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Page 29 - European Impact on the Micmac Culture

Published by Ronald Caplan on 1982/6/1 (470 reads)

ulate the magical beings and powers. The seventeenth-century French, who typically labeled the shamans (or buowin) frauds and jugglers in league with the devil, were re? peatedly amazed at the respect accorded them by the natives. By working himself in? to a dreamlike state, the shaman would in? voke the manitou of his animal helper and so predict future events. He also healed by means of conjuring. The Micmac availed themselves of a rather large pharmacopia of roots and herbs and other plant parts, but when these failed they would summon the healing arts of the most noted shaman in the district. The illness was often di? agnosed by the buowin as a failure on the patient's part to perform a prescribed rit? ual ; hence an offended supernatural power had visited the offender with sickness. At such times the shaman functioned as a psy? chotherapist, diagnosing the illness and symbolically (at least) removing its imme? diate cause from the patient's body. It is important to understand that an eco? system is holocoenotic in nature: there are no "walls" between the components of the system, for "the ecosystem reacts as a whole." Such was the case in the Micmac ec? osystem of precontact times, where the spiritual served as a link connecting man with all the various subsystems of the en? vironment. Largely through the mediation of the shaman, these spiritual obligations and restrictions acted as a kind of con? trol device to maintain the ecosystem in a well-balanced condition. Under these cir? cumstances the exploitation of game for subsistence appears to have been regulated by the hunter's respect for the continued welfare of his prey--both living and dead-- as is evident from the numerous taboos as? sociated with the proper disposal of ani? mal remains. Violation of taboo desecrated the remains of the slain animal and of? fended its soul-spirit. The offended spir? it would then retaliate in either of sever? al ways, depending on the nature of the broken taboo: it could render the guilty hunter's (or the entire band's) means of hunting ineffective, or it could encourage its living fellows to remove themselves from the vicinity. In both cases the end result was the same--the hunt was rendered unsuccessful--and in both it was mediated by the same power--the spirit of the slain animal. Either of these catastrophes could usually be reversed through the magical arts of the shaman. In the Micmac cosmol? ogy, the overkill of wildlife would have been resented by the animal kingdom as an act comparable to genocide, and would have been resisted by means of the sanctions outlined above. The threat of retaliation thus had the effect of placing an upper limit on the number of animals slain, while the practical result was the conser? vation of wildlife. The injection of European civilization in? to this balanced system initiated a series of chain .reactions which, within a little • over a century, resulted in the replace? ment of the aboriginal ecosystem by anoth? er. From at least the beginning of the six? teenth century, and perhaps well before that date, fishing fleets from England, France, and Portugal visited the Grand Banks off Newfoundland every spring for the cod, and hunted whale and walrus in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Year after year, while other, more flamboyant men were ad? vancing the geopolitical ambitions of their emerging dynastic states as they searched for precious minerals or a pas? sage to the Orient, these unassuming fish? ermen visited Canada's east coast and made the first effective European contact with the Indians there. For the natives' furs they bartered knives, beads, brass ket? tles, assorted ship fittings, and the like, thus initiating the subversion and replace? ment of Micmac material culture by Europe? an technology. Far more important, the fishermen unwittingly infected the Indians with European diseases, against which the natives had no immunity. Commenting on what may be called the microbial phase of European conquest, John Witthoft has writ? ten: All of the microscopic parasites of humans, which had been collected together from all parts of the known world into Europe, were brought to these (American) shores, and new diseases stalked faster than man could walk into the interior of the con? tinent. Typhoid, diphtheria, colds, influenza, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, tuberculosis, yellow fever, scarlet fever, and other strep infec? tions, gonorrhea, pox (syphilis), and smallpox were diseases that had never been in the New World before. They were new among populations which had no immunity to them.... Great epidemics and pandem-
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