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Native American Studies Meets Animal Studies: Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals and the Problem of Anthropomorphism

Joanna Ziarkowska


The aim of this article is to offer a theoretical framework derived from animal studies to read The Radiant Lives of Animals by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan. While Hogan’s insights into non-human animals’ lives are sensitive and insightful, they may seem anthropomorphic. To illuminate the rationale behind Hogan’s choice of imagery, I propose to read The Radiant Lives through the work of Vinciane Despret’s concept of anthropo-zoo-genesis. Despret’s concept is relevant for Hogan’s work as she is, in the same way, genuinely interested in the interactions of bodies, the embodied character of life.

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1. Introduction: Animal Studies beyond content analysis

1In his seminal article “Human, All Too Human” from 2009, Cary Wolfe ponders on the profusion of cultural productions related to the widely defined field of animal studies: there is, obviously, literature about human and non-human animals’ relationships, animal TV channels, e.g., Animal Planet, the (then) burgeoning area of animal rights law, and myriad applications of Western theory to the field. However, Wolfe observes that if animal studies is to expand beyond content analysis, it needs to pose questions about the method(s) of investigation into representations of non-human agency. “To put it bluntly,” Wolfe writes, “just because we study nonhuman animals it does not mean that we are not continuing to be humanist—and therefore, by definition, anthropocentric” (568). Indeed, what Wolfe is advocating is the creation of methodologies that would destabilize anthropocentrism inherent in the continental philosophies and instead focus on the challenges of expressing non-human animals’ sentience and behavior beyond the imagery centered on the human.

2I see a similar predicament of content-oriented criticism in the application of animal studies to literary texts by Indigenous writers. The 2013 special issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures was devoted to the use of animal studies in Native American studies and, among others, offered readings of literary texts from this field’s perspective. Some of these articles concentrated on Indigenous cosmologies to explain human-animal relations (Riche), while others attempted to juxtapose posthumanist theory vis-à-vis oral tradition (Ladino). Over the years, similar engagements with Native texts followed; however, in my view, what they have failed to address is Wolfe’s question about methodology. These early critical texts point out the significance of animals in Indigenous texts but rarely offer a comprehensive methodology that would be applicable to non-Western texts and could expand the meaning of non-human animals within them beyond that of a metaphor or an element of oral traditions. Over the years, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have addressed this issue; they have construed the history of human interactions with non-human animals as inextricably tied to ideological foundations of settler colonialism and have called for the decolonization of the nature/culture binary. These new approaches have cultivated a critical space that affords a shift towards a relational character of interactions among human and non-human beings. However, what often reverberates in these attempts to engage Indigenous knowledge in critical animal studies is the emphasis on the extent to which the Western paradigms of conceiving the hierarchical structure of the human-animal relationship are divorced from Indigenous cosmologies, thus creating another binary logic that obfuscates the fact that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous animal studies scholars are invested in the rejection of anthropocentric hierarchies.

3Therefore, my aim in this article is to offer a theoretical framework derived from animal studies through which a text by the Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, The Radiant Lives of Animals (2020), might be read. Hogan is a distinguished Native writer, well-known for her keen interest in documenting the lives of animals around her. Radiant Lives emerges from Chickasaw and Indigenous contexts and, therefore, clearly rejects the anthropocentric hierarchy inherent in Western philosophy and celebrates the vision of the world in which human and non-human animals are kin. However, I am nevertheless bothered by the fact that in the text, non-human sentience is always inevitably expressed through human affect, thus running the risk of being perceived as an example of anthropomorphism. On the other hand, Hogan’s perspective does not privilege human experience and is clearly relational and devoid of hierarchical thinking. Therefore, to defend Hogan’s anthropomorphic descriptions and to illuminate the rationale behind such imagery, I propose to read The Radiant Lives through the work of Vinciane Despret, the Belgian philosopher of science. Two of her articles that will be applied here are “The Body We Care for: Figures of Anthropo-Zoo-Genesis” and “Responding Bodies and Partial Affinities in Human-Animal Worlds.” I find Despret’s concepts relevant for Hogan’s work for three main reasons. First, as a non-Indigenous scholar I believe it is ethically sound not to read Hogan’s text vis-à-vis Indigenous Knowledge of which I am not a co-creator and co-owner. Second, taking into account my positionality, I would like to take an active part in the process of knowledge production about Hogan’s creative process without making claims to which, as a cultural outsider, I have no right. Despret’s work is rarely applied in literary studies with the exception of Anne McConnell’s more theoretical article. Thus, I believe I contribute to the creation of an interdisciplinary approach that pays tribute to both the philosopher’s emphasis on embodiment and the writer’s embodied descriptions of how she experiences the world around her. Moreover, I see Despret’s work as an escape from a binary logic that renders non-Indigenous methodological frameworks by definition as incompatible with Indigenous perspectives. Indeed, if there is an epistemological bridge between these respective perspectives, it is contained in the philosopher’s attention to bodily connections among human and non-human creatures. Third, Despret’s large body of work concerns the intimate nature of the relationship between the observers (human animals) and the observed (non-human animals) in scientific research, which resembles the contexts described in The Radiant Lives. Moreover, Despret is genuinely interested in the interactions of bodies, the very dynamics of bodies observing one another, sharing the same space, diet, affective relationships, and constructing and interpreting one another’s affects. Hogan shares these interests as an observer of and a participant in the space that she is describing: she is a keen and respectful observer, well aware of the presence of her body and its impact on the non-human animals that she regards and with which she enters into more intimate relationships. Thus, I will first outline why anthropomorphic imagery is problematic from both animal studies and Indigenous studies perspectives. The dilemma of anthropomorphic imagery in animal studies is a complex problem, and what I offer here is a comprehensive summary. In the context of Hogan’s text, anthropomorphic imagery, in my view, might be embraced through Despret’s concepts of anthropo-zoo-genetic practices and affective perspective, as both emphasize the embodied connections of humans and animals. In the final section, I will offer a reading of Hogan’s text that does not dismiss the text’s anthropomorphism as related to anthropocentrism but instead presents it as grounded in the experience of the human/non-human body(ies).

2. What’s Wrong with Anthropomorphism?

4From the perspective of literary studies, anthropomorphism or “the attribution of human personality or characteristics to something non-human, as an animal, object, etc.,” is an old and widely used device that dates back to Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey (Cuddon 40). While often productive as a simile, in the natural sciences and ethology in particular, it has come under a lot of criticism as a sign of an unscientific and highly subjective approach. This tendency to dismiss anthropomorphism was especially strong in the mid-twentieth century, with scholars representing behaviorist approaches according to which research on animal behavior should avoid references to animals’ individuality or even consciousness (de Waal, The Ape 32-61). This extreme approach of downplaying similarities between humans and animals may similarly lead to scientific bias. Dutch ethologist and primatologist Frans de Waal coins the term anthropodenial to refer to “a priori rejection of shared characteristics between humans and animals when in fact they may exist. Anthropodenial is a blindness to the human-like characteristics of animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves” (“Anthropomorphism” 258; Are We 25). Interestingly, the relationship between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial is of inverse character: we anthropomorphize the species affectively and biologically closer to us (e.g., domestic pets) and deny any connection with those that seem distant from us (e.g., earthworms) (Are We 25-26). Therefore, more recent tendencies acknowledge that anthropomorphism is to some degree inevitable in descriptions of animal behavior. As James A. Serpell writes in an article on pet keeping, anthropomorphism “appears to have its roots in the human capacity for so-called reflexive consciousness—that is, the ability to use self-knowledge” (123) when describing various phenomena and, in consequence, to establish similarities between human and non-human animals. In a similar fashion, John Kennedy in The New Anthropomorphism admits that it is simply our “in-built” quality, and even staunch behaviorists fall victim to its seduction (151, 32).

5Moreover, as de Waal points out, anthropomorphism, while often inevitable, does not necessarily imply scientific imprecision, romanticization of non-human animals, and an inevitably anthropocentric position. De Waal distinguishes two types of anthropomorphisms: anthropocentric and animalcentric. The first type is referred to as naïve, and it attributes human mental and emotional characteristics to animals. The latter, on the other hand, is heuristic and serves the function of developing a theory and its clear presentation. In other words, the use of terms associated with human consciousness hints at potential similarities between species but by no means implies objective facts nor imposes human characteristics onto animals. “It is this use of anthropomorphism as a means to get at the truth,” writes de Waal,

rather than as an end in itself, that sets its use in science apart from use by the layperson. The ultimate goal of the scientist is emphatically not to arrive at the most satisfactory projection of human feelings onto the animal, but rather at testable ideas and replicable observations. Thus, anthropomorphism serves the same exploratory functions that of intuition in all science, from mathematics to medicine. (Good Natured 64)

6If, as Kennedy’s earlier quote reminds us, anthropomorphism is an “in-built- quality,” de Waal suggests harnessing its potential to construct a discourse that facilitates a possibility of animal sentience and agency.

  • 1 See e.g., Vizenor, Bearheart and Fugitive Poses.

7In Native American and Indigenous Studies, the problematic position of anthropomorphism is analyzed in relation to Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies that are not based on the fundamental, hierarchical difference between human and non-human animals. Indeed, one might say that since in Native cosmologies humans and animals are kin, the concept of anthropomorphism carries different, not necessarily negative, connotations. However, on the other hand, Indigenous texts do circulate in non-Indigenous contexts where there is little knowledge about a non-hierarchical organization of the world. One of the first Native scholars to draw attention to how anthropomorphic description complicates the understanding of non-human animals in fiction by American Indian writers was Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe). In “Authored Animals,” Vizenor describes the process through which writers evoke the presence of animals and nature that are important from the perspective of Native cultures. Vizenor’s fiction abounds in animal characters who are often contemporary renditions of traditional figures.1 However, these literary creations come to life through the application of figurative language—similes, metaphors, metonymies etc.—which inevitably warrants associations with human characteristics. This, according to Vizenor, is potentially problematic and should be avoided, as such “modes of narration cause misconceptions in both science and literature” (661) and establish human affects and behaviors as the main point of reference, which in turn may misconstrue the unique position of non-human animals for non-Indigenous readers. Vizenor’s early text on the problematics of anthropomorphism anticipates more recent discussions that further explain broader implications of anthropomorphic imagery. As de Waal observes, “Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism are never far apart: the first is partly a ‘problem’ due to the second” (48) and his concern is about scientific accuracy and objectivity. There is, however, a wider space of ideological signification attached to the latter term that remains fundamental for Indigenous contexts. “Anthropocentrism,” write Adam Weitzenfeld and Melanie Jo,

in its purest and most pervasive form, could only come into being with humanism—a belief system that defines human beings as ontologically free through a universally shared essence such as reason, and considers humans as the source of knowledge and value. Anthropocentrism is not the effect of inescapable, ahistorical constraints of human sensibilities, but rather it is a historic development born from specific institutional and philosophical traditions. (4)

8Indeed, to divest these institutions and traditions of ideological power representing the natural world as inevitably subject and inferior to the human mind, Indigenous scholars saw the need to connect decolonization efforts with Native perspectives on the non-human. In 2016 Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear insisted that for Native American and Indigenous studies to be “more promiscuous in… intellectual and political interventions,” it has to address the non-human (“Dear” 80). The application of anthropomorphic imagery to depict relationality in the world is often the inevitable price paid for introducing Indigenous perspectives. However, it is by no means an appropriation of colonialist language. Mohawk/Anishinabee scholar Vanessa Watts claims that from an Indigenous perspective it is more accurate to compare habitats and ecosystems to societies. What this entails is a strong belief that: “they have ethical structures, inter-species treaties and agreements…. Non-human beings are active members of society. Not only are they active, they also directly influence how humans organize themselves into that society. The very existence of clan systems evidences these many historical agreements between humans and non-humans” (23). While the comparison is derived from Indigenous people’s social organizations, it is by no means anthropocentric.

9For other Indigenous critics, anthropomorphizing is more complicated and inescapably entangled with ideological positioning. According to Cree writer and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt, anthropocentrism gives rise to speciesism, capitalism, and settler colonialism. In all three of these discourses, non-human animals, Black and Indigenous people are placed in the same category of “the killable” to make room for the white settler (21-22). Belcourt locates the challenge to this paradigm in Indigenous ontologies that identify non-human animals as kin “who co-produce a way of life that engenders care rather than and contra to suffering…. Animals thus must first be excised from their colonized subjectivities to be subsequently welcomed into a decolonial subjecthood animated by Indigenous cosmologies” (24-25). However, animals as decolonial citizens are often depicted with the use of anthropomorphism, the presence of which, as can be seen from numerous examples, may well lead to misleading conclusions: is it an expression of the writer’s (in)advertent anthropocentric thinking or an attempt to convey Native ontologies to an Anglo-American reader in a discourse they are best familiar with?

  • 2 See e.g., Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian; Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places; Vizenor, Manife (...)

10In his seminal work on Indigenous paradigms of science, Santa Clara scholar and educator Gregory Cajete emphasizes the specificity of perceptions of animal nature as dramatically different from Western ontologies and epistemologies. The relationship between human and non-human animals is non-hierarchical and extends on many levels of interactions: people, animals, and inanimate beings represent the relational and sustainable character of the Indigenous universe; animals are people’s kin and are often merged into family structures; they are integrated in spiritual beliefs, e.g., “In all Native traditions, the sacred directions are a conceptual, mythic, and spiritual structure for reflecting upon the symbolic meaning of animals in the cosmology of Native cultures” (150); animals are food and enter a reciprocal ritual of hunting and gratefulness, which ensures the survival of Native communities and the enduring respect people pay non-human animals; finally, animals feature as agents in Indigenous creation stories and together with humans bring about change, peace, and establish new orders (150-175). However, as Cajete observes, while the position of non-human animals in Indigenous science is so fundamental, “there has been a tendency to oversimplify Native spiritual expression and miss many of its inherent and subtle meanings” (150). Moreover, not only have these attempts been flawed by oversimplification but have often produced descriptions that are outrightly naive and idyllic, contributing to the perpetuation of the stereotype of the environmental Indian.2 Cajete’s goal in his book project is to demonstrate the incorrectness of such thinking and instead to draw attention to the complexity of Native science.

  • 3 On Momaday’s concept of blood memory see an early analysis by Krupat, The Voice in the Margin (11-1 (...)

11Hogan’s literary projects tie in with Cajete’s in her emphasis on conveying the relational character of interactions in the natural world. For instance, in non-fiction works, she evokes Nanih Waiya, the Chickasaw people’s place of emergence located near Philadelphia, and demonstrates how the bodies of plants, human and non-human animals are connected to this space and together create one living body. Writing about humans, Hogan borrows examples from the animal world to demonstrate how all lives are subject to the same rules. In an essay “Dwellings” from the collection of the same title, Hogan describes a hill intersected by a small creek located close to her home. A hike up the hill reveals a spot where bees reside. Reflecting on its strategic location, exposed to sun and hidden from potential rain, the bees’ home was built according to the same rules of sustainable land use that Native people followed in precontact times. This architecture is an ancient one, “learned by whatever memory [that] lives in the blood” (Dwellings 118). N. Scott Momaday’s concept of blood memory3 is used to convey the transfer of knowledge that cannot be accounted for by conventional mechanisms of remembering. Hogan builds upon the Momadayan construct to create a sense of instinctual memory contained and transferred in the blood and the body. Moreover, as Hogan observes the movement of turtles in the water and ponders on the components of their reptilian blood, she concludes that, as ancient creatures inhabiting this world longer than human beings, they too are subject to this mechanism of “the call of land in deep memory” (Dwellings 84). Bodies of human and non-human beings thus become microcosms of life, illustrating ancient and continuous processes of survival. The Radiant Lives clearly continues these ruminations on the interconnections between human and animal lives from Indigenous perspectives. Furthermore, according to Hogan, her Chickasaw heritage compels her to recover and share Native knowledge systems. “As an indigenous woman,” she writes, “I look toward our Native knowledge systems, the times when our relationship with the earth wasn’t the disjointed connection most of us have learned from our Euro-American education system. I am one human animal who wants to take back original meanings and understandings in ways that are possible and necessary” (15). Interestingly, Hogan seems to be aware of the dangers of oversimplification and idealization attached to representations of Indigenous worlds governed by balance and harmony. “It is not my purpose to create a pastoral world,” she states (14). And yet, she continues to anthropomorphize the animals that she encounters in the vicinity of her house, which is precisely what makes the reading of The Radiant Lives problematic. This persistent use of anthropomorphism to describe connections with the animal world poses the question about the limits of human affect as a medium for representing non-human experience. After all, in discourses that convey Indigenous cosmologies, wouldn’t it be more accurate to locate the center of consciousness elsewhere than in the human?

3. Anthropo-zoo-genesis and Affective Perspectives: The Meeting of Bodies

12Vinciane Despret’s work is related to the examination of the question about the process at the heart of the interaction between human and animal bodies in scientific contexts. As Despret observes, it is commonly acknowledged that in research situations, researchers are expected not to have bodies—ironically, the very condition of existence—as these risk inviting interactions with the researched subjects and thus ruining scientific objectivity (“Responding” 52-54). (Often, especially during field work with primates, such attempts at remaining invisible prove futile if not ridiculous). Therefore, instead of sustaining the narrative of bodiless scientists, Despret suggests bravely facing charges of anthropomorphism by introducing the concept of an “affected perspective,” which refers to how bodies are made and turned into meaningful objects in scientific contexts. She ponders: “how are bodies both subjects and objects of this making, how are they both ‘making’ and ‘made,’ undoing and redoing themselves, through very different scientific practices with animals?.... [H]ow do each of these practices, and the animals they are addressing, ‘enact’ each of these bodies?” (“Responding” 57). The example from Shirley Strum’s work with baboons in Kenya offers a notable example. Concerned that she might potentially miss some important interactions among animals whenever she had to relieve herself, Strum decided to urinate in the vicinity of the baboons. Surprisingly, for the first time, they saw her as a critter who also experiences physical needs and, possibly, as a baboon, too. The story demonstrates not only how the scientist’s body is made to mean something for the animals (and at the same time does not disturb scientific integrity of the research) but also, as Despret puts it, how “[u]sing one’s body to make the animal respond… renders visible a change in some practices…. The animal does not react; he/she responds” (66).

13The concept that even further emphasizes an affective engagement between human and non-human animals comes from Despret’s earlier article with the telling title “The Body We Care for: Figures of Anthropo-Zoo-Genesis” from 2004. Its focus on interactions of bodies as well as feelings (e.g., empathy) makes it particularly relevant for my reading of Hogan who regards her non-human neighbors as, first of all, fellow critters rather than research subjects. Moreover, the experiments that Despret analyzes here concern domesticated animals, which again strengthens their applicability to The Radiant Lives. We need to remember that Hogan is not an ethologist; her interest and fascination are genuine but not a part of academic projects, and therefore, her most intimate interactions are with farm animals: her horses. She observes birds and insects, she occasionally spots deer, elk, and foxes, and detects traces of wolves and mountain lions, but these do not have the formalized character of field work.

  • 4 On the legacy on Lorenz’s research and his highly emotional style see de Waal (2001).

14The opening section of Despret’s article provides an amusing story as well as a superb example of the extent to which human interactions with non-human animals are embodied practices. In the 1910s in Berlin, Germany, Hans the horse made headlines by correctly answering questions in such diverse fields as mathematics and music. The case sparked considerable controversy (was Hans a genius?) and a thorough investigation was conducted by psychologist Oskar Pfungst from the Institute of Psychology. Pfungst discovered that what Hans was doing was interpreting bodily cues that people were unintentionally sending when they posed their questions (111-13). In other words, Hans was not a genius, but he “embodied the chance to explore other ways by which human and non-human bodies become more sensitive to each other” (114). Other selected examples, e.g., Robert Rosenthal’s experiment with rats and his students who were given wrong information about the rodents’ intelligence, and Konrad Lorenz’s observations of and interactions with jackdaws, further elaborate the point that Despret is making: the two-directional, emotional processes of co-influence that takes place when human and non-human animals interact in a scientific context (and beyond).4 What all these examples have in common is that they illustrate how scientists and researched animals unintentionally affect each other on the level of the body and affect. Despret calls this process “‘anthropo-zoo-genetic practice,’ a practice that constructs animal and human” (122). As she rightly points out, it is both the scientist and the animal that bring into the experiment their bodies and their worlds and these mutually transform one another. Despret refers to this transformation as a “with-ness” that is not necessarily articulated in human words but, instead, in words used by a human animal who tests “new ways of being human with non-human” (131). Here, Despret’s concepts, when read vis-à-vis de Waal’s conclusions about anthropomorphism, may open up a new route by which to read Hogan’s The Radiant Lives: even though the text is, indeed, saturated with anthropomorphic imagery, which suggests attributing human characteristics to non-human animals, what may, in fact, be taking place is an anthropo-zoo-genetic practice of articulating animal agency and affect from the perspective of Indigenous ontologies.

4. Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals

15Published in 2020, Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals is a collection of stories, poems, essays and personal reminiscences describing the author’s life in the mountains of Colorado and her relationship with animals that live there. According to Jane Tompkins, the book is a timely and much-needed publication as it places special emphasis on the relational character of interactions between human and non-human animals (“Book Review”). In 2022, The Radiant Lives was selected for the Science + Literature Awards, which are presented by a partnership between the National Book Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Voicing similar sentiments as Tompkins’s review, the Committee emphasized Hogan’s attention to “Native ways of seeing the biological, the botanical, the geological, and the cosmological that have long been sidelined or suppressed, offering readers a heartrending glimpse of the beauty of the wild world and the trauma of its destruction” (“Science + Literature”).

16Indeed, Hogan has long been known as a writer attentive to the natural world and humans’ entanglement with their places of habitation. In her autobiographical book Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (1996), the Chickasaw writer reveals that her artistic output grows “out of respect for the natural world, recognizing that humankind is not separate from nature” (12). Another autobiographical piece, The Woman Who Watches Over the World (2001), laments the scale of the destruction of ecosystems, uncontrolled technological advancement at the expense of the natural environment, the emergence of new disease patterns reflecting contemporary lifestyles, and the dehumanization of interpersonal interactions. Similarly, many of Hogan’s novels, e.g., Mean Spirit (1990), Solar Storms (1995), Power (1998), and People of the Whale (2009) portray “the interplay between human actions and impact on the land, animals, and vegetation” (Cook 36). These literary texts juxtapose descriptions of the twenty-first-century environmental crisis with visions of the reciprocal kinship relations among human and non-human animals as well as non-living beings of the precolonial world.

17The Radiant Lives is invested in conveying the beauty and complexity of interconnections in the natural world and what Donna Haraway refers to as sympoietic systems, namely those that are collectively produced and extending beyond any boundaries (58-98). “Sympoiesis,” writes Haraway,

is a simple word; it means ‘making-with.’ Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. In the words of the Inupiat computer ‘world game,’ earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. (58)

  • 5 Symbiogenesis occurs when “members of two species respond over time to each other’s presence” and t (...)

18Derived from Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan’s work on symbiogenesis,5 not only is it the proper word to use to refer to interconnections in the natural world, but it also constitutes a theoretical bridge between Western and Indigenous paradigms. Indeed, TallBear similarly reads symbiogenesis as a concept closely related to Indigenous epistemologies (“Beyond” 188).

19Hogan begins her ruminations on the non-human world in the role of an astute observer. To open oneself to the existence of this sympoietic system, one’s body needs to become attentive to other critters’ sounds and activities and to acknowledge their importance. It is a skill that needs to be relearned, or “re-minded,” and it is developed in silence and concentration. “Day and night, I listen,” Hogan writes (6). “And I watch,” she continues, and “I keep watch” (6). Moving out of the city makes Hogan rediscover the richness of the animal life and “re-minds” her of the common ancestry of human and animal. “The animal lives here have no numbers, no names,” she muses. “They are simply a people, nations of their own kind with lives as sacred as any of ours. I learn their ways, all different, all unlike human ways, yet all together we are one life, one breath, all part of this same shared earth” (6-7). The reference to animal species as a people and thus as sovereign nations derives from Native ontologies in which human and non-human animals occupy similar positions in the world and are perceived as kin rather than master and slave (Cajete 168). Therefore, Hogan does not even attempt to avoid anthropomorphic language as affinity with non-human animals is an obvious position.

20At the same time, however, while anthropomorphism is detectable on the level of imagery, its twin brother, anthropocentrism, gradually recedes. It is as if Hogan’s subject, surrounded by the sympoietic system of the Colorado mountains, is becoming more aware of her relational position. Language makes room for the embodied practices that render the body at ease with the environment and all the critters that inhabit it. Hogan’s goal is first to blend in and then to become one with the observed non-human animals. One day Hogan is raking in the garden and is joined by two young deer. “We are on the same earth together in silence,” she writes. “I do not move. I was just sitting on the ground near the horses as they ate and the other animals came along” (69-70). She claims to have been changed “to another presence” (70) by the very fact of living in the area. Her body becomes recognized by other critters, and it is no longer an enemy to them. Similarly, on a warm evening, a wasp flies to Hogan’s bedroom. In Hogan’s language, it is neither an intruder nor a threat. “We managed to cohabit,” she writes. “One day I slept late and a wasp came directly over my head, closer than usual, to wake me. It buzzed loudly and I woke to open the windows and door to allow the wasps to go about their daily business” (22). While Hogan does ascribe intentions to the wasp’s activities (waking her up), she also dedicates herself to observing wasps and thus discovers their way of communication, which in turn articulates them as agency-possessing subjects with their own “form of intelligence” (22). It seems that by erasing her presence as (exclusively) human, Hogan enters the space of anthropo-zoo-genesis in a body that is open to non-human perspectives.

  • 6 The issue of authenticity is a highly contested topic in Indigenous communities in the United State (...)

21The most elaborate example of an anthropo-zoo-genetic practice and an affected perspective comes in the “Elk Dog. The Horse” section in which Hogan describes her complicated relationship with horses. In her 2001 memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World, Hogan describes a riding accident and the resultant multiple injuries. For many months she was in constant pain and suffered from memory loss. “Elk Dog” begins when she is still recovering from the accident and looking for a new horse for herself. However, before Hogan introduces her new horse, she provides the true explanation of her unwavering interest in horses, namely their significance in Indigenous spirituality. The horse was always present in many Native peoples’ mythologies and became an integral part of ceremonial practices (The Radiant 33; Posthumus 132-33). Interestingly, the horse is fundamental not only for the Plains cultures that continue to serve as the embodiment of “authentic” Indians.6 The Chickasaws, who before the Removal in 1837 occupied parts of today’s southwestern Kentucky, western Tennessee, northern Mississippi, and northwestern Alabama, also kept horses and built their economies around these animals (Gorman 5-6). Theirs, however, were smaller than the Plains breeds and were descended from the horses brought to colonized lands by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. According to historical records, these animals, swift and robust, were bred into a unique subspecies that were later referred to as the “Chickasaw Ponies” (Atkinson 65). In The Woman Who Watches Over the World Hogan describes this period in the language of nostalgic loss: “in those eyewitness accounts, it was said how beautiful we Chickasaw were. The men wore turbans and rode about on the famed, now mysteriously disappeared, almost mythic Chickasaw ponies…. The women, reportedly, were beautiful and serene and erect on their horses” (54-55). In The Radiant Lives, Hogan adds the language of love, claiming the horses, “[o]ur own beloved breed,” as lost kin (34).

22In describing the constitution of human and non-human animals as affective subjects through interactions on the level of bodies, Despret writes about the process as two-directional—bodies “are making” other bodies and at the same time they are “made” (“Responding” 57). A cursory look at Hogan’s narrative about the encounter with her new horse adopted from the Horse Rescue suggests that the interaction is dominated by anthropomorphic attribution of human characteristics and intentionality to animals. Hogan assumes that the horse knows what seems accurate in a given context. At the rescue, she uses a crutch while taking a selected animal, the mare Kelly who survived abuse, for a walk. This does not prove to be an easy task. “The horse stopped,” she writes, “looked at the crutch, looked at me, and waited, as if realizing that I was also not whole. I, too, was scarred in some way” (37). Hogan’s experience of the past trauma is literally readable on her body, and the horse immediately recognizes the script of suffering. On the other hand, Hogan is also aware of how easy it is to fall into the trap of anthropomorphic idealization. One of the volunteers claims that the horse looked at Hogan “more than once and seemed to be claiming [Hogan] as hers.” Skeptical, she comments: “I’d believe her, or perhaps this was the horse they planned for me all along, the safest, the hungry and overly thin, hooves filled with blood, body scarred and branded” (37). While indeed Hogan often resorts to language in which she claims to know Misty’s intentions, what begins to dominate in the interactions with non-human animals is the role of their bodies and how they affect Hogan’s perception of their agency.

23This shift becomes more conspicuous when Hogan adopts Misty, a pregnant mare that loses her foal in a difficult labor. Hogan and her friend assist Misty with labor, but the horse is in severe pain and the vet responsible for the animals is unavailable. The women agree that Misty needs to stand up, but the unbearable pain impedes any attempt. Then, Hogan demonstrates what constitutes Despret’s example of “Using one’s body to make the animal respond” (“Responding” 66). Hogan does not want to use a whip to force Misty to raise her body because she does not want to be the source of even more pain. “As I returned,” she writes,

I stood before the mare… and with all my human might, my inner strength, with heart and all the energy I could summon and pull together of myself, I lifted my arms before her. I raised my arms. With some understanding between us, she rose to her feet. She, who had held her head beneath water in her pain and lay writhing, pushed herself up on bent legs from hard earth, stood still a moment, then walked straight into the trailer. To my great relief and gratitude, she understood. She trusted me. In that moment, we were spirit to spirit, heart to heart. (42; emphasis added)

  • 7 For an account of the dynamics of human-animal relationships in animal training see e.g., Włodarczy (...)
  • 8 See e.g., Roberts, The Man Who Listens to Horses and Horse Sense for People.

24Consider Hogan’s use of the word “human.” There is no attempt to claim insight into Misty’s perspective or consciousness. Hogan, a human animal, makes a connection with Misty, a non-human animal, and the tool of this communication is the body. “She understood,” Hogan asserts, and one body follows the movement of the other. Hogan empathizes with Misty’s pain but “Empathy is not, in this case, experiencing with one’s own body what the other experiences: it is creating the possibilities of an embodied communication” (Despret, “Responding” 71). Empathy allows Hogan to communicate with Misty to offer help. What is even more important is the fact that Hogan chooses the body and the language of affect as an explanation of why Misty understood her gesture. These tools are enough to establish rapport between the woman and the horse. Hogan does not offer an explanation of Misty’s behavior that one could expect from a horse trainer or whisperer. A trainer would comment that it is likely that Misty had been previously trained to react to specific cues through punishment and responded to Hogan’s movements as a result of that training.7 Meanwhile, a horse whisperer, like Monty Roberts, would frame the encounter in a way that emphasizes the specific human’s special gift of communicating with horses.8 Hogan proposes neither interpretation. Possibly, considering Hogan’s extensive experience with horses, she is aware of these training techniques, but it is the communication on the level of the body and affect that plays the main role in the event.

  • 9 See also Sarah Allen’s article in this volume “Cross-Species Harmony: Horses and Humans Co-creating (...)

25As Hogan’s narrative progresses, her observations about interactions with Misty and Kelly begin to resemble Oskar Pfungst’s conclusions about Hans the horse. As mentioned earlier, Hans was not a mathematically talented horse but a horse adept at reading and interpreting non-verbal bodily cues sent by (oblivious) humans. Similarly, Hogan knows that Misty and Kelly “know,” but contrary to Hans’s owners, she is awed at their ability to read her bodies and communicate through their bodies: “With Kelly, I learned that most important was the way they know my intentions no matter how I tried to hide them…. Our intent is felt through the slightest movement of the human body, down the spine to the horse mind” (55). While this special connection is expressed in language, it goes beyond the verbal: “A silent language passes between us as we stand together in stillness, my hand on her [Misty], her head turned back to look at me, or when we move together, riding as one being. It is a relationship of mutual spirit, a connection that has no name but I call it love” (51; emphasis added). Again, what is striking is the character of the interaction that is not anthropocentric. Misty does not become human nor does Hogan claim to become a horse. Rather, through embodied communication, they create a third option, “one being,” which in the discourse of affect Hogan refers to as “love.” The feeling of human and non-human being “one body” with the horse recurs frequently in narratives by riders practicing alternative horsemanship techniques (Harrison 147), especially those invested in eschewing anthropocentric hierarchies.9

26Recalling Konrad Lorenz’s story about a goose that fed him worms out of love, Despret draws attention to the transformed meaning of love in this context, namely, that of scientist-animal, human animal-non-human animal, interactions. Lorenz,

uses human words, but this anthropomorphism is something more than a simple attribution: as long as his body is producing and being produced by a new identity, this experience is a new way of being human, which adds new identities. Therefore, being anthropomorphic means here to add new definitions to what it is to be a human being. Lorenz adds new meanings to love, and new identities that provide these new meanings. This practice of domestication is, once more, an anthropo-zoo-genetic practice. (“The Body” 130)

27Interestingly, Hogan’s writing on love appears to do something similar to Despret’s recovery of empathy from the bias of romantic folk stories (“Responding” 69). In her text, love signifies embodied communication, namely, this informed effort to see non-human animals as intelligent and affective agents rather than as sentimentalized pets.

28This investment in the body and in affect is a consistent feature of Hogan’s autobiographical work. In her non-fiction, Hogan constructs an enduring vision of the past that is never forgotten since it lives in the body and is passed on like biological material. Whenever she talks of her ancestors, the connection is palpable and experienced physically: “The line where my grandmother ends and I begin is no line at all. I am a child who once lived inside her, who was carried inside the builders of the mounds, the cells of mourners along the Trail of Tears. From them I still remember to honor life, mystery, and this incomparable ongoing creation” (“Remembering” 59). In The Woman Who Watches Over The World this concept is further expanded as Hogan builds a concept of history that is anchored in geography. This history, like biological material, is inherited, and passed on in genes and blood. “History lives cell-deep within us,” declares Hogan, who further elaborates that: “history, like geography, lives in the body and it is marrow-deep…. It is recorded there, laid down along the tracks and pathways and synapses…. Terror, even now, for many of us, is remembered inside us, history present in our cells that came from our ancestor’s cells, from bodies hated, removed, and killed” (20, 59). Clearly, Hogan sees history as a genetic code reactivating and replicating itself in the bodies of the next generations and becoming an integral part of them. Tribal removal, the loss of land and cultural annihilation are real and material events that are, first of all, inextricably connected with geographical locations, and secondly, detectable in the blood, body, and genes. Hogan’s discourse based on the geographical and the biochemical, communicates that it is “pathways” as much as “synapses” that lead to historical memory and tribal communal identification. Thus, Hogan is in a position to declare: “I am one of the children who lived inside my grandmother, and was carried, cell, gene, and spirit, within the mourners along the Trail of Tears” (The Woman 123). Hogan’s emphasis on the distinct character of her Indigenous blood and body introduces a metaphor that emphasizes Native American experience that derives from historical contexts and cultural ways of life that are biologically transmitted over time.

29Hogan detects similar connections with animals located in the body. They share the often-traumatic past with Indigenous people and are therefore connected with the same stories and biological connections. Hogan has this kind of intuition about Misty, the horse with whom she shares anthropo-zoo-genetic practices. “With Misty,” she declares, “I often think that somewhere in the past my ancestors knew hers. We had a deep connection. We knew one another. Mystery was at work with us, a deep kinship” (The Radiant 45). It seems that, compared with the fallible memory, it is the body that remembers the best. It is also the (human and non-human) body that becomes the page on which historical traumas are written and hence remembered. Hogan writes about the American massacre of the bison, carried out to eliminate Indigenous people and cease their lands, then horses, and then inevitably the people themselves. “How fortunate that some escaped. Some of them. And some of us,” she concludes (68). This discourse of the human and animal body as a historical text, indeed, preempts anthropocentric meanings and represents Hogan and her neighbor-critters as kin.

5. Conclusions: When Bodies Meet

30One of the first chapters in The Radiant Lives, with the telling title “This Land I Live,” elucidates the philosophy encapsulated in Hogan’s project to describe her relationship with the land she inhabits and the non-human animals that visit her house and garden. Hogan thinks of the land as an ancient being that literally remembers dinosaurs whose footsteps are now imprinted on its surface. There are all kinds of species of animals who linger here and also remember ancient and contemporary stories: for instance, of Buffalo Bill and his abuses and his bones that lie near Golden, Colorado. Nearby Buffalo Bill’s resting place, Hogan spots a large buffalo herd, and, remembering the species’ massacre in the nineteenth century, she feels joy to “watch them calve in the spring” (13). “[I]t is a pleasure,” she continues, “to witness the tenderness between mother and calf, knowing that love is an unmeasured emotion even for human beings” (13). By looking at the interaction between the cow and her calf, Hogan emphasizes the language of the bodies and affects: she sees tenderness and interprets it as love. The goal of this anthropomorphic (and here even anthropocentric [“even for human beings”]) comparison is not to introduce a hierarchy but rather to convey the power of the emotion: it impossible to calculate the amount of love between a human mother and her baby, and it is impossible to do the same for non-human animals. It is bodies that speak, not numbers or hierarchies.

31Such a highly affective and embodied understanding of the relationship between human and non-human animals is obviously found in many Indigenous cosmologies. Interestingly, it is also the basis of Vinciane Despret’s concepts of anthropo-zoo-genetic practices and the affective perspective. Seemingly as distant from Native perspectives as the geographical origins of their creator, these ideas, initially conceived with scientific contexts in mind, are centered around the experience of embodiment, the production of affect, and its effect on the subject (who is often resistant or unwilling to acknowledge it). Consider again Hans the horse and the conducted tests meant to assess if the animal was a genius (he was not), mentioned earlier in the article. Commenting on the case, Despret observes that Hans could do better than count—he could read human bodies and make them be moved affectively. He pointed out the invisible connections between consciousness, affects, and bodies. “Hans,” writes Despret, “could become a device that enabled humans to learn more about their bodies and their affects (“The Body” 114).

32What I believe makes Despret’s concepts compatible with Hogan’s text (and possibly other animal-centered Indigenous texts) is the fact that they introduce contexts that are non-hierarchical and thus do no violence to Indigenous cosmologies. In the Hans example, it is Hans who initiates the affective change in the human consciousness and initiates the embodied connection with the human. Even if researchers who studied Hans did not use such vocabulary, it is Hans who is the agent of affective and embodied change. Similarly, Hogan does not think of anthropocentric hierarchies even if she uses anthropomorphic language. Her emphasis is on the embodied dimension of her interactions with the animal world, her kin, and how the affect that is produced is also written, remembered, on the body. Therefore, Despret’s concepts that revolve around the body and affect provide a theoretical explanation of Hogan’s choice of imagery.

Work on this article was supported by the National Science Centre, Poland, under the grant “Figurations of Interspecies Harmony in Literature, Film and Other Cultural Texts of the English-Speaking Sphere, from the mid-19th to the 21st Centuries” [UMO-2020/38/E/HS2/00130]

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1 See e.g., Vizenor, Bearheart and Fugitive Poses.

2 See e.g., Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian; Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places; Vizenor, Manifest Manners.

3 On Momaday’s concept of blood memory see an early analysis by Krupat, The Voice in the Margin (11-14) and a polemical response by Allen, “Blood (and) Memory” (93-116).

4 On the legacy on Lorenz’s research and his highly emotional style see de Waal (2001).

5 Symbiogenesis occurs when “members of two species respond over time to each other’s presence” and there occur “exploitative relationships [that] may eventually become convivial to the point where neither organism exists without the other” (Margulis and Sagan 23).

6 The issue of authenticity is a highly contested topic in Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada. For some Native people, it is tied to blood quantum and tribal enrollment; for others, the concept of Indianness goes beyond federal definitions and depends more on an idea of being claimed by a community. See e.g., Garroutte, Real Indians and Sturm, Becoming Indian.

7 For an account of the dynamics of human-animal relationships in animal training see e.g., Włodarczyk’s Genealogy of Obedience.

8 See e.g., Roberts, The Man Who Listens to Horses and Horse Sense for People.

9 See also Sarah Allen’s article in this volume “Cross-Species Harmony: Horses and Humans Co-creating and Immersed in Shared Worlds.”

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Electronic reference

Joanna Ziarkowska, Native American Studies Meets Animal Studies: Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals and the Problem of AnthropomorphismEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Joanna Ziarkowska

Joanna Ziarkowska is associate professor of American literature at the Institute of English Studies at the University of Warsaw. She is the author of Indigenous Bodies, Cells, and Genes: Biomedicalization and Embodied Resistance in Native American Literature (Routledge, 2021) and articles on Native American literature, and the co-editor of In Other Words: Dialogizing Postcoloniality, Race, and Ethnicity (Peter Lang, 2012).

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