We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth as “wild.” Only to the White man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land infested by “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us.
~ Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle6
Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.
Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. It is this false separation of self from nature that makes this cannibalism, rather than simple murder. It allows—indeed commands—the infected entity to consume far more than it needs in a blind, murderous daze of self-aggrandizement. Author Paul Levy, in an attempt to find language accessible for Western audiences, describes it as ‘malignant egophrenia’—the ego unchained from reason and limits, acting with the malevolent logic of the cancer cell. We will use the term wetiko as it is the original, and reminds us of the wisdom to be found in Indigenous cultures, for those who have the ears to hear.
Wetiko can describe both the infection and the body infected; a person can be infected by wetiko or, in cases where the infection is very advanced, can personify the disease: ‘a wetiko.’ This holds true for cultures and systems; all can be described as being wetiko if they routinely manifest these traits.
In his now classic book Columbus and Other Cannibals, Native American historian Jack D. Forbes describes how there was a commonly-held belief among many Indigenous communities that the European colonialists were so chronically and uniformly infected with wetiko that it must be a defining characteristic of the culture from which they came. Examining the history of these cultures, Forbes laments, “Tragically, the history of the world for the past 2,000 years is, in great part, the story of the epidemiology of the wetiko disease.”7
We would presumably all agree that behavior of the European colonialists in North America can be described as cannibalistic. Their drive for conquest and material accumulation was a violent act of consumption. The engine of the invading culture suckedin lives and resources of millions of others and turned them into wealth and power for themselves. The figures are still disputed, but it is safe to place the numbers killed in the tens of millions, certainly one of the most brutal genocides in history. And the impact on non-human life was equally vast. Moreover, it was all done with a moral certainty that all destruction was justified in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization.’
This framing belies the extent of the wetiko infection in the invader culture. So blinded were they by self-referential ambition that they could not see other life as being as important as their own. They could not see past ideological blinders to the intrinsic value of life or the interdependent nature of all things, despite this being the dominant perspective of the Indigenous populations they encountered. Their ability to see and know in ways different from their own was, it seems, amputated.
This is not an anti-European rant. This is the description of a disease whose vector was determined by deep patterns of history, including those that empowered Europeans to drive ‘global exploration’ as certain technologies emerged.
The wetiko meme has almost certainly existed in individuals since the dawn of humanity. It is, after all, a sickness that lives through and is born from the human psyche. But the origin of wetiko cultures is more identifiable.
Memes can spread at the speed of thought but they usually require generations to change the core characteristics of cultures. What we can say is that the fingerprints of wetiko-like beliefs can be traced at least as far back as the Neolithic revolution, when humans in the Fertile Crescent first learned to dominate their environment by what author Daniel Quinn calls ‘totalitarian agriculture’ — i.e., settled agricultural practices that produce more food than is strictly needed for the population, and that see the destruction of any living entity that gets in the way of that (over-)production—be it other humans, ‘pests’ or landscaping—as not only legitimate but moral.