Vegetarianism. Farm work. Environmentalism. Cori Persinger’s core values led her to an unlikely place—a freezing cold afternoon in the Cherokee Wildlife Area with a dead buck that needed to be gutted and bagged as the sun fell behind the hills. Persinger had come to CSU to study environmental ethics. She was determined to learn intimately and directly. And there she was, fighting frostbite by thrusting her hands deep into the warm belly of a freshly killed deer on the forest floor. Goal accomplished.
From Vegetarianism to Hunting
Persinger’s path to this first successful hunting trip came, in part, from her interest in living, and eating, ethically. She explains, “I have been vegetarian for a really long time. I’ve always cared a lot about how the way I’m eating is affecting the world.” Then, Persinger read an article by Bob Fischer and Dan Demetriou where they argue that anyone who’s following a vegan diet but is still buying food from the grocery store is responsible for quite a few animal deaths. These deaths are the result of how commercial farming equipment moves over fields and kills small animals in the process. Persinger continues, “I’ve worked on farms for the past couple years, and I just became really interested in how complicated it is. Our interactions with the land aren’t as clearcut as ‘being vegan equals good versus eating meat equals bad.’”
At the same time, Persinger’s partner, Preston Gromer, was rediscovering his family tradition of hunting. “And so I said, ‘okay, let’s go hunting!’ and he took me with him that first year. At the same time, I was trying to read what philosophers have to say about hunting. And I naturally fell into indigenous philosophy at that point because, honestly, I think it offers the most compelling ideas and arguments about hunting compared to the western literature.” This was the start of Persinger’s thesis on applied hunting ethics of the Ojibwe and Cree people.
Reciprocity and Hunting Ethics
Persinger already had an interest in indigenous thought when she arrived at CSU, though she’d never had a class dedicated to it before. She credits Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, for sparking her interest and making the case for the significance of traditional knowledge. Persinger explains, “Kimmerer’s arguments were really striking to me and I think they were striking to a lot of people. So, I’ve always been interested in how it seems to hit home with so many people. It’s very philosophical, but I don’t see this being talked about in academic philosophy necessarily.”
Thinking through the idea of reciprocity as an ethical ideal is an aspect of Kimmerer’s work that really stuck with Persinger. She describes Kimmerer’s account of picking wild strawberries growing up: “Her family would eat all these fruits she had picked and would share them with others. She talks about how she would weed out areas around the runners that the strawberry shoot up to help them reproduce more the following year. She talks about how because the strawberries gave this gift of fruit this ongoing relationship opened up between them and, for her, the natural response was one in which she fulfilled reciprocal duties for the strawberry plants.”
The theory of reciprocity starts with relationships as the basic units of our environments and gift-giving as its essential expression. The theory of reciprocity becomes more problematic when we transfer the idea to animals, including deer, Persinger admits. Reciprocity does involve recognizing other beings as intentional in their actions, including gift-giving. For example, Persinger’s work examines the belief that hunting is enabled through the intentional act of a deer giving its life to the hunter.
Persinger explains that this is difficult to understand from a western perspective: “Animal rights theorists are going to have a lot of problems saying, ‘oh, this deer is giving itself to you’ and seeing it as an intentional giver in that way. That theory is focused on individuals, including individual animals, and protecting individuals. And then we have this very different worldview where individuals aren’t seen as the basic units, it’s the relationships and the interdependence of those relationships. It’s about seeing yourself embedded in these relationships already and existing within them.”
The relationships with deer are honored and respected by many indigenous traditions. For example, Kimmerer discusses how the first deer kill of the season is shared with the community. And the deer itself is honored and respected through the offering of tobacco and the acknowledgement of the sacredness of deer and their relationship with the people. Persinger explains how some northern Indigenous groups, including Cree and Inuit, believe that the animals are the ones to establish the relational ground rules with humans. They are also the ones to enforce the rules and to leave if the reciprocal obligations are not fulfilled.
Persinger began to understand these relationships more profoundly during her hunting trips. She explains, “I think experiencing how hard hunting is, and how hard it is to even find animals in the first place really helped me feel a real sense of humility. I guess that’s the way I ended up interpreting it. It’s a statement that comes from a worldview that’s very different. A worldview where humans aren’t just the dominators in charge of everything, where we depend on other things, and we can’t survive without them. Through my hunting experiences, the worry felt really real to me that you could go up there and there might just not even be any animals anymore and if that’s your main food source, what do you do? I think that is what initially helped me, that is seeing how that power dynamic can be flipped, you know? It helped me think about animals differently and think about the way we interact with them differently.”
Western Philosophy and Willful Ignorance
Persinger grappled with her positionality as a white woman philosopher while studying indigenous thought. “This was a concern that I actively had throughout the whole development of the thesis, and I came to see my role as critiquing animal rights theory and pointing to indigenous theory to say, ‘hey, this is something that needs to be looked at.’ I wasn’t trying to do indigenous philosophy or to say this is what it is or ‘Look at me. I’m explaining it.’ I just wanted to point out that it’s here and animal rights clearly has similar concerns. The fact that they’re not engaging with it is the problem.”
This can be considered a case of “willful hermeneutical ignorance”—a term developed by Gaile Polhaus Jr. to explain the unwillingness of privileged knowers to engage with epistemic resources (like new theories and concepts) that emerge from people in marginalized positions. Persinger’s broader claim is that animal ethics as a field is intentionally dismissing indigenous theories even though they offer robust and relevant frameworks for thinking through similar issues. When there is some cross-cultural engagement, it is often marred by misrepresentation or over-generalization of indigenous ideas.
“I think there is a really interesting conversation to be had but the point I’m trying to make in my work is that the depth of the disagreement and the kind of robustness of the disagreement is missed where willful hermeneutical ignorance remains pervasive. Because these different kinds of conceptual frameworks in which indigenous hunting ethics are being expressed are completely missed when people just try to force those beliefs into a western framework. We need to recognize that there are other ways to conceive of things like killing and hunting and there are different ways to conceive the ways that humans and animals interact with each other,” explains Persinger.
The harm brought about by this kind of willful ignorance extends beyond knowledge claims and theories. Persinger gives this example: “Animal rights theory is connected and very intertwined with a political movement that’s done a lot to the detriment of indigenous hunting practices. There’s been a lot written about Arctic indigenous peoples in Canada and their practices of sealing and whaling. Animal rights theory has really been key in ruining the economic infrastructure of communities that rely on these traditional practices.”
Keeping Philosophy Relevant
Persinger plans to continue studying animal ethics in a doctoral program at Texas A&M this year, in addition to pursuing a master’s degree in wildlife management or something similar. “I’m very happy to dedicate my life to thinking about hunting.” She is especially interested to learn from even more perspectives, including those of Texan hunters and ranchers. Persinger is intrigued by the divide she sees between local knowledges and scientific and academic frameworks, especially how they come to a head and affect decision-making at the policy level. Despite cultural differences, Persinger is betting that “non-indigenous hunters would probably agree more with indigenous perspectives on hunting than with Western animal ethicists.”
After being involved with the CSU Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, Persinger hopes to continue to engage with interdisciplinary research groups. She explains, “I think that kind of engagement really helps keep what I’m thinking relevant and tied to issues that people are currently talking about. That’s the way I see myself doing philosophy. I’m always trying to work on really applied issues and giving insight to issues we’re facing in relation to animals.” The hunting, of course, will continue in Texas. Persinger plans to set her sights on wild boar next.