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Unformatted text preview: AN ARGUMENT FOR THE ANTIQUITY OF NORTHERN FOREST INDIAN ATOMISM Harriet }. Kupferer University of North Carolina at Greensboro The term atomism, according to John Honigmann (1968d:220,227) was probably introduced to the literature of anthropology by Ruth Benedict, although traits which define atomism had been described earlier by Speck (1922,1923). "The very simple societies are atomistic. They recognize only individual allegiances and ties. They lack the social forms necessary for group action" (Benedict quoted in Maslow and Honigmann 1970:323). Honigmann (1948,1956d) employed the concept to explain his observations of the sub-arctic Athabascans and Cree. Pursuing his interest in atomism as a type of society and as an heuristic theory, Honigmann conducted aseminaron itin 1962in which Arthur J. Rubel and Harriet J. Kupferer participated. Encouraged by Honigmann, they later broadened the concept and defined the atomistic society as one "in which the nuclear family represents the major structural unit and, indeed, almost the only formalized social entity. Interpersonal relationships outside of the nuclear family are characterized by contention, suspiciousness, and invidiousness" (Rubel and Kupferer 1969:189). In addition they assert an interrelationship between the two variables of social structure and qualities of interpersonal relationships. This paper* reflects Honigmann's influence and continues to explore the utility of the theory. Mainly peasant and American Indian societies have been labeled atomistic. Applied to peasants, the atomism concept points to suspicion and envy (Foster 1960:174-178,1965:293-315; Langworthy 1968:212-219; Lopreato 1962:21-23). Foster's model, centering on "the image of limited good," is still being hotly debated. Considerably greater consensus exists regarding the atomistic traits of American Indian cultures (Honigmann 1948,1949c; Hallowell 1955; Friedl 1956; Barnouw 1961; Slobodin 1965; Balikci 1968). While descriptions vary in emphases and specifics, atomistic-type Indians are those in whom leadership is informal and non-assertive and the household or small kin group is the most significant cooperating unit. In Ojibwa society, Dunning (1959:156) notes that there are no mechanisms for setting up extrafamilial relations and thence for the integration of the band as a whole. Speaking of the Cree-Ojibwa, Rogers (1963:74) says, "The community is a very loosely knit social unit. It never operates as a corporate body, even though the members view themselves as a unit distinct from Euro-Americans 14 ANTHROPOLOGY AND HUMANISM QUARTERLY . . . . There is no effective overall authority structure, there are few social gatherings encompassing nearly all or all the people." Nonas (1963:78) in a study of the Attawapiscat Cree of James Bay reports that "cooperation--political or social--simply cannot be seen as either the 'structural principle' or the integrating mechanism that holds Attawapiscat together." Emotionally, the atomistic Indian is conceived to be aloof, suspicious or unable to express affect. This profile stresses inability and suggests pathology. Since Rubel and I first defined the atomistic type society, I have come to think that we overstressed formlessness and hostility. Ethnographic accounts, for example, describing friendships (Piker 1968; Gilmore 1975), suggest that there can be associations outside the nuclear family or village which more or less endure. These can be viewed as devices to mitigate the stress produced by atomism and thus as additional markers of atomistic societies. Preston (1976) examines Cree behavior which others might label atomistic and calls it reticence. "Reticence is here defined as that area of self control that directly affects personal exposure to self expression" (469). "Cree feelings are more private and internal, yet no less shared and mutually understood" (479). In accentuating the positive, an interpretation with which I agree, Preston nonetheless affirms the behavior, regardless of the evaluation put upon it. No one disputes the existence of atomism (McGoodwin 1978). Disagreement, however, does arise as to its origin or cause. Kutsche (1979:9-10), reviewing the literature on atomism among Spanish-speaking peasants, argues that most of the typical atomistic traits are present but that they stem from oppression. "Not always or necessarily open and brutal oppression but the long range, pervasive and subtle consequences of social class and a cultural tradition of having lain on the bottom of the social hierarchy for a very extended period of time." Theories explaining Indian atomism are often opposed. Hickerson (1967:313-327) adopts astance similar to Kutsche's with regard to the northern Algonkians. In pre-contact times, he states, the Indians shared many more communal activities-- atomism, both psychological and structural, developed as a consequence of contact. To believe otherwise would deny the Morgan-Marxist thesis of socio-cultural evolution, a position he supports. Bernard James (1954: 1961) agrees with Hickerson and explains the presence of atomism in terms of current reservation conditions. Harold Driver (1967:331) also accepts Hickerson's general thesis that the atomism of the Canadian Algonkians with regard to land tenure, social organization, and personality has been increased, if not wholly caused by White contact, but he doubts that Yurok atomism is attributable to European influence. Others as well have also advanced the idea of a "reservation personality" (Clifton and Levine 1961). Other anthropologists see atomism as an aboriginal characteristic which may have been adaptive. Honigmann (1949d:287) outlines the traits that indicate the emotional isolation and consequent atomism of the Kaska Indians, and later (1967c:332) he says, "I can find no support for the hypothesis that their relations with EuroCanadians (up to say 1950) were such as to cause a shift from strongly cooperative or communal to primarily individualistic norms." His experiences with James Bay Swampy Cree leads him to reject the notion that their personal and structural atomism stems from Eurocanadian influence. Victor Barnouw (1961:1012), agreeing with Honigmann, replies to Hickerson (1960): "I see no reason to believe that Chippewa social atomism is a relatively recent development. Perhaps it is risky to infer past social conditions from origin legends, but the origin legend which I recorded in 1944 breathes a wholly 'atomistic' spirit and gives the impression of preserving very old traditions." According to Ernestine Friedl (1956:814-825), Chippewa culture and personality have persisted from aboriginal times, the constancy resulting from the nature of the "expectations which the successive phases of Chippewa culture engendered in its participants," (Friedl 1956:815). Caudill (1967:330) also posits a persistence of personality traits from pre-contact to post-contact times. He argues that the conditions of life in both periods conduce for survival a personality with a practical approach to problems, a wariness and caution, control over emotions, and a lack of involvement in close interpersonal relations. To summarize, anthropologists agree that the traits which form psychological and structural atomism are present among northern forest Indians. They part company, however, on the issue of provenance. One group believes the traits originate in an aboriginal pre-contact cultural adaptation. The other contends just as firmly that the cause lies in the circumstances associated with the contact period commencing with the fur trade and culminating in the pauper-like conditions of the reservation. In this paper I side with those who state that atomism is an aboriginal characteristic and that it has endured in varying degrees to the present. I use the Cree belief in ghosts to support the position.
THE CULTURAL SETTING The data came from the Cree Indians of Rupert's House, a post located on the east shore of James Bay at the mouth of the Rupert River. Approximately five hundred Indians and twenty resident Eurocanadians made up the settlement in 1963. Rupert's House Cree are not treaty Indians and do not occupy a reservation, and the land they exploit belongs to the province of Quebec. Originally the subarctic Cree wandered over a hunting territory in small, kin-based bands, acknowledging no authority or legitimate power save that of head of the family. A "good man," wise in the ways of people or skilled in the hunt, might be sought out for counsel, but he lacked the power to coerce (Honigmann 1956d:58, Driver 1961:330). Spindler (1962:41) describes the core culture of all northern Algonkians as consisting of hunting, fishing, and gathering groups with an atomistic social structure. Modern bands evolved from the native people's growing dependency on the Hudson's Bay Company which brought Indians to the post more frequently and for longer periods, and the Indian Affairs Branch of Canada which required identifiable units for administrative purposes. Power and authority were also established through the practices of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Indian Affairs Branch, the latter instituting the position of Band Chief. The people at Rupert's House are now only semimigratory. During the winter most men leave the post for their trapping territories. Some take along their families; others do not, leaving older persons, wives, and many children in the village. At the close of the trapping season the trappers return to the post to await spring fishing. When the fish become abundant, families move to fish camps, remaining until the weather grows warmer and the fishing decreases. They then return to the post for the summer. Autumn again brings an abundance of fish, and later the migratory birds appear. Once more the people move a few miles from the settlement to fish and to hunt geese. With the return of the winter, the cycle starts again (Kupferer 1966:6263).
GHOST BELIEF Belief in ghosts seems to have been ubiquitous to American Indian culture, according to Harold Driver (1969:428). In general, the malevolent Dehavior attributed to ghosts, however it varied from group to group, inevitably produced fear and anxiousness. The Washo (Downs 1966) said ghosts were to be feared and avoided; the dead were not benign butvengeful. For any number of sinsofommission or commission, they were apt to return to plague their descendants. The horror with which the Navajo and Apache still regard the dead and their ghosts is well known. The Apache (Opler 1936) dread most the ghosts of relatives, for they are most likely to visit serious, sometimes fatal, illness on their living kin, although ghosts of nonVOL 7, NO. 2 & 3 JUNE-SEPTEMBER 15 relatives may also cause sickness. The Tewa people believe that after death the soul of the deceased still wanders about the world for four days. "There is the fear among relatives that the soul may become lonely and return to take one of them with him. Children who were closest to the deceased, and who had not yet undergone water pouring, are the most susceptible because they are not fully Day Food People; they are i n n o c e n t and undereducated" (Ortiz 1959:53). The Cree, too, dread ghostly apparitions. For the Attawapiscat Cree, seeing a ghost, a frightening, unsettling experience, is a portent of death (Honigmann 1956d:80). Unlike the Apacheandthe Washo, ghosts of strangers are more to be feared then those of relatives. The Rupert's House people are equally convinced of the reality of ghosts and fear their proclivity for life-threatening activities. In the summer of 1963 two Rupert's House women died in the hospital at Moose Factory. One was buried in the cemetery at Moose Factory; the body of the other was flown back to Rupert's House for interment. On the evenings following the news of the deaths, the post assumed an eerie, silent quality. Usually people wandered abroad in the long subarctic evening, their voices and particularly those of children clearly audible. At dusk candles and lanterns would glow softly in the tents and cabins. But for two or three evenings following the deaths, the village was quiet, no children roamed outdoors, the adults kept to their shelters, and only occasionally was a light visible. The people's apprehension over ghosts had changed the countenance of the post and muted its demeanor. As in Attawapiscat, the Rupert's House people are sure that encountering a ghost foretells someone's death. The significant question underlying the fear of ghosts is the question: Whose death? The ghost will surely carry off someone. It could be a kinsman unusually close to the deceased or a friend who had liked the departed openly. On the other hand, it persistent bad relations with him or her. Dreaming of the deceased also predicts death. After Winnie (the first woman mentioned above) died, some members of the band announced that her ghost had been heard knocking at doors and tent poles. At the same time an informant dreamed that he saw Winnie and heard her say, "Edith, you must come with me." The dreamer reported his concern about the dream because Edith was not well herself. Moreover it was said that there was friction between the two women because Winnie was alleged to have had an affair with Edith's husband. And indeed Edith was the second woman to die. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS The dread of ghosts is endemic among the American Indian. Its presence among groups culturally distinct and widely separated geograph16 ANTHROPOLOGY AND HUMANISM QUARTERLY ically argues for its antiquity. But what explains the fear and the ambivalence? Why should death metamorphose a loving relative into a source of terror? Opler (1936:478) sees Apache anxiety associated with ghosts of relatives as a logical outcome of residence in an extended domestic family where the individual must subordinate his personal inclinations and urges to the will of the group. Resentment is swallowed, and wishes are repressed only to emerge in the guise of dread of dead relatives. Thus he sees Apache fear of the deceased as a function of the kinship organization and the attendant kin behavior. It expresses the uneasiness about all close social relationships. In his theory there may be a clue toward understanding the nature of ghost fear expressed by the Rupert's House Indians. They claim that an individual may be in jeopardy if he or she has been too close to the deceased. Likewise anyone who has openly feuded with the dead person or who has incurred his or her animosity is equally at risk. Rupert's House ghosts become malevolent and terrifying regardless of whether social relationships with the deceased had been positive or negative. This view has implications for the contention that the Rupert's Cree specifically and the Northern Algonkians in general are atomistic. In atomistic societies formal bonds between individuals are weak and typically ambivalent. Honigmann (1968d:220) says that "People reveal a tendency to retreat from too intense or unnecessary contact with neighbors with the result that interpersonal relations are marked by empirically demonstrable reserve, restraint or caution . . . ". We have noted that structurally these societies do not have formal political organizations and both the nature of the social structure and the qualities of the interpersonal relationships are interrelated. Therefore I argue that Cree ghost belief reflects their structural and psychological atomism and provides a model for earthly comportment. The belief states in supernatural terms the norm for conduct of day-to-day interpersonal interaction among the people. Inasmuch as the wide distribution of the Indian belief in ghosts and the tenacity with which it persists indicate its antiquity, it can be argued that the atomism reflected in the belief is likewise an aboriginal trait. The Rupert's House Cree belief, like some myths, provides a template for human behavior, in this case the behavior inherent in social and structural atomism. NOTES This is an enlarged and revised version of "Ghost Fear and Cree Atomism," a paper read at the 78th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Cincinnati. Irma Honigmann contributed immeasurably to the final form. ...
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This note was uploaded on 03/28/2008 for the course ISS 210 taught by Professor Zimmerman during the Spring '08 term at Michigan State University.
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