The Ecologist


Again, the savage Indian

Kirkpatrick Sale

14th June, 2000

Kirkpatrick Sale is shocked by a new and disturbing view of the ecological role of the American Indian.

It’s hard to believe, but there seems to be an attempt to try to discredit the now-familiar image of the American Indian as an ecological model, thus eliminating in a single blow one of the fundamental inspirations for the modern environmental movement and a festering source of recurring guilt that is lodged deep in the American psyche.

The conspiracy, if that’s not too grand a word for it, is largely the project of academics, a nit-picking fraternity that manages to break forth only when it is called upon to serve the masters at whose tables they are allowed to nibble the crumbs. But the real forces behind it are the powers whose onward course of exploitation and despoliation is being challenged by environmental regulations rooted in a regard for nature that was assumed to be the principal legacy of the natives of this continent.

Their theory being that if you can discredit the history of those native peoples, and make them out to be just as ruthless and disrespectful of the natural world as you are, you can effectively disarm the environmental critics: See, we all do it, have always done it, it’s human nature, it’s progress don’t you know, and there’s no stopping it.

At the forefront of this new conspiracy is one Shepard Krech III, who teaches anthropology at Brown University and has just published a book called The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (Never trust a “III”). Its purpose, never mind the impartial-sounding subtitle, is to prove that there was no ecological Indian and indeed that Indians were instrumental in animal extinctions and habitat destruction all along.

His case rests on accounts of Indian behaviour by contemporaneous European eyewitnesses, who of course have pervasive cultural biases of the crudest kinds, buttressed by archaeological evidence over which there is, as even he has to admit, great dispute. And, as in an earlier book in the same vein, he scores most of his points by making ecologists and pro-Indians into a gigantic straw man at about the Kevin Costner Dances With Wolves level.

Worst of all, Krech bases his argument, implicitly and explicitly, on the hunting practices of 19th century Indians in North America. An easy and familiar target, and often used these days, but it is fundamentally flawed, on two counts.

First, the societies of North America that the Europeans encountered, at the original contact in the 16th century and later as they moved west, were vastly different from the traditional societies that had lived in ecological harmony for many thousands of years before. The basic reason is that European diseases, from 1492 on in at least seventeen successive epidemics, wiped out as many as 95 per cent of the original population, leaving ragged remnant communities that had to try to carry on in a world that no longer made sense, with the elders and their wisdom gone, by merging and marrying with whatever other remnants, often of different customs, could be found.

The so-called Powhatan tribe, for example, whom the English found in Virginia in 1607, were not really a tribe at all, more a melange of leftovers, from what must have been a catastrophic die-off in the 16th century.

‘I have seen the death of all my people thrice,’ the Powhatan chief told John Smith, showing him the few villages and perhaps 5,000 people that remained from the 50,000 or 60,000 of the original society. What survived was at best a loose and not very coherent alliance of disparate, and separate, family and clan remnants, nothing like the thriving society that once must have been.

Second, the Indian tribes that lasted after European contact generally did so by adapting many of the ways, and not merely the technologies, of the conquerors. They did not typically abandon their ecological teachings, necessarily – indeed, how else would we know about them? – but as time went on they succeeded, where they did succeed, by becoming a part of the market economy of the whites, providing agricultural and animal products for the surrounding society.

And when they began to hunt buffalo in great numbers in the 19th century, it was because to survive they had to supply what a white economy demanded or be extirpated, not because they suddenly no longer remembered the ancient teachings about the sacred earth.

The Krech argument eventually comes down to saying that the Indians do not have any moral standing as ecologists because European conquerors destroyed their cultures and forced them into the capitalist system.

That is something like saying that a man who has been clapped into the stocks has no right to say anything about how to stand up straight.

For all their catastrophic and turbulent history, the one thing that did endure in so many Indian cultures was their earth-based spirituality and the ecological wisdom it spawned. The attempt to destroy that is a shoddy and soulless business indeed, the worst among many egregious examples of the American professoriate serving the systems that are so efficiently destroying the earth.

There is no doubt a special, and very hot, place for them in the hell that they are determined to reduce this world to.

Kirkpatrick Sale is a leading ecological thinker and writer

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000


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