Grateful Prey

Seeking to study a culture where indigenous religion was still practiced and where hunting and foraging prevailed over wage labor, anthropologist Robert Brightman went in 1977 to live among the Rock Cree near remote Granville Lake in northern Manitoba, Canada. GRATEFUL PREY is his scholarly study of human-animal relationships in this Algonquian hunter-gatherer society.

Through his investigation of Cree stories of animal origins, rituals surrounding the hunt (including attitudes of reverence and respect for the human-like qualities of animals, vision quests, powerful dreams, and spirit animals), belief in the cannibalistic witiko, the practice of the eat-all feast, and many other fascinating religious and material practices, Brightman details the complexity and ambivalence of Cree human-animal relationships, in which the hunted animal is sometimes conceived as a willing and generous victim, and sometimes as a difficult and elusive adversary.

The latter part of the book explores the role of the Cree in the depletion of game that followed the booming European fur trade. Brightman finds little evidence the indigenous Cree culture deliberately conserved game for the future; instead, the Cree seem to have regarded the abundance of game as a gift, quite unaffected by human agency, to be used up with gratitude. Brightman also examines the extent to which cultural practice is determined by purely material considerations and concludes that, at least among the Rock Cree, many aspects of culture have little to do with the economic necessity of getting a living.

Brightman’s book is doubtless an important work of ethnology. For the general reader, however, the author’s heavy use of dense and often obscure anthropological jargon is frustrating and renders his interesting insights into Cree culture considerably less accessible than one would wish.