In his 1832 book Astoria, about John Jacob Astor’s 1811 attempt to extend his fur trading activities to the Oregon coast, Washington Irving described the reaction of Indians along the Columbia River to the arrival of white fur traders: “The Indians were overjoyed when they found this band of white men intended to return and trade with them. They promised to use all diligence in collecting quantities of beaver skins, and no doubt proceeded to make deadly war upon that sagacious, but ill-fated animal, who, in general, lived in peaceful insignificance among his Indian neighbors, before the intrusion of the white trader."
I like Irving’s observation not only because I think it is accurate but because that’s exactly what I want to show. How the beaver’s sagacity enables it to live in peaceful insignificance, and that what most historians, ecologists and anthropologists think beavers signify is wrong. Beavers don’t mean what those experts say, in part because of the way beavers actually are, which I will try to describe, and in part because ecology, anthropology and history focus on exploit, and the significance of those things that are exploited is too often blown out of proportion in an effort to justify the exploitation. Humans always want to save face, and too often legitimize past slaughter by making its continuance a part of hallowed tradition. I want to free the beaver from its reputation as being a measure of wealth and a reason for war. Millions of beavers were killed for no legitimate reason.
Rather than describe the march of civilization across the continent endlessly repeating that the land was “rich with furs,” and implying that killing the animals bearing those furs was inevitable and necessary for progress, and that the men responsible were larger than life, I will highlight dissonant voices. In his April 8, 1859, journal entry Thoreau summoned up the sorry record of the trade: “What a pitiful business is the fur trade, which has been pursued now for so many ages, for so many years by famous companies which enjoy a profitable monopoly and control a large portion of the earth’s surface, unweariedly pursuing and ferreting out small animals by the aid of all the loafing class tempted by rum and money….” What prompted Thoreau’s observation was a newspaper report on the sudden demand for skunk furs in Russia, engineered by the Hudson’s Bay Company when there was a drop in demand for beavers. The Journal of Commerce reported a “’mania for capturing these animals [which] seems to have equaled the Western Pike’s Peak gold excitement, men, women, and children turning out en masse for that purpose.’”
American historians do not like to be presented with evidence suggesting that Americans were maniacs. Surely beavers must have regarded them as such.
There is a tradition of debunking in American history, though it seems to be currently out of fashion, but maybe my take on the fur trade will pass muster as history.
I’m not so sure anthropologists will appreciate a re-examination of their take on the Indians’ relationship to beavers, because the Indians were surely as maniacal as the Europeans. Having spent too much time in beaver swamps, I find myself getting strange feelings sometimes. When I look at the early pottery of Indians found not far from where I live, pottery made 500 years before the fur trade started, I see decoration around the pot rims that looks like the marks beaver incisors often leave on the wood of trees after they stripped the bark away. Anthropologists call such decoration “dentition.” And when I first saw the Indian mounds in Newark, Ohio, I felt like I had found the land of Giant Beavers. But no one else seems to get this sense of Indians living in peaceful significance with beavers.
In my opinion, thanks to the popularization of the work of anthropologists, we too often impose a world view on all Indians that is a composite of the most exploitive traits of many disparate tribes. Yes, some tribes sent teenage boys out to fast until they had visions of their totem animal who they would then go out a kill and then keep the skin for luck in all subsequent hunts and wars. But the Iroquois and Huron didn’t have that tradition. Yet the argument is still made and widely accepted by non-Indians that they have some mystical right to kill beavers and other animals at their whim.
Keen to categorize Indian exploits, anthropologists seem loath to let any animal live “in peaceful insignificance with their Indian neighbor,“ but 150 years ago they had a different take. The “father of American anthropology“, Henry Lewis Morgan, who died in 1881, wrote the first, and in many ways still the best, book on beavers in 1868. In 1851 he had written the first “scientific” account of Indian culture, a still well respected book on the Iroquois. A lawyer in Rochester, New York, Morgan was a champion for Indian rights and was made a member of the Seneca tribe. Then the Ojibwa shared their lore about beavers with Morgan when he was doing legal work for a railroad in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But all that he learned from the Indians did not prompt him to find much significance in the ancient relationship between Indians and beavers. In his beaver book he wrote: “During the aboriginal period, this animal was of no use except for his flesh, which was not of much request; and the Indians had no method of taking him except by the bow and arrow.” Today, thanks, I think, in large measure to the reconstruction and elaboration of Indian mythology by white anthropologists, a bite of beaver, killed by one of Sewell Newhouse’s steel traps, is a must at many an Indian powwow.
So I propose oppose the sagacity of the resourceful beavers to the maniacal human lust to kill, which will not bring millions of beavers and the world they created back to life, but I at least hope to persuade you that we should not let myth making and pandering to manufactured heroes obscure the true relationship of humans with beavers in North America. But who am to slap my tail so? What right do I have to defend beavers, what qualifications to even describe them? I have no credentials in any academic discipline, and having never killed a beaver nor any other wild animal, how dare I evaluate the actions and motives of the men, both European and Indian, who did? Yes, for many years, I found their ponds, sat still and tried to learn from the beavers, but why not relegate the musings of those loafing hours to a few poems?
I’m not sure when it struck me. My life had worked itself into a pattern of walking down wooded ridges and seeing the continuity and surprises in and around the yawning womb that is a beaver pond. I’d read the white of twigs stripped of their bark, try to catch echoes of the crash of tall trees around the pond, and freeze in anticipation watching the mounded lodge, womb within a womb, and wait for the brown wedge head of the beaver to cut the still pond surface into resounding ripples, if not crescendo slap tails. It struck me, I’m not sure when, that those who made their business off the beaver came to its fur or the beavers’ world within a world of their own wound within their own skin. How different were those worlds from mine and the sense the beavers have of their own world?