A very interesting thread appeared on my beaver news-feed yesterday. It began by talking about the native protests of the Dakota pipeline. Then ended by discussing the relationship between beavers and water and Native Americans.
The Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” has become a new national protest anthem.
It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. on March 10, and during hundreds of protests across the United States in the last year. “Mní wičhóni” became the anthem of the almost year-long struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.
For Native Americans, water does not only sustain life – it is sacred.
Native American tribes on the Great Plains knew something else about the relationship between themselves, the beaver and water. They learned through observation that beavers helped create an ecological oasis within a dry and arid landscape.
As Canadian anthropologist R. Grace Morgan hypothesized in her dissertation “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology,” the Blackfeet sanctified the beaver because they understood the natural science and ecology of beaver behavior.
Morgan believed that the Blackfeet did not harm the beaver because beavers built dams on creeks and rivers. Such dams could produce enough of a diversion to create a pond of fresh clean water that allowed an oasis of plant life to grow and wildlife to flourish.
Beaver ponds provided the Blackfeet with water for daily life. The ponds also attracted animals, which meant the Blackfeet did not have to travel long distances to hunt. The Blackfeet did not need to travel for plants used for medicine or food, as well.
Beaver ponds were a win-win for all concerned in “the Great American desert” that modern ecologists and conservationists are beginning to study only now.
For the Blackfeet, Lakota and other tribes of the Great Plains, water was “life.” They understood what it meant to live in a dry arid place, which they expressed through their religion and within their ecological knowledge.
R. Grace Morgan’s dissertation on beaver ecology and mythology? What? Why had I never heard of it? I went hunting immediately thinking that everyone else knew something I didn’t. I found the entire dissertation online at the University of Alberta library and just the abstract was enough to send thrills up my spine.
“WOW! Heidi, what a total score. Just read the abstract, fascinating.”
So I wasn’t the only one, and I settled in for a good read. I’m about half way through, but I have to keep stopping to make notes or tell someone else how cool it is. I thought I’d share some highlights. Basically she postulates that for the plain tribes in the middle of Canada and North America, water was so scarce that they valued anything that protected it. They evolved a taboo system about killing beavers, so that no one wanted to eat beaver meet or wear beaver skins because it would ultimately threaten that water resource. They relied totally on the buffalo for survival for most of their needs. And the beaver was literally the “sacred cow“ they would never harm.
Because beavers save water, and water was life.
Then the Fur Trade came marching along and threatened that way of life. For centuries the Blackfoot Indians refused to help out hunting beaver, until the entire economy started revolving around beaver. Then their enemies who were willing to become beaver enemies started to get preferential status. The tribes they had quarreled in the past were suddenly armed with guns and ammunition because they agreed to help. Dr. Morgan was the first to pose that the sacredness of the beaver eroded under economic and hostile pressure. They reluctantly did what was needed and started to kill the thing that saved their water until all the beaver had gone the way of the buffalo and dinosaur before them.
And do you think it might be important for a water vulnerable state like CALIFORNIA to know about this dissertation? Or remember why the things that save water are sacred? R. Grace Morgan returned to academic life after her children were grown and was in her fifties when the dissertation was completed in 1991, nearly a decade before Dr. Glynnis Hood showed up to study the same subject in the same area of Elk Island, Alberta. Glynnis said they never met, but she heard good things about her from colleagues. Dr. Morgan was an archeologist – not an ecologist. And some of the things her dissertation faithfully reports about beavers have since been debunked, like the fact that their dams never blow out. But she got so much right. I wish we had met. She died at age 81 last February after a long struggle with oviarian cancer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do.