Monday Book: American Indians were no friend of the buffalo
The Ecological Indian: Myth and History by Shepard Krech III, (WW Norton, pounds 21)
Monday 01 November 1999
He reviews a number of controversial test cases. Was the extinction of many large animals in North America's fabulous bestiary due to over- hunting by Indians' remotest ancestors, "mythical Pleistocene hit men", as one Indian writer sarcastically called them in rejecting this theory? Did the Hohokum people of Arizona engineer their own annihilation by building the continent's most extensive canal system, and then fill it with water too saline for their crops? Were deliberate fires, employed by many Indians for hunting, clearing ground, communicating and waging war, used with a true "ecological" understanding of the consequences? Were Indians who trapped beaver to just short of extinction driven to abandon traditional conservation by the need to trade with Europeans and a lethal thirst for their brandy? And are Native Americans today as ecologically sound as their ancestors?
In each case, Krech rejects explanations with a single cause, showing the interplay between the many Indian peoples and their many environments was always subject to changing pressures. In some cases, he refuses to reach a conclusion, insisting the historical record is insufficient for any theory. Again and again, he demonstrates the need to check fashionable generalisations against specific instances.
The Ecological Indian would seem to have been exemplified by the Plains Indians, who were dependent on the buffalo. Their understanding of ecological balance is often contrasted with the gross destructiveness of white hunters who brought the national herd (of, perhaps, 30 million) to the brink of extinction in the 1870s. But Krech suggests the buffalo was in difficulty already due to disease, drought and competition for grazing from the Indians' own ponies. And, he hints that by the 19th century, Indian demands alone were perhaps becoming unsustainable by the buffalo population.
He goes on to show that Indians used methods of hunting that could be horrifically wasteful, as when they drove buffalo over cliffs and butchered only the topmost layer of crippled animals. But, in a frustratingly brief passage, he puts this in a cultural context. Such slaughters were ecologically justified, in the sense that the Indians believed any escaping buffalo would warn others to stay away in future. They also believed buffalo emerged each spring in "countless throngs" from caves, having passed the winter on prairies beneath the lakes.
The religious relationship between the Plains Indians and the buffalo was carefully managed through ritual. Thus they can be called conservationists only if it is accepted that they were at greater pains to conserve their spiritual kinship with the buffalo than any actual herd. The "Ecological Indian" is not a credible figure unless his own, essentially religious, concept of ecology is taken into account.
Bringing this humane and judicious survey to a close, Krech reports that not all today's Indians can afford to be environmentally progressive. Driven by the need for revenue and employment, some tribes have allowed reservations to be used for dumping trash and even nuclear waste. But, the beaver owes its present healthy state to the discipline of its Indian hunters, whose ancestors prior to the 19th century had no interest in what we would recognise as conservation.
Despite the vigorous revival of traditional religions, there are Native Americans who are suspicious of the "Ecological Indian", arguing that it is only another patronising image to keep Indians locked up in the past. If that has been the effect of the myth, then Krech's respectful revisionism should counteract it. Perhaps the sagest judgement on the debate came from a contemporary Choctaw. "Just because I don't want to be a white man," he said, "doesn't mean I want to be some kind of mystical Indian either. Just a real human being."
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate