Sammy White Cloud

The Other Side of Eden

Hugh Brody<em> Faber and Faber, 374pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0571205968

A dozen or so years ago, I was driving through the desert somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona, one of those enormous, undifferentiated landscapes that make administrative boundaries seem futile, hubristic. The long, straight, undulating asphalt stretched like a tightrope through a vast wilderness, which spread, dry, brown and magnificent, for miles on either side. It was autumn but still hot, and I stopped to pick up a hitcher. He was sixtyish, with long, white, greasy hair, and his clothes were stiff with old sweat. He stank of piss. His name was Sammy White Cloud; he was a Navajo Indian.

As we drove, he told me that the tribal elders were negotiating with an oil company over drilling rights on their land. They stood to make millions of dollars from the deal, enough to pay for new schools, houses and all the rest. Even so, he wasn't keen; it was, after all, Navajo land. I listened to him talk for half an hour, then set him down at a place that looked identical to where I'd picked him up. He disappeared into that great openness, and I forgot all about him until I read Hugh Brody's new book.

The Other Side of Eden is a distillation of Brody's 30 years of experience with the aboriginal peoples of far northern Canada: living with them; hunting in the ice-fields; helping them fight for their rights in the courts; documenting, through books and films, their struggle for survival, both bodily and cultural, in that inhospitable terrain. Its central aim is simple - namely, to stand on its head the received notion of hunter- gatherers as nomads. On the contrary, Brody argues, it is us - the agriculturalists - who are the wanderers, restlessly searching out new lands to bend to our ploughs. Cursed endlessly to roam, we settle only for a while until a growing population makes fur-ther expansion inevitable. We construct uncultivated lands as wilderness containing nothing of value until hedged in and tamed, made productive, creating the surpluses that fuel further waves of expansion, more wars of pacification against the wild people who inhabit those wild places.

From this point of view, our familiar poles of metropolis and countryside are not opposites at all, but differ only in degree. "The worldview and daily preoccupations of the peasant farmer and the 21st-century executive have much in common," Brody writes. "Their intellectual devices, their categories of thought and their underlying interests may well be the same." The Inuit, on the other hand, have an understanding of the world that is quite alien to us.

Through analysis, story and myth, Brody bridges the gap between our farmed minds and the untrammelled world-view of the hunter-gatherer. He describes the humour, gentleness and egalitarianism of Inuit society, in which men and women are treated with equal respect, duplicity is almost unknown, and depression and anxiety disorders unheard of. In case this should seem a misty-eyed, Rousseauian depiction, Brody points out that there is nothing of the noble savage about the Inuit: this is simply the culture they have developed in order to survive. He describes, too, their absolute absorption in the land, and the respect they accord the animals and plants with which they share it.

He details the many varieties of repression, with which the agriculturalist world has always greeted hunter-gatherers. In Canada, these have been relatively benign: forced settlements, residential schools and edicts against the use of native languages. But such measures are deadly to an oral culture in which fact and metaphor, myth and information blend into a complex body of particularised knowledge that is essential to survival. For the colonialists, "the clearing of minds is inseparable from the securing of lands", Brody argues. "And the loss of the words that hold history, knowledge and heritage . . . compounds all other forms of dispossession."

Having read this calm, humane, at times superb book, I have a far greater understanding of Sammy White Cloud's objection to those oil companies. And the mess into which farming has got itself and us begins to make some sense.