The Other Side of Eden

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed May 9 11:47:14 MDT 2001

NY Times, May 9, 2001


'The Other Side of Eden': Civilization on Ice


Hugh Brody, an anthropologist, writer and documentary filmmaker, begins his
new book, "The Other Side of Eden," with a recollection of a hunt in the
vast darkness of the Arctic night. He was traveling by dog team with an
Inuit friend, Paulussie Inukuluk, and at a certain point, with Mr. Inukuluk
and the dogs just blurs on a featureless horizon, Mr. Brody experiences "an
unbelievable magnificence that filled me with awe, disbelief, and at the
edge of my mind, real fear."

Some 300 pages later Mr. Brody sums up what he has learned about several of
the peoples who live on the edges of what most of us would narrowly
conceive of as civilization. His journeys to the zones of northern Canada,
where farming is impossible and people live by hunting and gathering, put
him into contact with "a very different kind of human condition." The
immense landscapes that a lifetime of research have brought him to "were
matched by human beings who seemed to be free and at home."

Among the many virtues of Mr. Brody's ambitious and learned (but also
rambling and in places unfocused) account of his life among the indigenous
tribes of the far North is the vivid window it opens on that kind of human
condition. Mr. Brody's book is eye-opening, providing a startlingly
intimate portrait of a physical and human world that few
nonhunter-gatherers will ever experience.

It obliterates the stereotype of the far northern peoples as
representatives of a quaint, icy sort of simplicity and backwardness and
replaces it with a fully human richness and complexity. The region that
exists in the mind of most North Americans as a forbidding emptiness
becomes a domain full of meaning and beauty in Mr. Brody's treatment of the
people who live in it.

Beyond those things, Mr. Brody writes some global history in a book that is
at once a portrait of several indigenous peoples and a reasonable plea for
their battered rights. In his interesting vision, the world consists of two
basic human types: hunter- gatherers and farmers. The conflictual
interaction of the two ways of living on the earth, their mutual lack of
understanding, their different mental and spiritual worlds, their
inevitable economic incompatibility - all lucidly explained in Mr. Brody's
book - explain the basic pattern of human history.

In much of what he writes, Mr. Brody - who has been living among the
various northern peoples for more than 30 years - simply recounts his
experiences. He tells humorous anecdotes of learning to speak Inuktitut in
Pond Inlet on the northern shores of Hudson Bay from a savvy and perceptive
Inuit teacher named Simon Anaviapik. He writes about hunts among the ice
floes. He describes court battles against the government of Canada by the
Nisga'a people of northern British Columbia, and as he does so, he reveals
the way in which the difference of culture becomes impermeable to things
like the language of judicial procedure.

But underlying Mr. Brody's introduction of the northern peoples and
cultures - and underlying as well his melancholy accounts of the
mistreatment of the northern indigenous peoples by immigrants from Europe -
is the larger historical theme. The Book of Genesis serves in this sense as
an archetype of one way of life. Its central ingredient is the expulsion
from Eden and the consequent need to work the land. The world of
hunter-gatherers, by contrast, entertains no notion of an expulsion but
rather a sense of permanent occupancy on land that has always been
connected with a particular people.

But the most basic and pervasive pattern of history is one in which
agricultural civilization spread into the territories of the
hunter-gatherers, seized the land and in many instances annihilated the
indigenous peoples. This is what happened in much of North America, but in
Mr. Brody's expansive historical view it also happened in Europe and in
Asia, though much earlier.

"All this suggests that the conquest of hunter-gatherers by farmers in the
Old World may not have been all that different from the advance of European
agricultural frontiers in the New World," he writes. Farmers, with their
growing populations and their need for ever more land, were the true nomads
of history, consigned always to seek and settle new territories.
"Hunter-gatherers, with their reliance on a single area, are profoundly
settled," Mr. Brody writes. "As a system, over time, it is farming, not
hunting, that generates `nomadism.' "

Having made that fascinating point, he spends much of the rest of his book
pleading for the rights of indigenous peoples and describing the nature of
the colonialist depredations they have suffered. In much of this, Mr.
Brody's writing has a drifting, segmented, uncrisp quality that leaves the
reader wondering here and there what exactly the point is. But his general
idea is clear enough: the various stages of occupation of the indigenous
peoples robbed them of their languages, their culture, the very sense that
they possessed full human intelligence.

He includes portraits of people to explain why alcoholism is so serious a
curse in the far Northwest. "We have to have some pleasure, so we drink,"
he is told by a young Innu man in northern Labrador. "It's the one thing we
are allowed to do." Mr. Brody shows how Christianity, though largely
accepted in the far North, has treated indigenous beliefs as ridiculous and
evil. "We never told the Christians that they would go to hell if they did
not accept our religious beliefs," a Mowachaht elder told Mr. Brody.
"That's the difference between our spirituality and the white man's."

In places angry, sometimes stylistically flawed and thematically jumbled,
"The Other Side of Eden" nonetheless is an informed, passionate and
enlightening volume, one that draws on an exceedingly rich experience and
adds new dimensions to our understanding of the diversity of human life.

Louis Proyect
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