Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Salmon have preoccupied my thoughts this week.

March 26, 2010

Salmon have preoccupied my thoughts this week.

Or more precisely, the spiritual relationship that the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are Native American, feel with salmon.

"California tribe hopes to woo salmon home from New Zealand," an article published in last Sunday’s New York Times and written by Jesse McKinley, explains that over two dozen Winnemem people have flown to New Zealand, "where they will ask their fish to come home to California."

This story revolves around the Chinook salmon of the Pacific Northwest. Years ago, in the 1940s, the Shasta Dam was erected in such a way as to block the annual salmon run. This, in McKinley’s words, broke "a covenant with the fish," in the eyes of the tribe. Salmon numbers have dwindled. The Winnemem wish to atone, they say, for not fighting harder to block the dam’s construction.

Why go to New Zealand, though? Chinook salmon eggs were once shipped by the United States government around the world, including to New Zealand, for fisheries breeding. By flying to where the salmon are now, Winnemem people can re-establish a key spiritual connection with the fish. They will begin a four-day ceremony for that purpose on Sunday.

The trip is not entirely spiritual: the group hopes to bring back salmon eggs to California, and thus jumpstart the salmon numbers at home.

We may recognize how vitally important is this instance of animal-human connection for the Winnemem. The tribe’s outlook centers on its sense that its own population numbers have decreased just as the salmon numbers have. Now, the Winnemem report, the spirits have urged them to make this trip, and off they go.

Elsewhere, I’ve read about a consortium of Native American spiritual leaders who in recent years carried out ceremonies to ask buffalo if they wanted to return to their native range in the United States.

Spiritual communion is what’s at the heart of these events, as is a refusal to conclude that we humans can’t communicate fully with other animals (or to think that such communication must be carried out on our own terms).

As an anthropologist, I’m naturally fascinated by the diverse ways people relate to animals, here in North America and around the world. Twenty-five years ago, I was living in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, as a baboon observer working towards my advanced degree. I had the good fortune of becoming friends with a Masai family, and was able to see for myself how incredibly close the bond is between Masai people and their cows and bulls. These animals were known and cherished as individuals by the Masai. There too, the connection was not abstract, but played out in day-by-day activities.

A world of possibilities for how to relate emotionally with animals—and sometimes spiritually as well-- opens up before our eyes, when we look beyond how we do things in our own communities.

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.