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Indians In The Land
Did the Indians have a special, almost noble, affinity with the American environment—or were they despoilers of it? Two historians of the environment explain the profound clash of cultures between Indians and whites that has made each group almost incomprehensible to the other.
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
When the historian Richard White wrote his first scholarly article about Indian environmental history in the mid-1970s, he knew he was taking a new approach to an old field, but he did not realize just how new it was. “I sent it to a historical journal,” he reports, “and I never realized the U.S. mail could move so fast. It was back in three days. The editor told me it wasn’t history.”
Times have changed. The history of how American Indians have lived in, used, and altered the environment of North America has emerged as one of the most exciting new fields in historical scholarship. It has changed our understanding not only of American Indians but of the American landscape itself. To learn more about what historians in the field have been discovering, American Heritage asked two of its leading practitioners, Richard White and William Cronon, to meet and talk about their subject.
White, who is thirty-nine, teaches at the University of Utah. While earning his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz in the late 1960s, he became involved in Indian politics. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington on the environmental history of Island County, Washington. That work, which became his first book—Land Use, Environment, and Social Change—earned him the Forest History Society’s prize for the best book published in 1979-1980. This was followed by The Roots of Dependency, an environmental history of three Indian tribes: the Choctaws of the Southeast, the Pawnees of the Great Plains, and the Navajos of the Southwest. In it he showed how each had gradually been forced into economic dependency on the now-dominant white society.
William Cronon, thirty-two, teaches history at Yale University. His first book, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, examined the different ways Indians and colonists had used the New England landscape. It won the Francis Parkman Prize in 1984. Cronon recently became a MacArthur Fellow, and is working on several projects in environmental history and the history of the American West.
This conversation, which was arranged and edited by William Cronon, took place late last year at Richard White’s home in Salt Lake City.
William Cronon If historians thought about the environment at all up until a few years ago, they thought of it in terms of an older school of American historians who are often called “environmental determinists.” People like Frederick Jackson Turner argued that Europeans came to North America, settled on the frontier, and began to be changed by the environment.
Richard White In a delayed reaction to Turner, historians in the late 1960s and early 1970s reversed this. They began to emphasize a series of horror stories when they wrote about the environment. The standard metaphor of the time was “the rape of the earth,” but what they were really describing was the way Americans moving west cut down the forests, ploughed the land, destroyed the grasslands, harnessed the rivers—how they in effect transformed the whole appearance of the North American landscape.
WC Since then, I think, we’ve realized that both positions are true, but incomplete. The real problem is that human beings reshape the earth as they live upon it, but as they reshape it, the new form of the earth has an influence on the way those people can live. The two reshape each other. This is as true of Indians as it is of European settlers.
RW My first connections with Indians in the environment was very immediate. I became interested because of fishingrights controversies in the Northwest, in which the Indians’ leading opponents included several major environmental organizations. They argued that Indians were destroying the fisheries. What made this odd was that these same groups also held up Indians as sort of primal ecologists. I remember reading a Sierra Club book which claimed that Indians had moved over the face of the land and when they left you couldn’t tell they’d ever been there. Actually, this idea demeans Indians. It makes them seem simply like an animal species, and thus deprives them of culture. It also demeans the environment by so simplifying it that all changes come to seem negative—as if somehow the ideal is never to have been here at all. It’s a crude view of the environment, and it’s a crude view of Indians.
WC Fundamentally, it’s an ahistorical view. It says not only that the land never changed—“wilderness” was always in this condition—but that the people who lived upon it had no history, and existed outside of time. They were “natural.”