The Next Chapter

Daniel Heath Justice on why the raccoon is a significant creature to Indigenous cultures

The author and academic spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why he wrote his latest book.
Raccoon is a book by Daniel Heath Justice. (Submitted by Daniel Heath Justice, Reaktion Books)

Daniel Heath Justice is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies and English at the University of British Columbia. 

A few years ago, he wrote a book about badgers, called Badger, as part of an animal series. When it came to write another animal's cultural history, he wanted to focus on one that was significant to Indigenous cultures. Raccoon is that book, and it comes at a time when raccoons are thriving in Canadian urban environments.

They have successfully adapted to urban life, he argues, and spoke with Shelagh Rogers about what we can learn from their adaptability.

A changing world

"Raccoons are one of the animal species that's benefiting the most from climate change. There are more raccoons alive today than at any time in their evolutionary history. Those numbers aren't going to go down. They're expanding geographically.

Raccoons are one of the animal species that's benefiting the most from climate change.

"Climate change seems like it actually has a lot of great opportunities for raccoons as a species, because they they're quite adaptive and they can eat a lot of different things. Changing ecologies don't necessarily mean disruption to their to their diet."

LISTEN: Daniel Heath Justice discusses Why Indigenous Literatures Matter:

Indigenous author and scholar Daniel Heath Justice on his book "Why Indigenous Literatures Matter." 13:58

Transformative creatures

"[In some Indigenous cultures], raccoons are often a trickster figure or a transformative figure. They don't have quite the same visibility as Coyote, for example, or Rabbit in the southeast. Raccoons are kind of a second tier of trickster or transformer figure. We see raccoons as being kind of everywhere now, but their populations were much smaller historically.

"In different regions, they were greater in numbers but there were more predators, so their populations weren't quite as extensive. They didn't necessarily have the same visibility as they do now. But typically they were they've always been seen as transformers — creatures who lived between planes of existence between the above world, the middle world and the lower world because they connected with the waters and the sky through the trees. 

Raccoons are kind of a second tier of trickster or transformer figures.

"There are all kinds of ways that they have inhabited these spheres. But, it's fair to say that trickster transformer is a is an iconic role for raccoons in Indigenous traditions." 

An adventurous raccoon atop of a construction crane in downtown Toronto in 2020. (John Badcock/CBC News)

The raccoon capital of the world

"I would love to see raccoons actually named Toronto's official city animal. There's no animal that deserves the title better. But there's also no animal that's more polarizing in Toronto. 

"Raccoons don't behave in ways that a lot of humans think that they should. They are also neophiliacs, which is a term I learned from a researcher at York University named Dr. Suzanne E. MacDonald. Neo means 'new.' Most animals are neophobic but raccoons are drawn to the new, whereas most animals are repulsed it because it might be dangerous. But for raccoons, they don't see new things necessarily as dangerous as much as opportunities. 

I would love to see raccoons actually named Toronto's official city animal.

"They will explore and they'll fiddle: They'll try to say, 'Is this a source of food? Is this a source of shelter? Is this a source of entertainment?' A city is just a wonderland of possible playthings and things to eat.

"I think if you're a neophilic creature, a city is exactly the best place for you. But it is also the place where are you going to come into the most conflict with humans desires to boundary their surroundings and create their little realms of authority and control."

Daniel Heath Justice's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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