Veganism in the Occupied Territories: What of Pre Occupation Animal Domestication?

'Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America' by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535).

‘Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America’ by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535).

I wrote a bit about initial responses to writing about “Veganism in the Occupied Territories” in the article “Decolonization, Land and Choice” but left out one specific response that comes up frequently – pre occupation animal domestication. When the article “Cats on Turtle Island” went up on the Bestial Oblivion site this week I happily spread it around encouraged friends and supporters of the writing on this site to support that site and the author. In doing so though, I had two people reach out though with this issue again – what of pre occupation animal domestication?

One of the original reasons I put off writing about this is because I almost always saw this response come from those who wished to use it as a deflection – a way to undercut any critical examination of Euro Settler Animal Agriculture or concepts of “captivity” and domestication that were brought to this land on European ships.* The thinking being – if Llama’s were domesticated by the Incas 4,000 years ago, Guinea Pigs throughout the Andean Region, and Turkeys by Pre-Aztec populations and by Puebloans -then how sound is it to talk about animal captivity or domestication as a distinct European phenomenon? Almost always, these examples rely on broad generalizations, a grand scale pan-indianism, and erasure of all difference. Lumped in my mind with attempts to undercut like controlled burns and claims of environmental destruction, evidence of warfare, the “Bering Straight” theory, etc. which have the insincere intention of justifying occupation. Similarly, many of these folks also assume a read-in idea that by thinking critically about settler colonialism, occupation, and the use of animals in that practice means an acritical acceptance of the idea that Turtle Island was a utopia or of some static and impossible return (nostalgia by way of settler guilt as the answer). No.

The premise, at its heart, instead is that a distinct food system was brought to this land and, as a result of it, and through its process, we have seen an increasingly hierarchical, violent and expansionist food system tied to genocide, land theft, environmental devastation, decimation of wildlife and habitat destruction. Animals bodies are both the weapon, and the victim, of this larger system and, as they are intertwined and their roots can be traced, we have to be critical of them in their entirety if we are to undo any portion of it. Animal agriculture on Turtle Island cannot be divorced from Settler Colonialism and vice versa. This is a point I want animal rights activists and vegans, like myself, to understand.

As for how animal domestication differed pre and post occupation – the first important point for anyone trying to trace any of this is to break the settler mindset that demands pan-Indianism. The European food system brought here is a mono system, while the food systems it disrupted, dismantled and destroyed were unique, themselves largely distinct, land based, but also connected in trade (of goods and ideas). So frequently when I am presented with an example of animal domestication which apparently undercuts this entire premise, I am presented with it in a way that suggest all nations engaged in this practice, or a vast majority. This is Europeans mapping the way we approach food systems onto history, conveniently. Any attempt at comparison should be rooted in the land, the specific nation or peoples, and the fluidity of both. I want specific names, places, practices. Within 300 years European Settlers farmed cattle, pigs and chickens from Coast to Coast. There was no such uniformity among Onkwehon:we over a time span much larger than that (and don’t slip to technology as an excuse – sound agricultural practices did travel, but via trade networks and when sound – rarely by force). It is also extremely important to note that many Onkwehon:we had the ability to construct a food system based around animal captivity that mirrored a European system before occupation – none did. Still, even if they had, that would not justify occupation and genocide.

Another crucial point to be made surrounds difference in understanding of what “property” meant. Benjamin Breen’s “The Elks Are Our Horses: Domestication in the New France Borderlands” does a far better job than I ever could detailing this distinction. Breen’s article should be read in full for anyone interested in this line of thinking and it is a great record of how many nations saw Euro Settler Animal Agriculture (and notably “captivity” as a whole) as a distinct feature of colonialism of which they needed to resist.

We are all brothers, who should form one body, and possess the same spirit.The French invite us to go to war against the Iroquois. They want to use us to make us their Slaves. After we have contributed to [the Iroquois’] destruction,the French will do to us what they do to their cattle, which they force to plow and labor on the land. Let us leave them to act alone.” – Ottawa Chief in Response to French Attempts to Recruit Against the Iroquois


When the Ottawa chief warned that “the French will do with us what they do with their cattle”, he explicitly linked animal husbandry to human captivity. In doing so, he drew upon a deep-seated association between the two concepts so fundamental that it was embedded in the structure of his language. In Ottawa, as in other Algonquian and Iroquoian tongues, the words for “tamed creature/pet” and “captive/slave” were linked. To ally with the French, the chief argued, was to willingly become an animal in their service – and the state of being a tame animal shaded into native conceptions of human bondage. In protesting this specific alliance, the Ottawchief was thus also rejecting one of the most fundamental structuring principles of European society: a hierarchical social order that regarded mastery over domesticated animals as integral to improvement, commerce, and “civility.” (From Breen’s article linked above). 

Personally, I’ve read and seen similar splits on different reservations with traditionalists still refusing animal agriculture on these terms and also seen other examples of the implied message that accepting the distinct food system of Euro Settler Animal Agriculture would bring “success.” I will never forget walking through the massive Atlanta Airport and the “Walk Through Atlanta History” section to see the quote and photo of Creek Chief William McIntosh, “We will go to a new home and learn like the white man to till the earth, grow cattle, and depend on these things for food and life.” Whether nations and peoples resisted, or accepted some form of Euro Settler Animal Agriculture, they did so with the recognition of it being a distinct food system and one being tied to Europeans, Settlers, and Colonialism. You don’t have to just take my word for it!

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Euro Settler Animal Agriculture was then a mono food system, distinct from the food systems that existed pre-occupation and one that saw other animal species in ways incompatible with how many Onkwehon:we thought of them pre-occupation – even in places where animal domestication previously existed in some form. Why is this hard to grasp? One of the most controversial points I feel for most animal rights activists and vegans is that in talking about the difference that existed between these systems – or even the differences in use (animals were thought of communally, not always used for meat/killed, those systems were not exported/expansionist, etc) – comes the implied idea that these uses were “ok” or that they would be what we should “return to.” I think part of this concern would relate back to how easily this would sync up with settler nostalgia around animal agriculture that would see a return to small scale animal agriculture – “happy or humane meat.” But, this is the precise reason why animal advocates should be paying attention and tracing the history of animal agriculture back to occupation and linking its existence here to settler colonialism. A veganism/animal liberationist politic rooted in decolonization is capable of explaining why settler attempts to co-opt or appropriate pre-occupation animal use is merely an attempt to re-assert settler colonialism.

The other part of the equation is the inability, or refusal, on the part of advocates to cede autonomy back to those resisting genocide. The dream-myth of global veganism does not want its party spoiled by a politic that would allow Onkwehon:we to hunt, or even engage in animal domestication/captivity. Yes, space should be made for Onkwehon:we who support veganism and/or are vegan themselves – but typically and currently those voices are used as tokenistic prop, an illustration of the unwillingness to recognize autonomy as the priority. (This can also be seen in attempts at Pan-Indianism that paint pre-occupation as a near vegan paradise). The child like attachment to the idea of a world where “no animal will die by human hands” keeps this dream alive – even as historically vegetarianism and veganism has been an isolated and periphery concern. Veganism itself is a powerful ethic – but only if it is capable of realizing that what you eat and what you wear itself has no impact on living, breathing animals and if it can successfully branch out to think critical of the ways in which these issues intersect. Class, race, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, ableism and more can all either be sites of intervention where veganism is used as a weapon to try and leverage marginalized human populations in favour of “animal rights” OR they can be sites of resistance where animal liberationists recognize difference and use that as a start point to build. Within the Turtle Island context, that process has to be rooted in a recognition of the occupation of this land, and the role of settlers in finding ways to show solidarity, return land, and increase autonomy.

Discussion then round pre occupation animal domestication exposes one of the reasons why animal rights positions remain isolated – a refusal to recognize Euro Settler Animal Agriculture as distinct, tied to Settler Colonialism or even worth noting, ensures its survival. The dream of global veganism is a nice one – especially set against the nightmare of animal agriculture – but unless we are willing to face the reality of how that system came to be, it will not end. Fundamentally, and perhaps most importantly, focusing on pre occupation animal domestication also assumes and obscures whether or not we should be in here in the first place and I feel like this is partly the source of why what I write makes people uncomfortable.

Are we welcome?

Important to note that the latest two conversations where not of this type and instead came from friends who aided this article, gave resources, advice and ideas. This is worth mentioning because I’d never want that process to stop!


One response to “Veganism in the Occupied Territories: What of Pre Occupation Animal Domestication?

  1. Pingback: Cats on turtle island | bestialoblivion·

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