What It’s Like to Visit the Zoo as a Native Person

By Brian Oaster

Indigenous People’s Day was on Monday. I didn’t write anything about it because I was busy out spending it with my family. The zoo had quietly offered free admission to Natives for the day, and we were blessed with nice weather, so I took them up on it. I love autumn, but it has its challenges. Autumn is when some Americans still celebrate October’s second Monday as ‘Columbus Day.’ It’s when people dress up in racist costumes for Halloween, and erase our histories for Thanksgiving while appropriating our stolen heritage foods that we’re no longer able to grow on our own land. It’s when hatred pours out of everywhere from social media to the White House, and people come out of the woodwork to defend these pumpkin spice hostilities. It’s when the media treats it all as talking points, or minimizes the ongoing cultural genocide as mere “mistreatment.” Autumn can be a trying time for Native people. Sometimes a family day out is a welcome respite.

As a Native, even a reconnecting one, visiting the zoo is a strange experience. Zoos are intrinsically and overtly colonial institutions, which “engage visitors in an historic ritual of a Western ordering of the world, teaching them to ‘gaze’ at creatures made to be exotic through our imagining wild and faraway places.” Zoos don’t square with the Native worldview. Native people have always strived to treat the people of the animal nations with honor and reciprocity. Our cultures are many and diverse, but some if not most recognize animal personhood, and their right to life and freedom. We even have treaties with many of the animal nations. If my son is frightened by a dog, for instance, I remind him of humankind’s treaty with the dog people:

A long time ago, the people of the dog nations saw that the people of the human nations had fire light, warm blankets, and plenty of food. They came close and circled around. But instead of using their sharp teeth to bite us, and take what we had, they asked us to share. The chief of the dog nations came to the chief of the human nations and said “We see that you have fire light, warm blankets, and plenty of food. Will you share these things with us?” The humans discussed it, and the chief came back with their answer. “We will share with you, and take care of you” they said, “as long as you use your sharp teeth to help and protect us, never to hunt us.” A treaty was made that day. That’s why we take good care of dogs, and why we don’t have to be afraid of their sharp teeth. Dogs are our very old friends.

In one sense I made this story up. But it’s also true. It describes the evolutionary pact between dogs and humans. Our agreement with cats is different, because cats domesticated themselves. We have different agreements with horses, salmon, bison, orcas, and so forth. Dogs are one of the only animals that the people of this hemisphere lived with domestically, prior to European invasion. And even then, our relationships were not based on subjugation or hierarchy, but on kinship.

There’s no kinship at the zoo. Only broken treaties. Looking into the eyes of one of the zoo’s chimpanzees moves one to reflect upon her personhood. And by extension, the personhood of each animal, even those not typically associated with personhood. We might struggle to see the personhood of a jellyfish, or even a wildcat. But there’s no denying the personhood of a chimpanzee, our close relative, when you look into her eyes. There are people in these zoo exhibits. It wasn’t so long ago that Americans put Native people in zoos, too. All those differences, particulated by Latin names and racial classification, reveal themselves as superficial, even fictitious.

But the zoo also affords many opportunities of joy and learning for my beautiful Indigenous children, so there’s good to be gained from the experience, too. And the zoo in my city is among the better ones. They state their mission as “advancing the highest level of animal welfare, environmental literacy and conservation science.” They participate in numerous species survival plans and breeding programs, and have helped bring the California Condor back from the brink of extinction. And they boast being “one of the greenest zoos in the country” as far as energy and resource consumption is concerned. In an ideal world, there would be no zoos. But as far as zoos go, it could be a lot worse.

I even applied for a job at a zoo once. An Indigenous perspective, I thought, would be very valuable for a colonial conservationist institution struggling to remain relevant. I was qualified, and the job offered good benefits. I gave an interview that, from my end, seemed like a home run.

The zoo didn’t hire me. When you meet the qualifications, make the short list, and give an excellent interview, but identified yourself as a member of a minority group, the question always lingers: is that why they didn’t hire me? And in most cases you’ll never know. Maybe they found someone more qualified. Maybe they don’t want an Indigenous voice on their team, bugging them about the disruptive structural changes that need to happen for greater equity, and to make strides towards a more responsible, decolonized model of conservation. Maybe both.

Whomever they did hire, and however qualified they are, I’d bet you anything they aren’t Native. Decolonial perspectives on conservation could be threatening to a zoo. They’re certainly a threat to the western worldview that invented them, the worldview which sees nature as ‘wilderness,’ and seeks to ‘other’ living things and even humans based on apparent differences. The zoo is no place for a Native. Not as a visitor, as a worker, or as an exhibit. Nevertheless, I got to hear my children laugh, while ignoring the racism and pain of the holiday. I was glad they offered free admission for the day. It ain’t land back, but it’s something, at least.

Brian Oaster

Brian is a Choctaw writer in the Pacific Northwest.