American Indians–Ecological Paragons?

     In this area of Washington there are many native americans and many still retain a vestige of their land.  I pass through some of this land almost every day, and every time that I do am faced with a dissonance…something that rankles, something that is an apparent contradiction.

     Many of us are familiar with the “noble savage” concept of the American Indian, the idea that the aboriginal people of America, have an innate dignity and way of life that tends to ennoble them, but there is also another conception of the American Indian that is also widespread–the idea that they have a natural respect for “Mother Earth” and that they show this respect in the way that they have lived in harmony with the environment.

     I think of this when I travel through a section of Fife and Milton, Washington that is owned by a local group of native Americans. There are zoning laws in Washington that ban large billboards except on the reservations.  The highway in this stretch of Indian land is lined with huge billboards advertising the usual products.  Some of them are so tall that they loom above some of the tallest trees which have been topped so the passing motorists can see them better.   There are also large billboards with flashing displays and moving pictures similar to large tv screens.  These are placed along the highway and at night the flashing of the lights can be quite dazzling.  These apparently are placed here to make money for the local tribe despite the state environmental laws.

     The aboriginal people of American have been mistreated so long, that I do not begrudge them the income from the numerous gambling establishments that they have established in the same area.  I say more power to them!    I also do not begrudge them the tobacco shops where they sell tobacco products that are cheaper because the tax burden is less.    However looking at what has happened on some of their lands I have to say that I wish that they had made some different decisions.  This involves not only the billboards but the commercialization of this strip of Interstate five (see earlier posting: Fife, Washington, the city that sold its soul to the devil).


                Seeing this apparent contradiction to the image of the ecologically responsible red man, made me wonder if the image wasn’t just another romantic notion made up by our media, that perhaps the American Indians were just people like everybody else, and who possibly have adopted the media’s version of themselves in order to find some sort of way to establish a cultural identify, one that differentiates itself from current American society, or possibly for some other agenda.

     The Ecological Indian: Myth and History by Shepherd Krech III of Brown University  puts a little perspective upon this conception of the Indian:

A. It is a well known fact that the Pleistocene extinctions of North Amercian Megafauna coincided with the appearance of man in the New World.  The same thing happened in Europe and Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, Madagascar, and many other areas.   It seems very likely that early man in North America were at least partly involved in these extinctions. Note: this perfectly reasonable hypothesis has aroused absolute storms of controversy…the more politically correct investigators vehemently claiming that it was climate only not ancient man that caused the extinctions.

B. The early aboriginals often set fires to improve hunting, to use against trespassers, and for various other reasons.  Some of these fires according to early settlers got out of control.

C. Some indian groups stampeded hundreds or thousands of buffalo over cliffs and were only able to utilize a small amount of the meat.  The Cree called these sites “deep blood kettles” where 200-300 people lived for weeks near 200,000 kgs. of meat slowly rotting in the sun.

D. Some of the religious beliefs of the Cree and Piegan thought that if any buffalo escaped from these hunts they would warn the other buffalo, so it was necessary to kill any escapees.

 E. Krech also talks about how some tribes over hunted white-tailed deer and beaver in some areas.

F. He also says that overall the preColumbian indian population was too small and primitive technologcally to do widespread damage to the environment and that’s why when European man arrived the area appeared relatively pristine.

For a refutation to this viewpoint see here.  This site quotes many indians (before the modern environmental movement) who express a deep and abiding love for the land.

     I remember reading of the Lewis and Clarke expedition and the statement that in one area which was in contention between two tribes, the game was extremely plentiful because it was rarely hunted by the indians, in contrast to more heavily hunted areas where game was scarce.

     I think there is no doubt that preColumbian indians impacted the environment, perhaps triggering the Pleistocene megafauna extinction, but their numbers and technology were never that great to cause other severe disruptions.  I also would think that even if these early indians weren’t ecological paragons, that because of their lifestyle and their dependence upon the natural world, they would tend to have a greater empathy for the environment than western Europeans.

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