Native Americans: Environmentalists or Exploiters?

On Thursday, February 22, in the Mountain Heritage Center, anthropologist Shepard Krech III redefined Native American ecology and environmentalism in an hour-long presentation based on his book, The Ecological Indian.

The Ecological Indian, which is the subject of an upcoming conference, details Krech’s research and proposes that, contrary to the popular image of Native Americans as respectful and resourceful guardians of the environment, they were likely exploitative and wasteful at times.

Krech began by outlining the traditional perception of Native Americans and their relationship with the earth; he highlighted the recurring themes of careful resource-management and thrift in literature from the 1600s till the present, including the works of James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans). The French thinkers La Fontaine, Rousseau, and Montaigne all used the image of the “perfect” Native American -— innocent, peaceful, eloquent, wise — as a foil for the vices they perceived in their own society.

However, scientists have uncovered mounting evidence that Indians were not the “original ecologists” of the stereotype. Concurrent with the Indians’ arrival in North America, several species of large animals went extinct, and while Krech assigned most of the responsibility to climate and ecosystem change, he also asserted that the Native Americans of the time, who had a taste for large game, almost certainly contributed to the decline in population.

In answer to skeptics who argue that the primitive weapons and scattered Indian populations would have made systematic over-hunting a near impossibility, Krech pointed to the islands of Hawaii, on which approximately 50% of the native bird species were rendered extinct by hunters before Europeans ever landed.

Historical records show that Indians manipulated their environment in several ways, most notably through the use of fire. In addition to the well-known, smaller fires used for communication and warfare, Native Americans burned large areas on a regular basis. The flames assisted their hunting in the short-term by herding animals in the right direction, and in the long-term by attracting animals to the new grass next season. In both cases, Krech said, these actions demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the environment and a clear comprehension of how environmental components work together.

However, while Native Americans understood the mechanics of their world, one of their core beliefs coupled with the advent of a greedy European fur market to erode the environment on which they based their existence. The Indians’ faith in reincarnation, the belief that animals, if killed properly, would return again and again to sustain them, ultimately proved their downfall.

Krech emphasized that Native Americans did not intentionally over-hunt, as did the Europeans who came after them. Reincarnation conflicts with Western-style conservation thinking because if the animals will return, there is no reason to hunt selectively.

East of the Mississippi, the fur trade surrounded deer and beaver, and the European thirst for these products combined with the Indians’ business sense to create a commodity exchange that decimated the animal populations. Secure that the animals would return, some Indians helped drive up prices between the 17th and 19th centuries by locally exterminating deer and beaver. Because the human density in North America was so low, and the populations, both of animals and people, were so fluid, the disastrous effects of this strategy did not become apparent for many years.

According to Krech, “A mobile population makes it hard to see that the animals are actually gone. Fluidity in animal and human populations means if you didn’t kill them, somebody else probably did. Also, it was perceived as disrespect not to kill animals who presented themselves to you.”

The belief in reincarnation began eroding in the 18th and 19th centuries when animal populations began noticeably declining, but by then the damage had been done.

In the west, it was a different story. While Indians had employed “buffalo jumps” for millennia, the buffalo population was not seriously harmed until white hunters appeared on the scene. Within a few decades, the once mighty herds vanished, and even their bones were gathered up and carried off to make phosphate.

Krech said that buffalo jumps, cliffs off of which Indians drove entire herds, were a wasteful environmental practice. Hundreds or thousands of buffalo would be killed at a time, and often many were left unbutchered, while from others only particularly desirable parts such as the hump and tongue were removed. However, in general, the Native Americans used every single part of the buffalo, from its skin to its hooves.

“The buffalo was the Native Americans’ Wal-Mart,” Krech said.

One reason for their seeming disregard for the mountains of meat left at the foot of these jumps, Krech theorized, was the sheer amount. 600 buffalo cows, he said, equal between 135,000 and 240,000 pounds of useable meat—not counting the effort required to skin, clean, and transport the meat or the other parts of the animal that could be used.

Krech said that the Native American reaction to his book has been mixed. In Seattle, a group of students led a protest, saying that he was a racist, but it was later determined that they had not read the book. The Ecological Indian has been reviewed 60 times in five languages, and some reviewers have attacked specific issues, such as reincarnation, rather than the entire book.

“I’m just trying to be a careful scientist,” Krech said.

Krech is professor of Anthropology at Brown University in Providence, RI, and director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. He is the recipient of major fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the National Humanities Center, as well as major grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Institute for Mental Health. He is the author of nine books and 120 articles.