Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Ecological Indian

Full Title: The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: Norton, 1999).

Author: Shepard Krech III, anthropologist at Brown. Also has appointment in environmental studies. Writes in his research profile: "I conduct research on the intersections of (1) anthropology and history, and (2) humans and the natural world; on material culture and the development of museums; currently, on time in indigenous cultures, as well as the relationships between birds and native people – all informed by ethnography in and a general geographical focus on native North America." (Note: James Clifford talk at HI last year focused on concepts of time in indigenous cultures...surely I will know more about this if/when I read a cultural anthropology list.) According to his intro to this book, Krech gained many of his research questions through ethnographic work with the Gwi'ichin during graduate school. (This is the Northern tribe who opposed drilling on ANWR on basis of the threat to caribou breeding grounds.) Although his work initially focused on the fur trade in the North, after Ecological Indian he wrote Spirits of the Air: Birds and American Indians in the South, which seems to have not yet been published.

Argument: The cultural sterotype of the romantic-environmentalist Indian living in balance with the earth is ultimately dehumanizing, because it suggests that the Indian 1) is a monolithic entity, not a multiplicity of tribes 2) does not have the ability to live in a full range of ways with the earth, as Europeans do, but instead is locked into a sort of pre-technological stasis, living within ecosystems much like animals do. Krech's mission is to complicate this stereotype - not to brand all Indians as either conservationists or as exploiters of the land equal to whites, but instead to point out that Indian use of wildlife and land varied according to local conditions, tribal values, political position of the Indian vis a vis white interlopers, etc. - in other words, to give the Indian a full and flexible environmental history. In this intent, Krech self-consciously aligns himself with "new Western" historians William Cronon and Richard White. Krech points out that present-day Native stance on the environment often embraces this "ecological" stereotype, which makes it even harder for historians to examine. Methodologically, Krech writes that his aim in this book is not to be "encyclopedic," but to examine the problem through a number of selected historical cases (27). Krech's conclusion examines the present-day interactions of native groups, the government, and environmental groups, in the light of the historical evidence he presents.

1. Pleistocene Extinctions. Discusses controversy over palynologist and geochronologist Paul Martin's idea that the newest New World residents - Indian tribes recently arrived over the Bering land bridge - caused the cataclysmic extinctions of the end of the Pleistocene era. Krech believes instead that climate change might have also been the culprit ("multiple causes provide the best explanation" [42]), but uses the case as a paradigm to explain how historical and scientific evidence about the topic became politicized (objections from Vine Deloria, Jr).

2. The Hohokam.
This chapter discusses controversies over the people known as the Hohokam, who disappeared before Americans or Spanish got to their lands in Arizona (by the Salt River, near present-day Phoenix). There are a couple of explanations: the Hohokam, who built canals (just like Markley's Martians), "irrigated themselves to death by delivering saline waters to saline fields and destroying crops too salt sensitive for the man-made environment" (45). The alternate explanation focuses instead on their hundreds of years of success in living with a difficult environment. Krech points out that these interpretations are flexible depending on the cultural needs of the age (Frank Cushing, obsessed with the Zuni, thought that the Hohokam were like the Zuni and that an earthquake caused the Hohokam to die; when American farmers in the Southwest witnessed the destruction of oversalinated fields, explanations turned to oversalinization [70-1]).

3. Eden. Central question: "How can America [the historical, pre-colonial land] be simultaneously paradise seemingly untouched by human hands and - as archaeologists and other scholars have often proposed - inhabited by people who, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, exploited lands and animals in order to live, cut down forests for fuel and arable land, and perhaps oversalinated fields and helped animals to an early demise?" (76) Krech points to work such as William Cronon's Changes in the Land, which sought to re-emphasize Indian manipulation of the New World's forests and wildlife. Krech concludes that Europeans were able to view the land as virgin (Krech wittily calls it "widowed," pointing to the fact that smallpox and other epidemics appear to have already killed off many Indians before the arrival of Europeans) because of the small populations of Indians, which forestalled visible destruction. (See Isenberg's comment in review below - doesn't population control count as environmentalism/ecological thought?)

4. Fire. Indians' use of fire - to manage forests or control wildlife - has been condemned "either because they could not set fires with significant consequences or because they could and did" (101). Indian ability to control fire was used in the 1940s-on as way to convince the public to be careful with fire in parks and forests, but the historical evidence does not necessarily show that they were always able to do so. Conclusion to this chapter points out that debates continute over whether Indian fires were an inherent part of the "wilderness" ecosystem (which would indicate that Indian activity is equal to animal activity, instead of human activity...) This is an interesting commentary on the "humanizing" nature of technology - "the tension is between those who think that Indians were somehow nontechnological or pretechnological, had no impact on the environment, and were therefore 'natural,' and those who disagree" (122).

5. Buffalo. This chapter glosses the debate over how much Indians had to do with the destruction of the buffalo (discussed in more detail in Andrew Isenberg's The Destruction of the Buffalo). Here Krech begins a theme which he develops over the next couple of chapters: the question of whether Indian ecological values perhaps were not exactly the same as our current environmental ethics. Example: Plains Indians believed that buffaloes came and went from underground or under lakes, and reemerged in great numbers from these places every spring. Krech points out, "Such a belief would have fundamental consequences for how an ecological 'system' is conceptualized...Plain Indian ecological spaces would not be within the parameters of a Western ecologist's ecosystem" (149).

6. Deer. This chapter concerns itself with disrupting the interpretation of markets for deerskin in the American South, challenging scholars who "argue that Indians who participated eagerly in the exchange were seduced by new technology and alcohol" (152). Instead, Krech writes, these were people who "in the short term actively created choices for themselves, defined new roles, found paths in the new order in myriad and sometimes contradictory ways, and did not become dependent either rapidly or predictably" (152). As he will in the following chapter on the beaver, Krech points to Cherokee beliefs in deer reanimation as a reason why these hunters might not have seen the mass killings as transgressive.

7. Beaver. In this chapter, Krech describes conflicts between white traders interested in perpetuating the beaver population and northern Indians who wished to gain as much as they could through trapping. Krech points to Indian beliefs in the beaver's ability to reincarnate as a possible reason why Indians might not be concerned about beaver extirpation from their immediate area, and also says that the unevenness of conservation efforts meant that Indians competing with others for trade might see no choice but to use the most lethal and effective trapping methods. Krech moves into his conclusion here, arguing that the historical evidence of the First Peoples' destruction of the beaver should not be used as a rationale for current tribes being forced to give over management of their resources to outsiders ("no one doubts that native people who spend their lives hunting, fishing, and trapping possess the ability to understand animal behavior and population dynamics" [209]).

Reviews (significant flaws?)
: Dan Flores, in the Journal of American History, writes that the book has been called "propaganda" by Native publication Indian Country Today, and adds that the fact that this is the case shows that "modern scholarship is on a collision course with the pop culture understanding of history" (a weird sentence, considering that the Indian interpretation might have a bit more significance than the claims of simple "pop culture"?) Flores continues: "Because the book does not say what it is expected to say, it is seen as anti-Indian, or racist, but nothing could be further from the truth." Flores points out that much of the book is bibiliographic, which he says is fine; he points out that Krech often opts for caution instead of over-interpretation (hence all the paragraphs that read something like this: "there were many different kinds of tribes, many different locations, many different instances, and thus a definitive answer is elusive"). The only instance in which Flores feels the book does not go far enough in "picking a side" is in the chapter about Pleistocene extinctions. In the American Historical Review, Andrew Isenberg approves of Krech's impulse to dismantle this stereotype, but thinks that the chapter on pre-Columbian resource management downplays Indian "intentionality" by failing to mention evidence of Indian population control and by describing Indian technology as "low-impact," while failing to consider that said technology could be very destructive when deployed in service of market forces, as it was when Indians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century hunted bison and deer for trade. By Isenberg's lights, this proves that Indians did have a conservation ethic which kept the killing capacities of their technologies in check.

New words: periglacial ("characteristic of or designating an area where the influence of an adjacent ice sheet or glacier, or the action of freezing and thawing, is or has been a dominant factor in forming or modifying the landscape; designating the processes or conditions which prevail in such situations"); cucurbits ("a cucurbitaceous plant; a gourd" - grown by the Hohokam); amaranth ("a genus of ornamental plants (Amarantus, family Amarantaceæ) with coloured foliage, of which the Prince's Feather and Love-lies-bleeding are species"); chenopod ("a book-name for the plant genus Chenopodium or Goose-foot, family Chenopodiaceæ"); treponematosis (disease caused by the type of "spirochæte of the genus of this name, the members of which are parasitic or pathogenic in man and warm-blooded animals and include those causing syphilis and yaws").

Sticky anecdotes: Sabre tooth tigers could open their jaws to a hundred degrees (34); Narragansett Indians speculated that the English came to American because they had a wood shortage (based on their intense interest in timber) (76); Plains Indians sometimes preferred drowned buffalo or buffalo that had been buried in the ground "over all other types of food" because the flesh was tender - out of this meat, a bottle-green soup was made (133); after the buffalo were mostly killed by the end of the nineteeth century, "buffalo bones littered the prairies so thickly that in places it was impossible to walk without rattling against their skeletons," but because buffalo bones were useful as fertilizer and a "carbon-filtering agent in sugar refining", entrepreneurial buffalo bone pickers got them all up off the ground and sold them for profit (no word as to whether these pickers were Indian or white) (141).

Books to follow up on: Primary: Charles Eastman - The Soul of the Indian; Black Elk Speaks.

Secondary: Vine Deloria, Red Earth, White Lies; William Glen, Mass Extinction Debates: How Science Works in a Crisis (Amazon link).

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