Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Ecological Indian by Shepherd Krech

I thought this review intriguing debunking the myth of the American Indian as conservator of nature living in harmony with nature. I do not vouch for its accuracy however due to the disclaimers at the end of the article. I have noted Prof Krech's background which augments his credibility and research The more accurate context to gauge the Native response to environment is last paragraph enveloped in green.

The Ecological Indian: Myth and History
by Terry L. Anderson(from the
Detroit News, reviewing a book of the same name by Shepard Krech III)
4, 1999
One of my favorite places in Montana is the Madison Buffalo Jump
state park near the Three Forks of the Missouri River. Standing in front of this
cliff over which Indians drove buffalo for hundreds of years, one can only
imagine the sound and sight of a thundering herd of the half-ton animals
plunging to their death. Signs at the jump describe how the drive to push the
buffalo over the cliff was organized and explain how each part of the animal
from head to foot was used. Modern-day solitude at the site contributes to the
romantic scene.
But reading Shepard Krech's chapter on buffalo from his
book, The Ecological Indian, produces a very different image. The Blackfeet word
for such a site was "piskun" meaning "deep blood kettle." Imagine 30, 60, 100,
or even 600, 800, or 1000 dead or maimed beasts piled at the bottom of the
cliff, blood flowing, hooves kicking, and meat rotting in the hot sun, and you
have a clearer picture of what the site would have looked like 250 years ago.
To get a clear picture of camp life near a piskun, realize that 200 to 300
people would be living near the stench of rotting meat without toilet
facilities. Not surprisingly disease, especially dysentery, were common. Grass
would be trampled under foot and dust would arise, firewood would quickly be
depleted and water polluted.
Continue imagining the difficulty of butchering
and preserving the meat which Krech estimates could amount to as much as 240,000 pounds if 600 buffalo were killed. Krech describes what the scene at the
Olsen-Chubbuck in Colorado eight millennia ago might have looked like: "As
people butchered the animals, they ate the tongues, scattering the bones
throughout the site. When it was over they had completely butchered the
buffaloes on top, but they cut the ones beneath them less thoroughly, and hardly
(if at all) touched the ones on the bottom, especially in the deepest parts of
the arroyo" (144).
Krech's well-researched and documented descriptions of
Indian use of fire, land, buffalo, deer, and beaver stand in stark contrast to
the romantic view of Native Americans living in harmony with nature, taking only
what they needed. Page 14 reproduces the 1971 Keep American Beautiful, Inc.
poster showing Iron Eyes Cody as the Crying Indian with the caption "Pollution:
it's a crying shame." Following on the heels of the first Earth Day in 1970,
this picture became an icon of the environmental movement
. From it, mostly
non-Indians developed a romantic and noble image of "fundamental differences
between the way Americans of European descent and Indians think about and relate
to land and resources" (16).
The Ecological Indian is a book that debunks
myths and brings reality to the environmental history of American Indians.
Professor Krech, a Brown University anthropologist, systematically examines
issues ranging from the possible role of Indians in Pleistocene extinctions of
large mammals to the burning of ancient forests. In each case he carefully
separates romance from data and draws his conclusions carefully.

referring to accounts that Indians used every part of the buffalo, Krech states
that "These accounts might not be `wrong' -- in some instances people did indeed
use thoroughly the animals they killed -- only ungeneralizable" (145). In
describing Indian use of fire, he concludes, "Despite European images of an
untouched Eden, this nature was cultural not virgin, anthropogenic not primeval,
and nowhere is this more evident than in the Indian use of fire." This book is
what good science should be. It puts forth hypotheses, tests them with data, and
only draws conclusions supported by those data.
The major fault with Krech's
research and presentation is that he almost totally ignores the role of
institutions in determining how Indians interfaced with nature. In the case of
beaver, he does note that some tribes, such as the Cree, "restricted hunting in
one another's areas as far back as the mid-eighteenth century" (190) and that
this encouraged conservation. But Krech fails to carry this theme through the
My own research shows that southeastern and southwestern Indians had
property rights in land that encouraged agricultural productivity, Great Lakes
Indians had property rights to wild rice areas that encouraged cultivation, and
California Indians had property rights to pinon forests that encouraged
stewardship. Recent research by Professor Bruce Johnsen of George Mason
University shows that clan fishing rights to salmon streams in the Pacific
Northwest encouraged the owners to let larger fish pass upstream to spawn. This
property rights system best explains systematic differences in salmon sizes that
persist to this day.
In debunking the myth of the ecological Indian, Shepard
Krech builds a foundation upon which we can better understand not only the
relationship of Indians with nature, but more generally all humans with nature.
In times of abundance, we are all likely to waste resources; but in times of
greater scarcity, we are more likely to conserve. Even then, conservation
requires a system of property rights that gives individuals the incentive to
husband their resources. The ecological Indian was no romantic; he was a
pragmatist who survived when he got the incentives right.
* * *

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