The Myth of the Ecological Indian

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Books, Posts.

The Ecological
Indian: Myth and History
Shepard Krech III

(W.W. Norton, 318 pages, $27.95)

Krech argues this image
revived the 18th-century notion of the noble savage with an alteration suited
to the times: now, Native Americans did not pollute their environment. Indeed,
they possessed a peculiarly integrated relationship with their natural environment,
marked by strong spiritual, even mystical, overtones. This suited the purposes
of a great many people and has since become an accepted truth.

Of course, this is not historical
truth, but political sentimentalism.

Krech, a professor of anthropology
at Brown University, has written an honest and satisfying book. Unlike many
academics, he writes to be read as well as to be published. He writes a spare,
almost-elegant prose, uncluttered by self-conscious literary showmanship or
jargon. The overwhelming impression is an humane common sense, growing at least
in part from Krech’s personal and professional experience as a hunter,
scientist and anthropologist among Indians in the Canadian North.

His introduction alone is
nearly worth the price of the book. He reviews the political-economic-sexual
fantasies imposed upon Indians by European and American writers over nearly
four centuries. Apparently, complete ignorance of one’s subject has posed
no barrier to a remarkable number of scribblers. Men who never set foot in North
America, let alone dealt with Indians, such as Rousseau, who “portrayed
Indians as gentle, egalitarian, free people living in pure nature”; Montaigne,
who “used the New World as a stick for beating the Old”; and Baron
de Lahontan, who “invented a natural, noble ‘Intelligent Savage’
named Adario as a literary device to critique the European scene (including
those who left [Lahontan] without property),” wielded powerful influence
over the Western intellect and public policy, molding the West’s image
of the Indian as noble savage.

Nor are Europeans alone
to blame: Krech notes that James Fenimore Cooper’s “most famous Indian
heroes are dignified, firm, faultless, wise, graceful, sympathetic, intelligent,
and of beautiful bodily proportions reminiscent of classical sculpture.”
Common sense might indicate and Krech shows the historical facts are much more
complex and much less sentimentally inspiring. The images created by these writers
serve “polemical or political ends.” But the images are so abstract,
so idealized as to be “ultimately dehumanizing. They deny both variation
within human groups and commonalties between them.”

Indeed, one might be surprised
if Native Americans did not act in accordance with perceived self-interest.
Most human beings do. Krech’s work shows, quite simply, that Native American
peoples (there are thousands of tribes, and to lump all together as “Indians”
is as ignorant as to lump Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Dominicans, Brazilians
and Argentines as “Latin Americans”) have quite frequently behaved
in ways that contradict the politically correct image– and, regrettably,
recently adopted self-image–of Indians as always “protective of the
land and careful in exploiting its wildlife.”

Krech sweeps from the first
known appearances of humans on the American continent in the Pleistocene age
through the arrival of Europeans to the politically contentious present, exploring
in detail the human impact upon the environment. He has a knack for couching
his facts and inferences in a nondogmatic manner that can be quite winning.
Thus, much of his argument is made more through his selection and presentation
of facts, including those from which he draws certain conclusions at odds with
the politically correct right and left.

For example, he discusses
whether the first Indian settlers wiped out the large mammals they found in
the New World. The megafauna “were exceptional. They included exotic hulking
tusked mammoths and mastodons…ground sloths ranging in size from several hundred
pounds to twenty feet long…rhinoceros-sized pampatheres, a kind of giant armadillo,
and armored two-thousand pound, six-foot-long glyptodonts resembling nothing
known today…three-hundred pound giant beavers, four-horned antelopes…stag-moose
with fantastic multiple-palmated and tined antlers…dire wolves…short-faced
bears…saber-toothed cats… All vanished.”

All these animals disappeared
within a millennium, between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, “a geological

Krech candidly admits that
there is conflicting evidence as well as conflicting opinions. He is strongly
critical of Paul Martin’s theories that “man, and man alone, was responsible”
for the extinctions. Martin compared the Paleoindians’ assault on the megafauna
to a blitzkrieg. In 1967, Martin wrote, “that business of the noble savage,
a child of nature, living in an unspoiled Garden of Eden until the ‘discovery’
of the New World by Europeans is apparently untrue, since the destruction of
fauna, if not of habitat, was far greater before Columbus than at any time since.”
This made Martin a favorite of the stupid right-wing press because his arguments
would push the Native American off his moral high ground on environmental issues.

Krech argues simply that
the evidence indicates other, more profound factors may have been the primary
causes of these extinctions, including “climate and attendant vegetational
changes,” without denying the human effect, noting that indigenous peoples
in Hawaii and New Zealand exterminated numerous species of birds. He concludes
that these extinctions “defy sound-bite simplification.” He discusses
the Hohokam, urban Indians who may have overirrigated their crops and unwittingly
salinated their agricultural lands; the impact of foreign diseases upon the
native populations; the Indians’ use of fire to clear land for agriculture
and hunting (not always controlled fires, either); their wasteful consumption
of buffalo; and the economically driven extermination of fur-bearing animals
for their skins.

In discussing many widespread
sentimental beliefs, such as the notion that Native Americans never wasted resources,
that the white man taught Indians how to despoil nature, that contemporary Indians
are united in keeping their lands pristine, Krech carefully separates myth from
fact and image from reality. Krech, in fact, has set out the argument for a
new understanding of the relationship between Native Americans and their environments
with the clarity and convincing evidence that bespeaks an honest, clear-thinking
and knowledgeable man. He has written an unusually honest book, reflected in
the coherence of his prose and the logic of his arguments.

Quite intelligently, Krech
points out that much of the imagery of indigenous nobility is merely a foil
for critiques of European and American society. Indians really have little to
do with it, although several Native American writers have produced such foolishness
as the idea that white people “destroyed planet earth,” or are guilty
of environmental racism or “radioactive colonialism.” Perhaps an unwittingly
comic aspect of this is the tendency of some white environmentalists to expect
“indigenous people to walk softly in their moccasins as conservationists,”
and when Indians have not measured up to their yardstick, condemning them for
not acting as Indians should. Such critics, Krech suggests, “victimize
Indians when they strip them of all agency in their lives except when their
actions fit the image of the Ecological Indian.” Indians have favored development
over alternatives, even when development meant strip-mining tribal lands or
using them to store trash and toxic waste.

Any writer commenting on
an ethnic or religious group will tend to generalize, which is the first step
toward stereotyping. Over the four centuries since Columbus’ arrival in
the New World, apparently few writers on Native Americans–including Native
Americans themselves–have not adopted stereotypes suitable to the use of
white supremacists, Indian racists or romantic environmentalists, usually for
the advancement of a private agenda. By refreshing contrast, within his self-imposed
scope–the relationship of Native Americans to their environments–Krech
neither demonizes nor deifies Indians. Rather, he portrays them as human, which
is always a better idea.