Were All American Indians Ecologists Or Is That A Myth?

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Here are three approaches examining this query:

1) A Book Report By MARK S. FLEISHER of THE ECOLOGICAL INDIAN Myth and History. By Shepard Krech 3d.318 pp. New York:W. W. Norton & Company. Imagine a life with nothing manufactured, with yourself starting from scratch and being forced to build everything you need out of natural resources, exploiting rivers, lakes, oceans and forests for food without significantly altering the landscape. We learned as kids that American Indians lived off the land in perfect harmony with nature, never taking too much or destroying rivers, grassland or forests more than they had to. Native American people are indeed the thoughtful consumers of native animals and plants, exploiting the landscape in careful, deliberate ways. Never would they overexploit buffalo herds or cut too many trees or use fire inappropriately. The American Indians truly understand what it means to live off the land. Right? Wrong, says Shepard Krech 3d in ''The Ecological Indian: Myth and History.'' Our notion of the Native American as the Ecological Indian, keeper and preserver of the environment, is merely an image fashioned by mythmakers -- some nave, others manipulative. If we look closely, he says, the image is unsubstantiated. His book is a well-researched, carefully written exploration of how Indians used and abused the environment and how our beliefs about them, shaped by cultural perceptions, have created a largely stereotypic image of real people. I spent the middle and late 1970's among Salish and Nootkan people on the Northwest Coast, conducting ethnographic and linguistic fieldwork as a graduate student and then as a fledgling assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University. I vividly recall transcribing the Salish language Clallam and the Nootkan languages Hesquiat and Makah, spoken by tribal elders born at the turn of the century. I recorded hundreds of vocabulary items for animals, fishing and hunting techniques and accompanying rituals, and enjoyed native myths about how the world of humans and animals meshed in practical and mythic harmony for thousands of years of habitation at the edge of densely wooded forests on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island's western seacoast south of Nootka Sound. I had no time then to question how Europeans and European-Americans conceptualized native people and their relationship to the environment. Nor did I wonder if elderly informants' statements about their treatment of the environment in the ''olden days'' were an accurate depiction of a lost life style. Krech, an anthropologist at Brown University, examines specific ecological issues and dissects each one into cultural and factual components. Did American Indians kill too many buffalo? If they did, why? Did they cut too many trees, and why? What was the effect? Did American Indians really inhabit a lush countryside, an Eden? Krech helps us understand these issues by separating facts from myths. There were so few American Indians on so much land that Europeans, accustomed to crowded spaces, perceived only paradise when they saw lightly peopled landscapes. Nor did the early Europeans see the abandoned, over exploited landscapes. Not only did Europeans interpret what they saw through a lens biased by a Western life style, they had little understanding of the cultural complexities of the Indians or of how Indians' views of animals, plants and forces of nature affected what we now see as over exploitation and abuse of the land. To understand the reality of American Indian use of animals and plants, we have to grasp basic cultural premises, Krech says, beginning with the pervasive theme that religion and economy are not separate. This means animals take on qualities similar to those ascribed to supernatural beings. Buffalo on the plains and salmon on the Northwest Coast were addressed as sentient beings capable of seeing, hearing and responding to us in different ways. If Plains Indians did not kill all of the buffalo forced over a ''jump'' -- a precipice over which they were herded -- the surviving buffalo and those avoiding the jump would ''tell'' other buffalo, warning them away and leaving the people hungry and without skins for clothing. Overkilling (as we see it) guaranteed future bounty (as they see it). I recall attending a First Salmon ceremony, when the skeleton of a salmon roasted on ironwood stakes and shared by community members was designated as the ''first'' salmon of the season and was carried by elders to the local river, wrapped like a baby in a blanket and placed gently on the water and allowed to drift back to the ocean. The skeleton, reborn at sea, would instruct his fellow salmon on the spawning route, thus insuring another bountiful harvest. Krech presents evidence sufficient to peel away beliefs from facts until finally the concept of the Ecological Indian as ecologist and conservationist erodes. This book is a good story and first-rate social science, but it is not without passion. Transforming American Indian cultures into the cliche of the Ecological Indian makes Krech angry. Such stereotyping betrays an unabashed disregard for the complexity of native cultures. Creating the Ecological Indian is like reducing the knowledge and artistic creations of Europeans and European-Americans for 5,000 years to a brief essay called ''Civilization.'' This book teaches us everything we have wanted to know about American Indians and the environment. But as an anthropologist and criminologist, I see that the cultural processes that created the Ecological Indian are still at work today. What white American society thinks it ''knows'' about American Indians is largely that society's cultural invention, untested by empirical science. This mythmaking is convenient, portable and can be used anytime, anywhere. It is also dangerous. Even positive stereotypes can be degrading. The ''Injun'' was the bloodthirsty savage we baby boomers grew up with on television. American culture uses degrading stereotypes to demonize what it dislikes, fears or simply does not understand; witness the American Indians and African-Americans. And the public now supports politicians' empirically unjustified stereotype of troubled youngsters as threatening street demons and, as if in a cultural stupor, allows the imprisonment of children in penitentiaries. Beyond the scholarly view of Native Americans, Krech's book quietly pleads that we continually test our cultural vision against reality, lest we simplify ourselves to a set of stereotypes and lose forever the vibrancy of American multicultural community life.

2)Native Americans and the Environment: A survey of twentieth century issues with particular reference to peoples of the Colorado Plateau and Southwest (page 9 of 10) Author: David Rich Lewis. Adapted from: Lewis, David R. 1995. "Native Americans and the Environment: A survey of twentieth century issues." American Indian Quarterly, 19: 423-450, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Visit the University of Nebraska Press website at nebraskapress.unl.edu/. Stereotypes and Interests in Conflict In recent years, tribal land use - including their resistance to submitting to certain state and federal environmental regulations - has put Indians at odds with environmentalists. This turn of events emerges as Indians begin placing immediate needs and desires over older cultural regulatory patterns, shattering both traditional standards of behavior and static white stereotypes of Indians as "the original conservationists." Indeed, early environmentalists found inspiration in Native American cultures. Some was richly deserved while much was based on a cultural misinterpretation of a more complex and dynamic whole. The grosser stereotypes depicted Indians as beings without action or agency, who left no mark on the land, who lived within the strictest of natural constraints. These ideas unintentionally denied Native Americans their humanity, culture, history, and most importantly, their modernity.

This stereotypic vision blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s. Indians became symbols for the American counterculture, American environmentalism, and New Age mysticism - symbols for a way of life in opposition to urban, white, Christian, techno-industrial society. Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear in television ads as he surveyed a polluted landscape, and an apocryphal speech written as a film script and attributed to Chief Seattle made Indians "the mascot of an international ecology movement." Native peoples fostered this facile view for its positive results. Yet in the end the images offered more a justified critique of industrial society than any critical understanding of Native peoples' complex interactions with the environment. Even the highly touted motion picture Dances With Wolves (1990) is a sensitive if misleading dance with mythology, using Indians and animals as environmental symbols to attack twentieth-century human-nature relationships. Stereotypic images persist to the detriment of Native Americans because the images relegate them to a "past" and misdirect non-Indian society's responses to modern Native peoples and issues.

Indians were never properly "ecologists" - a term referring to a highly abstract and systematic science. They were, however, careful students of their functional environments, bound by material and cultural needs and constraints, striving for maximum sustained yield rather than maximum production, yet unafraid to exploit moments of periodic abundance. They developed an elaborate land ethic based on long-term experience, tied to a cosmological view of the world with all its animate and inanimate, natural and supernatural inhabitants as an interrelated whole. They recognized that they were part of creation and acted accordingly. Land and place were central to survival, to their beliefs, to their very identity. They shaped their environments which, in turn, shaped them. Their population densities and technologies, subsistence strategies and beliefs mitigated perhaps the worst environmental degradations, but did not leave the natural environment or ecology of their regions untouched. They lived, they acted, they are, and oversimplified or romantic stereotypes should not deny them that complex human experience past or present.

3)“Collapse” by Jared Diamond, Penguin books, 2005. Professor Diamond evaluates the way societies have failed or succeeded, including the early American Indians who have been often portrayed as ecologists when they were a mixture of both the best and sometimes far less than we would expect, in the way they used and misused their resources. When speaking the truth from scientific evaluations it isn’t surprising that he has come under fire from those who perpetuate the myth. Here are some of his observations. “Efforts to understand past collapses have had to confront one major controversy and four complications. The controversy involves resistance to the idea that past peoples (some of them known to be ancestral to peoples currently alive and vocal) did things that contributed to their own decline.We are much more conscious of environmental damage now than we were a mere few decades ago.Even signs in hotel rooms now invoke love of the environment to make us feel guilty if we demand fresh towels or let the water run. To damage the environment today is considered morally culpable. Not surprisingly, Native Hawaiians and Moaris don’t like paleontologists telling them that their ancestors exterminated half of the bird species that had evolved on Hawaii and New Zealand, nor so Native Americans like archeologists telling them that the Anasazi deforested parts of the southwestern U.S. The supposed discoveries by paleontologists and archeologists sound to some listeners like just one more racist pretext advanced by whites for dispossessing indigenous peoples. It’s as if scientists were saying, “Your ancestors were bad stewards of their lands, so they deserved to be dispossessed.” Some American and Australian whites, resentful of government payments and land retributions to Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, do indeed seize on the discoveries to advance that argument today.Not only indigenous peoples, but also some anthropologists and archeologists who study them and identify with them,view the recent supposed discoveries as racist lies. Some of the indigenous peoples and the anthropologists identifying with them go to the opposite extreme. They insist that past indigenous peoples were (and modern ones still are) gentle and ecologically wise stewards of their environments, intimately knew and respected Nature, innocently lived in a virtual Garden of Eden, and could never have done all those bad things; As a New Guinea hunter once told me, “If one day I succeed in shooting a big pigeon in one direction from our village, I wait a week before hunting pigeons again, and then go out in the opposite direction from the village.”Only those evil modern First World inhabitants are ignorant of Nature, don’t respect the environment, and destroy it. In fact, both extreme sides in this controversy—the racists and the believers in a past Eden—are committing the error of viewing the past indigenous peoples fundamentally different from (whether inferior to or superior to) Modern First World peoples. Managing environmental resources sustainability has always been difficult, ever since Homo sapiens developed modern inventiveness, efficiency, and hunting skills around 50, 000 years ago. Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46, 000 years ago, and subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia’s former giant marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans—whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean islands, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands—has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases.”

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