Yes, good churning here. There are at least three interlocking questions I hear in your share….Is consent ever possible between humans and other-than-humans? If so, is arriving at consent possible for folks deeply entrenched in cultures that dismiss the personhood of the other-than-humans? And what are some of the risks of concluding that you indeed have received consent from the others?
First off, it’s my understanding based on my life experience and anything I’ve learned from various elders (Indigenous and otherwise) that yes, it is possible for humans and other-than-humans to actually communicate in conscious, self-aware ways, and by extension to consciously give permissions for different kinds of interactions to proceed. People steeped in these sensibilities may see folks not raised with this to be insensitive, ill-mannered or lacking in a kind of cultural sense, but I’ve never heard the view that because of a person’s ancestry or culture of origin that they are incapable of learning such manners (and the communication skills they require). So, it’s not innate. I don’t think you’re saying that, but good to clarity as some folks could start to create a perception that goes something like, ‘people with mostly Native American blood ancestry are inherently more animist than WASPy suburban Americans,’ which is false. Raise a Native person in the suburbs with no connection to traditional ways and a white person in a traditional Native setting and you’ll see who turns out to have manners; it’s a learned thing, step one. To suggest otherwise, is a kind of weird racial essentialism that’s dehumanizing. So, I’m saying yes, it’s possible for people of any background to learn the basics of communication with the others. And if it’s possible to learn the basics, then we can learn the intermediate stuff, etc. etc.
I think the heart of your question is about the risks here and yeah, there are risks. One is that you misunderstand the communication (or lack thereof) based on your own conditioning. Let’s say you picture in your mind, ‘yes, you can hold your ceremony in this sacred natural grove,’ but you didn’t ask in a really mindful way that was open to hearing no, you don’t know any other protocol, etc., and so the energy is still off, it’s still an overstep. One example like this I can think of in our tradition with Ifa/Orisa ways is when people don’t actually know what they’re doing with a ritual and so they divine on how to do the ritual. No, that’s skipping steps. You don’t divine on whether or not you can practice medicine without a license and the spirits may just spin you around a give you a yes if you ask that dumb question of them. So there needs to be a bigger framework of relationship, ideally community, and at least humility, love, ability to hear no, and ideally community and folks around you to temper weird results.
Another risk is that one fails to be sensitive to different scales of interaction. For example, if I want to pick a sprig of lilac from one of a few bushes full of lilac blossoms in our front yard and I pause and really sense the fullness of this relative, greet her, and feel a warm connective ‘yes’ in response, I’m good with that. The stakes are modest. If I seek and believe I have received permission to establish a personal or small-private-group longer-term shrine on one of the local mountains for ritual work with the land spirits, I would see that as a more medium-level ask (provided it’s not a place where Cherokee traditionalists are actively tending). There are implications, it’s not so huge, but it’s a bigger ask. And then there’s asking if I can clear let’s say 10 acres of land to build a sub-division of new homes. That’s a larger ask yet. I’d still rather have developers grappling with these problems, but the ask is a larger one than a spring of lilacs. When considering the topic of consent, it’s important to try to understand how many others are impacted by the actions and when it’s a bigger deal to bring in even second and third opinions and careful protocol.
This doesn’t mean even all Indigenous traditionalists will agree. Or that they will always consider the full implications. For example, the whale-hunting controversy among the Makah people: https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=90125&page=1. From what I understand many Makah people support this revival of an older tradition (albeit in somewhat modified form). And also there are Makah elders with standing who oppose it. It’s complicated. And there are implications for international whaling rights for much larger nations like Japan, Norway, etc. I don’t presume to know if the Makah people feel an obligation to consider how their personal efforts to honor this tradition include consideration for how their actions may get leveraged by others with very different motivations. Should that factor into consent? And who does speak for Gray Whale here? Which Makah people (if we assume they are better at navigating the communication) do we listen to? Do non-Makah human people have a say in these matters?
And yet, there’s an imperative to grapple with these questions. As we’ll get into later in the course, many (myself included) are advocating for a view of the other-than-humans that extends to them personhood (or concedes it’s always been there, it’s the humans who don’t always bring manners). This follows animist and many indigenous cultural principles (generally speaking). And yet it begs the question of who speaks for the _____ ? Imagine Bear trying to figure out who speaks for Human, lol. Personally, I’d want to hear from a variety of voices but especially people who have lived in multi-year sustained relationship with any given community of other-than-human people. Not only traditionalists but also botanists, wildlife biologists, etc.
OK, this reply is getting long. You named another risk which is jumping to a conclusion that you have permission as a way to avoid the uncomfortable feeling/reckoning of the larger culture mess, etc. Yes, it’s possible to do that. It’s possible to get married to reduce anxiety around being uncertain if you want that. It’s also possible to stew in a kind of ‘this culture/we/white people/colonizer people/etc. are terrible’ mindset in a way that unconsciously centers those experiences and fails to actually connect with the others all around us. Because we’re already embedded in all of it, I just see the imperative to relearn relationship, and to do our best to learn to listen. I see that as much more unsettling and in fruitful ways, much more challenging to show up with self-love, self-esteem, and a capacity to listen clearly…that’s the tougher practice. We’re already in these relationships, so trying our best in a clumsy way to bring them more conscious to me feels more fruitful than opting out of that messiness because there are legitimate risks (of which a few but certainly not all have been named). And not saying that you’re suggesting we opt out of the messiness, but yeah, it’s clumsy and community/traditions/teachers can be so important in tempering all that. Great question, layers with it all, keep speaking up, glad you’re with us!