Writing Samples

Ethics East and West - Final Project Abstract


This abstract is from a capstone project completed at the end of Ethics - East to West, a philosophy course offered at my high school. Every student in the class was allotted 2 weeks to complete their project, which was a symposium of student-chosen topics in ethics. Each student’s abstract was presented in front of the class, and each student was required to defend their thesis to the class and the teacher. I worked on this project by myself and wrote a total of 5 pages in defense of my thesis.


At this point, it is hard to deny that self-driving cars will become widespread in the near future. We are headed in the direction of mass automation, and ignoring the implications of this inevitable paradigm shift could lead to major ethical, social, and economic problems in the future. My thesis is based on the following scenario: There is an Autonomous Vehicle (AV) driving along the pacific coast highway. On one side of the road there is a steep cliff that would kill a passenger if driven off of. On very rare occasions, there is a chance that a pedestrian would attempt to cross this highway. If an AV were to drive at high speeds around a corner and suddenly see a pedestrian in the middle of the road, it would have two possible options that could be embedded into the moral code of the AV: 1) avoid killing the pedestrian by swerving off the cliff and killing the passenger or 2) run over the pedestrian.

    In this paper, I argue that it would be morally incorrect to program an AV to choose option 1 in said scenario. This is because there are not enough potential AV owners who are altruistic enough to be willing to sacrifice themselves for a pedestrian illegally crossing the street. There are not many people who would choose to purchase a car that would launch them off a cliff if a jaywalker decided to run across the road, thus alienating a large potential market. If less people choose to purchase AVs, there will be more vehicular deaths, as human drivers are less safe than their robot counterpart. In the same scenario, a pedestrian with the intent of murdering passengers would be able to run across the width of the road for an hour and end the lives of hundreds of people. This further supports my thesis. If the AV were to be programmed to choose option 1, a malevolent jaywalker would be able to commit mass murder easily. In summary, we will need to program AVs to save pedestrians in every scenario unless it endangers the life of the passenger.

Ethnography of Northwestern First Nation and Inuit Culture


This paper is from a final project completed at the end of Writing and Research, a preparatory course on research methods offered at my high school. Every student in the class was allotted 3 weeks to complete their paper. I chose this topic because I feel a personal connection to the Canadian First Nation People due to my 9 years of living in Alberta. I chose to write my paper as an ethnography, as it is the traditional way to present a thesis when comparing two cultures. I worked on this project by myself and wrote a total of 14 pages (double-spaced).


    The diversity and unique nature of the First Nations has intrigued both the modern media as well as anthropologists for centuries. The differences between the multitude of groups and tribes are well documented, but not often well known in the public eye. In this paper, I will be comparing and contrasting two very unique and idiosyncratic First Nations peoples. Certain elements of these two tribes set them apart from other indigenous groups around the world. I will be giving an ethnographic overview of the Inuit people and the Northwestern First Nations. Through my research, I will contrast different aspects of the culture of these two groups, distinguishing differences between their traditional ways of life. Through analysis of the societal, spiritual, artistic, and trade ways, I have concluded that the abundance of food and safe habitat have allowed the Pacific Northwestern Natives to develop a more complex, and ultimately more unequal cultural life than the Inuit. This ethnography is representative of the time before the introduction of Europeans in Canada.

I. Spiritual Ways

The Inuit

1. Origin Stories

The Inuit are unique in that they do not have a large hypothetical background in their spirituality. It is completely explanatory in nature and there is little speculation in respect to the origins of their people. The myths told by the Inuit people are filled with lessons of social cues and taboos (“Inuit Myth and Legend”), however they do not focus much on the philosophic side of mythology. Instead, the stories revolve around supernatural characters and morals that can be learned from them. An example of this theme can be found in the legend of Lumiuk (Lumak, Lumaag in different tribes), which tells of an abused blind boy who finds refuge in the sea, where he recovers his sight and ends his abuse (“Inuit Myth and Legend”). Another very common legend is of Sedna, the goddess of the sea, who is told to have been thrown into the ocean as a young woman. She could not get out and her body parts became all the sea animals (“Inuit Myths About Creation”). This legend varies with every tribe, but rarely delves deeper into the origin of the Inuit people. The Inuit stories are always very detailed and creative, but they do not answer the modern philosophical questions.

In general, the origin stories of the Inuit tend to be less in depth than those of the northwestern First Nations. The past is not often explained by Inuit mythology. Instead, it is used as a tool to keep Inuit people safe from the various dangers of the arctic. In contrast, the role of the Raven remains a common trait between both groups. The Raven is involved in the creation of the world, and is considered by the northwestern Natives and the Inuit as a trickster. In Inuit tradition, the Raven, who lived in a house with his father and mother, asked to play with the bladder hanging on the father’s bed. After much pleading, the Raven damaged the bladder and light appeared. The father took the bladder back before Raven could damage the bladder further. This is the Inuit origin for day and night. (“An Eskimo Legend”).



2. Traditions and Art

In Inuit communities, art is a way for communities to weave very complex and beautiful fictional stories. This is done through many mediums, however song and spoken word are the most prevalent.  In the domain of visual art, Sculptures of walrus ivory are the most common (Price 71). In contemporary Inuit sculpture soapstone is used; however, the subject matter remains devoted to depictions of the fauna of the arctic. The legacy of Inuit carving is in part maintained by a new market of white tourism (Kopper 110). It is believed by some anthropologists that carving offers a way to express emotions in the isolated environments of small arctic communities; however others believe that the Inuit art is made out of necessity rather than emotion. Contemporary interviews with Inuit people suggest they carve not as a way to express their feelings, but rather to document nature or to gain social or economic capital. Carving is seen in most communities as an intellectual rather than emotional endeavor, and as such is a display of intellect (Auger 167). Music, on the other hand, was largely used as a spiritual outlet and as story-driven entertainment in the long dark nights of the arctic winter (Price 70).


3. Death and the afterlife

"The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls." This is an ancient saying among the inuit people. They believe that the souls of all things in the world are of equal value, and  by consuming another soul in the form of eating an animal or using objects, one must be wary of its spirit returning for vengeance. To avoid this, one must abide by the rituals to fully show respect to the souls which had been wronged. The specifics an animal’s death was also of importance in Inuit tradition. The Innua or spirit of an animal was told to bring a message of its death back to the spirit world (Kopper 110). It is therefore imperative that all animals be killed with respect and with clean weapons.


4. Connections and parallels to the land

A tenet of Inuit mythology is the belief in other worlds under the sea, in the earth and in the sky. Shamans were believed to be able to reach these other worlds in dreams and visions, whereas normal people would travel there in the afterlife. Upon death, the soul travels to these spirit worlds where they can sometimes communicate with the living. The harsh and severe conditions in the arctic most likely caused a large amount of the superstition in the Inuit people. The harsh weather or low abundance of seals would often be interpreted as a ritualistic or spiritual failure of some kind. One of the explanations for a bad seal yield is Sedna, the sea goddess, being displeased. She becomes unhappy if a seal is killed and not given a drink of fresh water. If Sedna is not happy, she does not offer an abundance of sea mammals for the Inuit. In this situation, the shaman must transform into a fish and swim underwater to find her. Once he has found Sedna, he must comb and braid her hair so as to please her. Once happy, Sedna will tell the seals of the ocean to offer themselves to the Inuit (Moore 9).


The Northwestern Tribes

1. Origin Stories

In most northwestern tribes, it is believed that the ancestors of each ‘Na’mima (extended family unit) were animals in ancient times. They came up through the ground, from the sea, or from the sky. At one point, these animals then took off their masks and became human (“Kwakwaka'wakw mythology”). This origin story supports the trend of Native peoples coming up from the land in some way. A unique aspect of the pacific tribes, however, is the belief that some ancestors did not come from the earth as animals, but rather as humans who traveled from distant places. This is a possible explanation for the passage of the First Nations over the Bering Strait.

Ravens are a significant symbolic aspect of all northwestern tribe mythology. They often play the role of a trickster. In one origin story of the Nuu chah Nulth, the son of Raven convinces a great and ancient chief to release all the light of the world from a box. Raven placed the light in the sky and thus created the sun (Hartz 40). It is difficult to make a generalization of all the Raven stories in such a large geographical area as the northwestern coast, due to their widely variable tribe by tribe. That being said, Raven is almost always considered to have been the first creature on earth, and to have had a hand in creating humans.


2. Traditions and Art

The Kwakiutl have a ceremony known as a Potlatch to name children, mourn the dead, transfer rights and privileges from one generation to the next, and conduct marriage exchanges. In this ceremony, many gifts were exchanged and entertainment and food were offered to the attendees. The Potlatch has historically been a demonstration of wealth by the upper class of Northwestern Native societies (Cranmer). The Pacific First Nations were the only group in historic times to have a wealthy, socially ranked chiefdom without an agricultural base (Price 187). The Potlatch was the ultimate display of this fact, and as such impressed many Native and White travellers who encountered it. For this reason, it was outlawed by christian missionaries in the 19th century. There has been a recent resurgence in this tradition after the section in the Canadian Indian act banning the Potlatch was revised.

Generally, there was more time to create art for the northwestern First Nations communities due to the ease of life. The northwestern Native people were still hunter-gatherers, however the pacific coast offered a uniquely abundant food landscape consisting of but not limited to whales, fish, elk, seals and crabs. Salmon, for example, was so abundant and easily caught that one catch during the spawning season was enough to feed a family for a year (“Northwest Coastal People, Food/Hunting”). The pacific tribes also had the advantage of a diverse environment. The ocean offered warm breezes and the forest offered protection from the elements (“Northwest Coastal People, Environment”). The abundance of food and shelter made it easier for the Northwestern people to survive, and gave them free time to create totem poles and carvings. The northwestern tribes are for this reason considered the most artistically prolific of the canadian first nations.

The culture of dance and the mythology involved were very prevalent in the Northwestern Native cultures. Dancers who performed on stage were often possessed or inspired by spirits, causing them to dance violently or in an animalistic way (Price 195). There was a distinct hierarchy of dancers in these performances. The richest and socially highest ranking performers would play the most spiritually important roles in the show (Price 196). The performances were put on as not only a religious demonstration, but also as a show of wealth for the performers.


3. Death and mythology surrounding the afterlife

The Northwestern tribes believed that all living creatures had spirits. It was vital to honor any slain animal or humans spirit with the correct ritual. For example, when a salmon was caught from the river, the proper ceremony involved taking the flesh from its body and returning the skeleton to the river. The intention was for the spirit to return back to the realm of the salmon people, where skeletons became fish again. This ritual was performed so as to ensure the safety of the fish’s spirit in returning to its home. Similarly, the dead were left in a wooden coffin while the spirit traveled to the afterworld. This realm was known to resemble the living one, with villages, people, and abundant animals. The difference between worlds of the living is shared between the northwestern tribes and the Inuit.

4. Connections and parallels to the land

Most Northwestern tribes share mythology surrounding the survival of a great flood. These were all direct references to how their people survived a tsunami. Different tribes across the coast use the flood as a traditional story of how their people overcame a great obstacle. In some northwestern tribes such as the Haida, there were no humans or animals or land before the great flood. In this version of the Great Flood story, Raven acts as a Deity as he creates all the land and animals (“Raven Tales”). This story shows a more philosophical and large-scale view of the people’s origin. This is an example of the abundance of food and safe living conditions causing the pacific First Nations to have a large amount of art and mythological tradition relative to other North American Native peoples.

II. Ways of Life

The Inuit

1. Living Spaces

    The Inuit had many different kinds of shelters. During the summer, teepee-like tents were made using animal skins and driftwood (Price 60). During the summer time, the Inuit were more nomadic, moving farther south so as to hunt elk.  During the winter, however, the Inuit had to create a semi-permanent house, because travel became so difficult in the harsh weather conditions. The most common winter shelter was a semi-subterranean earth lodge made with a earth-packed walls and a driftwood or whalebone roof (Price 60). In the high Canadian Arctic, the Inuit built large Igloos; dome-shaped houses made of cut ice blocks. These igloos were used as permanent winter residence, and could keep a family. The body heat of the inhabitants kept them warm, and the aerodynamic shape protected them from the wind (Price 61).

    Communities living in winter settlements were most often stuck there for upwards of 6 months. This meant that a small group would be together in a limited geographic space and not much opportunity to travel. Those who did not hunt helped develop a culture which adapted to these conditions. The art of storytelling is therefore so prominent in Inuit society, where long, unending winter nights were remedied with complex and fantastical stories of monsters or of the hunt (Price 71). The isolation led to a culture of stories, and the stories spread as the Inuit travelled across the arctic. This explains how the same story or legend can be heard in Greenland and Alaska, and even occasionally in Siberia (Kopper 108).

2. Family Unit and Community

    Inuit communities consisted of around 10 family groups. These family groups were made of 5-6 directly related family members (“The Inuit, Family.”), however adopted children were common. The concept of family itself was flexible in Inuit communities. Unrelated members of the community could be adopted into the family group, and wives were often exchanged between men (Price 68). Formally declared friendships were also commonplace in Inuit communities, where good natured relations were vital for the survival of the village.

Material items were not usually fought over between people and all food was shared equally among all parties. Social issues, however, had the capacity to become very severe in such small communities and in such an isolated environment. One of the ways the Inuit culture has adapted to this potential for severe disagreements is a lack of hierarchy. Full social equality was practiced in Inuit communities - there were no chiefs or servants.  The result was significantly less disagreements over social issues. The community had to all agree upon very important decisions such as infanticide or senilicide in order to reduce the population and food demand of a village (Price 66).  The Inuit, more than anything, were practical in nature. They killed if necessary. The harsh conditions of their lifestyle did not afford them the luxury of moral quandary when it comes to the survival of the tribe.

3. Migration and trade

    During the summers, when the arctic landscape was more easily traversed, bands of Inuit would form large villages of teepees or subterranean living spaces (“The Inuit, Environment.”). In these larger villages, the isolation of the winter was temporarily forgotten and friendships were made between Inuit of different bands. There was a small amount of material trade during these periods, and the result was a movement of stories across the arctic regions. One of the wonders of Inuit culture is stark, simplistic, and massive sculptures of rock known as Inuksuit. They are created solely with scavenged stones or trees. The result is an incredibly natural sculpture that acts as a landmark for the barren and often unvaried arctic landscape. Inuksuit can point towards helping spirits, or show where a good spawning ground for caribou can be found (Hallendy 29). Their uses are considered by the Inuit as completely practical. The spirits of Inuit mythology are connected to the land, like everything else in the world. Sculptures are in place to help future generations gain awareness of the magic and abundance in the seemingly barren landscape of the arctic. The Inuit may not be a culture of complex philosophy and interaction, however they have an undeniable sense of wonder that other cultures have lost.

The Northwestern Tribes

1. Living Conditions

    The Northwestern First Nations were a people of great wealth and plenty. Compared to the lives of their fellow Canadian Natives, the people of the Pacific coast succeeded in moving beyond simply surviving. Based on the pre-European accounts and the modern day persistence of  Northwestern First Nation culture, it is safe to say that they flourished in their region. The flourishing of the Native people was due to both the incredible geographic bounty for human consumption, as well as their ability to exploit it to the full (Kopper 201). The Northwestern coast is geographically varied and the weather is generally temperate due to the warm ocean winds. The forest offered safe shelter from the large amount of precipitation, and the coast offered an abundance of game such as seals, otter, and whale. The People of the Pacific coast developed efficient techniques for catching many varieties of wildlife from the sea and from the land. The flora was abundant due to the temperature rarely falling below zero, leading to an abundance of mammals and birds for the consumption of the Native people.

    The ease of life for the Pacific First Nations came from this abundance. The ingenuity of the people combined with the variety of resources in their area caused them to discover technology that was unknown to other tribes. The red cedars and douglas firs were cut and steamed to form different shapes. Wooden boxes and containers were made in this fashion. Stone tools were used to make clean cuts in the wood in order to create detailed art such as totem poles (“Northwestern Coast Indian”). The Native people of the northwestern coast commonly decorated every day items. They had a very developed eye for aesthetics and were very skilled artists. Compared to the Inuit, the Pacific Natives created far more stone and wood sculptures and emphasized detail and symmetry far more.

    In addition to art and utility, the complex woodworking talents of the coastal tribes was exemplified in their houses. A typical house was made of planks of cedar and could hold multiple families. Complex mechanical technology was used for constructing these houses, such as the pulleys and ropes used for placing the large roof planks (Price 190). This style of architecture was also used in the construction of “longhouses” where potlatches were held and where families lived (“Northwest Coastal People, Environment”). The abundance of food allowed these houses to be permanent residences. Due to the sedentary nature of the Pacific tribes and the wealth of the landscape, complex social hierarchies were allowed to develop.


2. Family Unit and Community

    The Northwestern Natives had a more complex social dynamic than the Inuit. The cause of this is most likely the abundance of resources in their area and therefore the stationary nature of their villages. The families each had a respective chief who distributed wealth and food to the rest of the family. The right of being a family chief was passed down the bloodline, through either the maternal or the paternal side (“Kwakwaka’wakw.”). The families themselves lived in larger villages, with each family belonging to one of the following four classes: the nobles, the commoners, and the slaves (acquired through war or purchase) (“Northwest Coastal People, Environment). The chief of the wealthiest noble family in the village became the chief of the village. The nobility in these communities were held to very high esteem and were even considered to be conduits between the mortal and spirit world. During Potlatches, the nobility demonstrated their wealth and spiritual connection, putting on dances and giving out food.

3. Migration and Trade

    The different tribes and clans of northwestern Canada were all somewhat similar in culture. The art styles were widely the same, and their ways of life were not often dissimilar (Kopper 206). Besides temporary summer fishing camps, migration was not practiced by the Pacific First Nations. The temperate climate offered game and fish all year round, however longer voyages were set up to hunt for whale, to trade with neighboring tribes, or to raid other villages (Price 190). These canoes were expertly crafted out of long, hollowed cedar trees and were excellent for large groups of people. One of the first records of these canoes were made by lost spanish travellers, taken in the current from California to Vancouver Island. The Spaniards were approached by Haida First Nations with gifts and trade possibilities. They advanced towards the lost Spanish ship in large canoes carrying dancers and musicians. The trade was documented as a very positive experience, and impressed the Spanish sailors greatly (Archer 457). Other trade stories involving the Europeans are not as positive. James Cook, a british explorer, was shocked by the confidence and non-subservience of the Natives of Vancouver Island. They demanded payment from the Europeans for every item taken from their land (Archer 456). The confidence of these people in the face of european invasion is a final testament to the pride and complexity of their culture.

The culture of the Northwestern First Nations was far closer to our current society than the Inuit. The hierarchical society and displays of wealth have strong modern-day ties with what we consider civilization. The Inuit, on the other hand, had a completely different approach to community. It was far more egalitarian, utilitarian, and philosophically grounded than most others. The reasons for these differences are purely geographical - less available resources leads to an increasingly utilitarian cultural pursuits. The communities who have access to the largest abundance of food and shelter develop a culture of wealth and power. Spirituality, art, and entertainment becomes a part of the social and economic hierarchy in these communities. The powerful members of these communities have the largest influence on spirituality. This is not so for the Inuit. The lack of resources cause a utilitarian need for equality in the arctic. The result of the geography of the pacific northwest is a more complex cultural life and a larger power disparity.


Works Cited:

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Archer, Christon I. "Cannibalism in the Early History of the Northwest Coast: Enduring Myths and Neglected Realities." ["Canadian Historical Review"]. Canadian Historical Review, vol. 61, no. 4, Dec. 1980, pp. 453-479.

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Hallendy, Norman. Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Print.

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Webster, Gloria Cranmer. "KWAKIUTL." Encyclopedia of North American Indians (Houghton Mifflin), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Jan. 1996, pp. 320-322.