- Reflections on Historical and Contemporary Indigenist Approaches to Environmental Ethics in a Comparative Context
"Weske kutchissik ayum God kesuk kah ohke."1 Rev. John Eliot's Wôpanâak bible, published in 1663 and the Western Hemisphere's first in a Native language, begins with these words, which may be translated as: First in time, when that which continues to be began, God makes the visible heavens, and land.2 This line from Genesis 1:1, translated into the Wôpanâak language (and now back to English), reads a little differently from the familiar version of the biblical Creation, and from it we may get a picture of Algonkian3 intellectualism. From this brief passage we gain an important Algonkian linguistic perspective on Creation: It is an ongoing process; it continues to take place, rather than being a static action in the past, as the traditional English interpretation implies. Despite being rendered by an Englishman, this passage uses the Wôpanâak language, and therefore reflects, to a certain degree, an Algonkian view of Creation. The word kutchissik refers to an ongoing act; therefore, Algonkian philosophy tells us that northeastern Indigenous peoples viewed Creation differently than the English arrivals. It has been established that many early Puritan settlers to present-day New England possessed a literal understanding of God's directive to humans to "replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion . . . over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Gen. 1:28).4 Conversely, as Eliot's translation illustrates, to the Algonkians, Creation (narrated in the present tense) was and is clearly alive, dynamic, incomplete, existent, and present.5 This evidence led [End Page 23] me to hypothesize that an Algonkian view of Creation would promote a philosophy of balance, out of favor with domination and reckless destruction.6
Contrast this with the English settlers' view of the Western Hemisphere they had just stumbled upon and claimed in God's name. A brief survey of two seventeenth-century promotional tracts gives us a peek into the colonists' minds. Colonial English promotional literature has its origins in Richard Hakluyt's Discourse on Western Planting (1584), and through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, promotional tracts became conventionalized, idyllic descriptions of vast lands awaiting the English.7 Such literature painted England's potential plantations as places of bounty, ripe for the English picking, and at the same time, as a release valve for England's undesirables.8 In New England's Prospect (1634), William Wood lists and describes the commodities of the "New World" environment: "The next commodity the land offers is good store of woods," notes the enthusiastic author, of which "the rosin-dropping fir" would be perfect "for masts in use."9 Of hunting in New England, Wood recounts the wealth awaiting English hunters: Wood has seen a man "having loaded himself with more geese and ducks," he boasts of how "one may kill a dozen [grey squirrels] in an afternoon" and "half a dozen [pheasants] in one morning." He claims "some have killed a hundred geese in a week," and of loons, Wood proudly crows: "I myself have killed twelve score at two shots." As for fish, he brags that "a man may catch a dozen or twenty [bass] . . . in three hours" and on the aptly named Deer Island, he revels in the fact that "some have killed sixteen deer in a day."10 Judging by Wood's tone in describing the ease with which one may yield a great deal while hunting or fishing, we may gather that such large-scale extraction from the natural environment was considered a positive attribute from the point of view of the English. There is no mention of using these "commodities" mindfully, no description of a ceremony to thank the Earth for her provisions (the Puritans would have surely recorded acts of thanksgiving).
Not to be outdone, Thomas Morton's 1637 New English Canaan dubs itself a catalog of commodities, and Morton set out to improve upon previous descriptions of New England—including Wood's Prospect—which he refers to as "superficial."11 Morton lists the many utilitarian items of the American environment, notably the...