and rewarding humility.

Finally, it is lonely being a Fulham fan in this country. I went to a (mostly empty) bar tonight to watch Fulham play in the Europa League. The Europa League is a secondary competition for teams in Europe after their own domestic leagues. Fulham play in England, and qualified for the Europa league by finishing seventh in the English Premier League last year. The top four teams in the league go on to play in the highest level of European club competition, the Champions League. Still, this is the first time Fulham have ever played in a European tournament, so it is kind of a big deal for the club.

I was the only person watching the game.

It is incredibly awkward to be the only person in a bar yelling at the screen while a game is going on.

Some thoughts from the game:
Fulham played FC Basel, winning 1-0, but honestly Basel was the better team on the night. Fulham had a decent ten minute spell of possession in the second half that led to Danny Murphy’s goal, but for the balance of the night Basel looked as though they were on the verge of putting one in the net.
I know Eddie Johnson (from the US) is pretty useless on this team, but he can’t be nearly as useless as Bobby Zamora. My goodness, he did nothing but lose the ball all night long.
Fulham fans living in London apparently don’t think the game is as important as I did, since the stadium was about 10,000 fans short of capacity.
About 2000 of the fans who were in attendance were Basel fans. They are a tattooed, shirtless, badass looking lot, and they cheer loudly all through the game. If you’re a neutral fan and you want a team to cheer for, based on their fans, you’d have to go with Basel.
Fulham’s fans, on the other hand, sit on their hands all game being very polite.

I think I like Basel’s better.

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