Circumpolar Night’s Dream

In Cultural Ecology 2020, we began part 4 of the course by starting the “Monsters” section of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (M1-21) and returning to a fascinating chapter, “A circumpolar night’s dream” in Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment. This was for Cultural Ecology 2020. In 2022 I revisited the Ingold chapter for a course on the History of Anthropological Thought:


This introductory section of the flip-side of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is basically a preview to the rest of the book. A crucial sentence cited in the student comment below: “Monsters are useful figures with which to think the Anthropocene, this time of massive human transformations of multispecies life and their uneven effects” (M2). And as we wrestle with the uncertainties of the monstrous coronavirus, it is indeed a good time to consider monsters. “Against the conceit of the Individual, monsters highlight symbiosis, the enfolding of bodies within bodies in evolution and in every ecological niche” (M3).

Circumpolar Night’s Dream

Most of this post is on Tim Ingold’s truly incredible “Circumpolar night’s dream.” I often like to ask my students what was the wildest thing that happened to them over the weekend and just say that whatever it was would be nothing to an Ojibwa gathering, where maybe an ancestor appears to you in a dream as a Thunder Bird, stones come to life, or thunder speaks.

In a mainstream Western approach, we would wonder about the Ojibwa: “Are they, then, lying or deluded?” (Ingold, 95). Of course, anthropologists are not supposed to do that. Anthropologists, “by temperament and training, are inclined to be rather more sympathetic to native accounts” (95). We are supposed to put the views of others into context, perhaps engaging in a “willing suspension of disbelief” so we can emerge on the other side with cultural relativism.

For Ingold, this anthropological approach has “more than a hint of duplicity here” because what we anthropologists call a “cultural construction”–to be appreciated and understood through cultural relativism–is the “only reality they know” (95). In these sections, what Ingold will be doing is to really take the Ojibwa seriously: might they offer us not just another cultural construction but a way of being and living in the world?

“Is an organism a thing or a being?” (Ingold, 89)

In mainstream Western thought, the world has living things as well as human beings. Human beings are like “organisms plus” and we live a split-level existence, as organisms and as persons. In this world, non-human animals are not persons, they are living things. Western thought does make two exceptions, for household pets (Ingold, 91) and in fables. But for pets, they are only persons because our human personhood has rubbed off on them, and they are “locked in perpetual childhood” (91; that’s why you see all the super-cute dog outfits). For fables, they are not-real stories that are meant to portray human types and teach human morality. “The animal characters are used to deliver a commentary on the nature of human society. No one believes that Little Red Riding Hood has much to say about dealing with real wolves!

In Ojibwa understandings, persons can take many forms. The human is one form of person, but non-human animals can be persons too (91). This does not mean that all animals are persons. However, there are some that are always treated as persons, such as the bear:

Some animals are always extraordinary. One such is the bear. The hunter, on encountering a bear, will act towards it as a person who can understand what is being said and will respond according to its own volition. There is nothing in the least anthropomorphic about this. The hunter is not regarding the bear as if it were human. To the contrary, it is perceived to be unequivocally ursine. Unlike the pet in a Western society, the personhood of the bear does not depend upon its previous contacts with humans–indeed it need not have had any such contacts at all. For the same reason, the bear is just as much a ‘full person’ as is the human hunter. Ojibwa relate to persons in animal form as grown-ups, not as children. And whereas anthropomorphised animal-persons in the West are treated as beings that need to be looked after and controlled by their human guardians, the animal-persons in the environment of the Ojibwa are considered to be on the same level as, if not more powerful than, human beings themselves. (91-92)

Animate or Inanimate?

In Western thought, life is a property of things. Things can be animate or inanimate. When linguists encountered the Ojibwa language, as well as other languages, they similarly classified nouns in other languages as animate or inanimate (96). Interestingly, the linguists classified “stones” in the Ojibwa language as animate. But this led ethnographer Irving Hallowell to ask: are stones really alive?

In Ojibwa thought, animacy is not a property of things. Animacy depends on context (98):

Hallowell recounts a fascinating anecdote concerning the nature of stones:

I once asked an old man: Are all the stones we see about us here alive? He reflected a long while and then replied, ‘No! But some are.’ This qualified answer made a lasting impression on me. (OO, p.24 in Ingold, 96)

The Ojibwa had knowledge by experience, or “a coupling of the movement of one’s own awareness to the movement of aspects of the world” (99). That’s how you know which stones are alive. “The liveliness of stones emerges in the context of their close involvement with certain persons, and relatively powerful ones at that. Animacy, in other words, is a property not of stones as such, but of their positioning within a relational field which includes persons as foci of power” (97).


In standard US child-rearing, when a child awakens from a scary dream, we say that was “just a dream.” Dreams are not real: dreams are a fiction, or an illusion.

For the Ojibwa, dreams are continuous with waking life. If we were to object and say that what they are describing is not “really real,” this objection is somewhat beside the point because it can happen in a dream. “Far from covering over a solid substrate of literal reality with layer upon layer of illusion, what dreams do is to penetrate beneath the surface of the world, to render it transparent, so that one can see into it with a clarity and vision that is not possible in ordinary life. In dreams, for the Ojibwa, the world is opened up to the dreamer, it is revealed” (101). As Ingold notes, for everyone, dreams are part of the same memory process, and become part of our autobiography (101).


Then there is the subject of speech and language. For Western thought, language is an indication of the “unique status of humanity” (102). We have it, while non-human animals do not.

For the Ojibwa, speech is “one of the ways in which the self manifests its presence in the world” (104). “No fundamental line of demarcation can be drawn between the sounds of nature and human speech” (105). The incredible example here is of thunder:

Let me recount one more anecdote from Hallowell’s Ojibwa study. An old man and his wife are sitting in their tent, and a storm is raging outside. There is thunder and lightning. The thunder comes in a series of claps. The old man listens intently. Then he turns to his wife and asks, quite casually and in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, ‘Did you hear what was said?’ ‘No’, she replies, ‘I didn’t catch it’ (OO, p. 34). What are we to make of this? (Ingold, 103)

Revisiting Darwin

Since the work of Charles Darwin, mainstream Western science has argued that humans differ from animals in degree, not kind. There is not some absolute gulf between human and non-human animals. However, the scale was that of reason or intelligence. Such views became a justification for reprehensible views of other human beings–ideas that others do not have art, language, or culture.

Standard Anthropology accepts Darwinian evolution. But we insist that all humans have art, language, culture and history. In other words, we are saying that humans have culture which is different in kind from evolution. For Ingold, these anthropological views break our continuity with other beings and reinforces Western arrogance.

What’s the endgame here Ingold?

Ingold’s objective is to restore “human beings to the organic lifeworld in a way that does not, at the same time, reduce them to mere objects of nature” (90). He is doing so by taking seriously Ojibwa metaphysics, so that they can challenge “our own ontological certainties” (95):

I have been searching, in this chapter, for a way of understanding the continuity of the relations between human beings and all the other inhabitants of the earth which does not fall foul of the difficulties of the argument by degree–an argument that is unashamedly anthropocentric in taking human powers of intellect as the measure of all things, that can only comprehend the evolution of species in nature by supposing an evolution of reason that takes them out of it, and that, if applied consistently, is incompatible with any ethical commitment to shared human potential. (109)

Berens & Hallowell

I’ve been teaching “Circumpolar Night’s Dream” for many years. Like Ingold says about the Hallowell article which is the basis for this chapter, “I have turned to it over and over again for inspiration, and every reading has yielded some new insight” (90).

However, upon assigning Ingold’s Anthropology: Why It Matters in my Intro-to-Anthropology course, I’ve now been re-reading this chapter for additional insight. One important thing Ingold does in Anthropology: Why It Matters is provide some pictures, which can also be seen at William Berens’ stories, told to Irving Hallowell.

First, check out these stones!
Circumpolar Nights Dream - Berens Stones
I think this helps reveal why those stones were so vital and alive to the Ojibwa, but also gets at Ingold’s endgame goal in the “Circumpolar Night’s Dream” chapter:

This means thinking of life in a way very different from that imagined by science. It is not some secret ingredient, hidden within things deemed to be in possession of it, whence they are mobilized on the world’s stage. It is to think of life, rather, as the potential of the circulations of materials and currents of energy that course through the world to bring forms into being and hold them in place for their allotted span. It is not, then, that life is in stones. Rather, stones are in life. (Ingold 2018, 23)

But perhaps more importantly, we learn about Hallowell’s interlocutor and friend:

During the 1930s, one of the most prescient anthropologists of the twentieth century, A. Irving Hallowell, was working among the Anishinaabe or Ojibwa people, indigenous hunters and trappers of north-central Canada. There he developed a close friendship with William Berens, Chief of the Berens River Anishinaabe. Berens was a man of great wisdom and intellect, taught by his own elders and by a lifetime of attention to the world around him, including its animals, its plants, and particularly its stones. By Hallowell’s account, his discussions with Berens profoundly influenced his own thinking. (Ingold 2018, 17)

Unlike in “Circumpolar Night’s Dream,” we now have a person and a name: William Berens.

The shift to questions of being that began with Hallowell has since gathered such momentum that many anthropologists today are speaking of a ‘turn to ontology’. For Hallowell himself–despite his prescience a man of his time–this was a turn too far. In the end, and tragically, he turned his back on his friend. The title of his paper–‘Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and worldview’–says it all. In it, Chief Berens reappears as an anonymous ‘old man’ whose attitude towards stones merely attests to the received view of his culture. We can no longer afford to be so complacent today. For it has become evident, as never before, that the existential certainties upon which the modern era was founded have taken the world to the brink. We need to forge alternative approaches to the problem of how to live, which might heal the rupture between ways of knowing the world and ways of being in it, between science and nature. This healing is a necessary step along a path towards a future that is open-ended and sustainable.(Ingold 2018, 24)

So instead of the anonymous “old man,” let’s conclude with a picture of Berens and Hallowell:
Berens-Hallowell - Circumpolar Night's Dream

This material was for Cultural Ecology 2020. Here is similar material from 2017. In 2022 I revisited the Ingold chapter for a course on the History of Anthropological Thought:

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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