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Brightman’s Cree Myths and Boas’



  1. Looking at Brightman’s Cree Myths and Boas’ transcription of the first of the Nootka myths in the cycle, consider whether these two myths tend to confirm Viveirs de Castro’s thesis here: Be explicit, they either do or they do not. Explain why using some citations or quotations from the myth.


Thesis: In Amerindian cosmogony (account of the origin of cosmology) animals are ex-humans.

“If there is one virtually universal Amerindian notion, it is that of an original state of non-differentiation between humans and animals, as described in mythology. Myths are filled with beings whose form, name, and behavior inextricably mix human and animal attributes in a common context of intercommunicability, identical to that which defines the present-day intrahuman world.


Secondary Thesis: A consequence of this mythic cosmology is that contemporary animals are “infrahumans” (optional)

The fact that many ‘natural’ species or entities were originally human has important consequences for the present-day state of the world. While our folk anthropology holds that humans have an original animal nature that must be coped with by culture—having been wholly animals, we remain animals “at bottom” —Amerindian thought holds that, having been human, animals must still be human, albeit in an unapparent way.” Viveiros de Castro (what Brightman calls “infrahuman animals “the “infrahuman” animal, “infra” here possessing the sense of “beneath” or “within.” Animals now appear to be nonhumans but under certain circumstances their latent or non-apparent “underlying humanity” becomes apparent)


  1. Structure of the Myths

In the myths you look at, pay attention to and find explicit comparable material, if possible, to the three following features of Cree myths: (1) A depiction of the “world of the animals” prior to the transformation and arrival of humans, if any, in which animals had human properties. Pay attention to similarities and differences in detail. (2) Animal Transformations and (3) The specific language of the transformation event (the verb ‘performative’ is key). Bonus points for finding anything trelating to perspectivalism or infrahuman status. Attend to these points and related points only, don’t worry about nhuman origins, the origin of day and night, just animals. These are excerpts from Brightman, they do not exhaust the relevance of the rest of the text. Citations of VdeCastro and Brightman, and especially direct quotations from myths, are necessary. Use the section from Brightman chapter 2 of the same name as a guide to how to answer each question.

The World of The Animals

In Rock Cree cosmogonic thought, animals existed before human beings in the first condition of the Earth, the age of the narratives called acaðohkiwin


When asked about animal “origins,” Crees usually say that each modem species is the transformation or descendant of an individual animal being (or a class of such beings) who existed in the mythological age.


The first acaðohkiwin category represents social animals inhabiting a world devoid of human beings where they interact with members of their own and other species. When I asked people what the animals in these stories looked like, their reactions sometimes suggested that the question had not previously been entertained. Some said that they looked like animals but with such hominid attributes as upright carriage and clothing. Others said only that they looked like contemporary animals. ….The way of life of the animal characters is overtly cultural. Animals are represented as talking, making fires, arranging marriages, living in lodges, exchanging food, making dry meat, practicing sorcery, and using such manufactures as toboggans…


Most protoanimals possessed as their proper names the nouns that refer today to members of the same species: Omiðahcis ‘Wolverine’, Mahihkan ‘Wolf’, Sakwisiw ‘Mink’. Other animal characters possessed different names: Cicihkwaðos ‘Narrowtail’, the ancestor of dogs; (Brightman)


2) Animal Transformations

Insofar as Crees “explain” the origin of contemporary animal species, it is by identifying them as the genealogical descendants of the protoanimals. Diverse aspects of modern species—diet, habitat, appearance, antipathies—are further explained as the result of transformation experiences undergone by these prototypes. (Brightman).

3) The Language of Transformation

Cree narrators employ a standardized repertoire of devices to signal that an event is to be understood as a transformation, that is, as the first instance of a condition that will endure into the present. In many cases, the transformation is indicated in the quoted speech of the transformer character.

“Here in the future, when people dwell here, they will call you ‘sturgeon.'”


These discourses do not contain such performative verbs as “command” or “name” which in some constructions simultaneously refer to and effect the speech acts of commanding or naming. Crees, nonetheless, understand these utterances to be performative in the sense that they are thought constructively to have innovated the states of affairs they describe. (Brightman)


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Category: Sample Questions