Book  Review:  Going  Deeper

by David Orton 
         The Ecological Indian: Myth and History
         by Shepard Krech III
         W. W. Norton & Company, 1999

    The Ecological Indian: Myth and History is an important book. It examines in a careful and documented manner a question with widespread contemporary political ramifications for Canadians, that is, whether or not indigenous peoples were in the past ecologists and conservationists, as understood in a present-day sense. Shepard Krech is a university-based anthropologist in the US. He draws upon research both from Canada and the United States.

    His personal background is described as having a keen interest in the outdoors and in hunting and fishing. From the perspective of this reviewer, Krech has a human-centered analysis of the natural world and animals are seen as “resources.” (I would say, like an aboriginal traditionalist, “seventh generation”, anthropocentric-type environmental ethic.) His is a stewardship, “use the earth wisely for human purposes, with the long term in view” position, which he brings to his analysis. People like myself would be in what he describes as the “so-called deep and spiritual ecologists” camp - the only reference to deep ecology in the book. Deep ecologists and “other alternative groups” are said to have been influenced by the ‘Ecological Indian’.

    What Krech calls the ‘Ecological Indian’ is usually paired with the ‘Nonecological White Man’. This is how the ‘Ecological Indian’ may be described in perhaps a sociological, ideal type sense:
"The Ecological Indian has embraced conservation, ecology, and environmentalism; has been premised on a spiritual, sacred attitude toward land and animals, not a practical utilitarian one; and has been applied in North America to all indigenous people....Habitually coupled with its opposite, the Nonecological White Man, the Ecological Indian proclaims both that the American Indian is a nonpolluting ecologist, conservationist, and environmentalist, and that the white man is not. ‘The Indian,’ Vine Deloria, Jr., a Lakota author and lawyer, has remarked, ‘lived with his land.’ In contrast, ‘The white destroyed his land. He destroyed the planet earth.’” p. 22

    The author looks in detail at a number of issues to examine this important question: the Pleistocene extinctions, the indigenous Hohokam who left behind the most extensive canal system in North America, early European views on North America or “Eden”, the use of fire, and aboriginal involvement in the hunting (and later trapping/killing for the fur trade) of buffalo, deer and beaver.

    The Ecological Indian is a book, like Rod Preece’s Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities, which can open the mind to re-examine previously held positions. Both books need to be widely read. They will help in bringing some understanding to resolve pressing ecological and social issues, such as those on the Canadian East Coast coming out of recent Supreme Court Decisions like the Donald Marshall case (a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq). This particular Decision of the Supreme Court has declared that aboriginals, based on 18th century treaty rights, can now hunt, fish, trap, gather and trade anytime, anyplace, without regard to season. So the real historical record of aboriginals regarding their interactions with the environment - leaving aside for the moment the impact of an expansionary, materialist industrial capitalist economy and consumerism on all of us - becomes  significant, for some hint of future aboriginal behaviour. This is for me, the contemporary importance of The Ecological Indian, apart from its new contributions to an on-going debate.

    What has become clear is that there are widespread romantic inaccuracies about Indians within the environmental movement itself and also within the aboriginal community. This book gives the evidence to show that aboriginals cannot always be said to have been icons of harmonious co-existence with Nature.

Some important insights from The Ecological Indian:

    1. Pleistocene extinctions: Krech believes that Paleoindians played some role in the Pleistocene extinctions about 11,000 years ago, when many animal species vanished from North America, but that climate changes were more important. Upholding that there was some role by humans in the megafaunal extinctions, are two important pieces of evidence for the author. One is the association of Paleoindian artifacts with the animal remains of species gone extinct within North America. But perhaps more convincing is the corroborating evidence of extinctions caused by indigenous peoples outside of North America, well before the arrival of Europeans. Thus, well over half of all the endemic bird species in the Hawaiian archipelago - over 40 species - became extinct because of human-induced changes to the environment by Polynesians. Also, in what we now call New Zealand, the early colonizers of Polynesian descent hunted at least thirteen species of Moas, an ostrich-like flightless bird, to extinction:
“The human hand is deeply implicated in the extinction of avifauna in Hawaii, New Zealand, and other Pacific islands.” p. 42

     Krech says that most archaeologists believe that Paleoindians, the ancestors of indigenous peoples today, reached North America roughly 14,000 years ago via a land bridge from northeastern Asia. The author says there is a “vocal minority” who set the entry date at about 30,000-40,000 years ago.

    2. Fire: North American Indians used fire extensively. The most important use was for subsistence. Other uses were for communication, aggression, and travel. For example, fires were used to burn lands so that animals could not use them, and to force the animals to move to areas where they could be more easily hunted. Aboriginals played a role in maintaining some fire-succession ecosystems, says the author, and therefore North America was not some unmanipulated “Eden” when the first Europeans arrived. Aboriginal-lighted fires also destroyed habitat and killed elk, deer, buffaloes, wolves and beaver:
 “The evidence that Indians lit fires that then were allowed to burn destructively and without regard to ecological consequences is abundant.” p. 120

    3. Wildlife exploitation, cultural relativism and the fur trade: Krech clearly shows that before Europeans arrived in North America, Indians lived both harmoniously and recklessly, using contemporary, generally accepted, environmental criteria. The following two quotations concern the killing of buffalo, before the European/settler-induced market hunting and commercialization set in:
“Indians sometimes used all the meat from animals they killed, and they sometimes did not.” p. 132
“To conserve a resource, in its most widespread definition, means not to waste it. Indians who ate only the buffalo’s tongue, only the fetus, or only the hump, or who abandoned bulls because they preferred cows, were not by definition conservationists - unless the definition is altered.” p. 142

    However, the wasteful exploitation of wildlife (buffalo, deer and beaver), of which many examples are given in this book, were often justified from a specific indigenous cultural belief system. Thus at buffalo jumps, where buffalos were run off cliffs and some were left to rot, no animals could be permitted to escape because it was believed that such escaped animals would warn other buffalos, who would then no longer be available for hunters. Another buffalo-related belief was that buffalo lived in meadows under lakes and would always return back to the hunter from the lake bottoms. A belief concerning beavers was that, provided beaver bones were treated respectfully, beavers would always be available. Hence beaver lodges could be trapped out and whole regions could be cleared of beavers. (For beaver pelts the trade started in the Northeast in the latter part of the 15th century and the early 16th century.) Krech says, like other authors I have read, that Indians “relished” the fur trade. Such beliefs shown here, meant that animals could be slaughtered without thinking about the future, because the culture justified it. So “conservation” meant carrying out the appropriate cultural rituals encompassing such beliefs. With the fur trade, a new temptation for obtaining trade goods arose for aboriginals, and it took priority over what today we would consider environmental concerns.

    Personally, material from this book gave me a new appreciation of taking into account a cultural relativistic perspective, when judging behaviours historically. However, in a context of approaching the millennium, we must take overall ecological and social interests into account, and be prepared, if necessary, to put aside cultural relativistic views of “rights” to exploit wildlife. I would say that today in Canada, there is a cultural relativistic difference between most aboriginals and a growing number of non-aboriginal people in the radical ecology movement. These are people who have an ecocentric, non-human centered perspective, one that does not view wildlife as “resources”. This has been influenced by the deep ecology and animal rights movement. I have argued elsewhere (see Green Web Bulletins 67A and 67B, “Unfashionable Ideas: A Left Biocentric Critique of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples”), that the policy proposals in this 1996 Report, and which are being advanced by aboriginals and Supreme Court Decisions on aboriginals, will have negative consequences for the future of wildlife, parks and wilderness in Canada. The Royal Commission Report still promotes the fur trade today, recognizes no unhunted or non-trapped wildlife sanctuaries which would be off-limits to aboriginals; and maintains a human-use orientation towards wildlife. (And so do most aboriginals.) Yet for those inspired by deep ecology, wildlife, plantlife and wild nature have value in themselves, independent of their usefulness for human purposes.

    This is quite a powerful book. It shows to the radical environmental movement that there is no ‘Ecological Indian’ in the commonly understood sense of being the first or true environmentalists. Also it shows that companion images like the ‘Ecological Hawaiian’ and the ‘Ecological Maori’ need to be put aside. Krech notes that in the past, as today, Indians have had a mixed relationship to the environment.

    Krech does not deal with the social injustices which aboriginals have had inflicted upon them by non-aboriginal society. His purpose is to make a critique of the myth of the ‘Ecological Indian’. Deep ecology supporters concerned about the redress of social inequities in society believe that social justice for aboriginals has to be addressed, but not  at the expense of wildlife and the environment.

    I found the main limitation of this book is that the author is stuck in an anthropocentric stewardship perspective. Krech does not examine the deep ecology or animal rights movement, and thus does not seem to have grasped that a new spiritually-based paradigm of values is emerging, repudiating the human-centered “resourcism” of industrial capitalist society. A spiritually based land ethic must guide human interactions with the natural world, for aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike, if other creatures with their own habitat needs are to survive. Real ecological Indians have to make an accommodation with this.

                                                                                                                                                                        October 15, 1999

          Published on the Indian website The Reviewer at

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