- Historic Sites
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
RW That word natural is the key. Many of these concepts of Indians are quite old, and they all picture Indians as people without culture. Depending on your view of human nature, there are two versions. If human beings are inherently evil in a Calvinistic sense, then you see Indians as inherently violent and cruel. They’re identified with nature, but it’s the nature of the howling wilderness, which is full of Indians. But if you believe in a beneficent nature, and a basically good human nature, then you see Indians as noble savages, people at one with their environment.
WC To understand how Indians really did view and use their environment, we have to move beyond these notions of “noble savages” and “Indians as the original ecologists.” We have to look instead at how they actually lived.
RW Well, take the case of fire. Fire transformed environments all over the continent. It was a basic tool used by Indians to reshape landscape, enabling them to clear forests to create grasslands for hunting and fields for planting. Hoe agriculture—as opposed to the plow agriculture of the Europeans—is another.
WC There’s also the Indians’ use of “wild” animals—animals that were not domesticated, not owned in ways Europeans recognized. Virtually all North American Indians were intimately linked to the animals around them, but they had no cattle or pigs or horses.
RW What’s hardest for us to understand, I think, is the Indians’ different way of making sense of species and the natural world in general. I’m currently writing about the Indians of the Great Lakes region. Most of them thought of animals as a species of persons . Until you grasp that fact, you can’t really understand the way they treated animals. This is easy to romanticize—it’s easy to turn it into a “my brother the buffalo” sort of thing. But it wasn’t. The Indians killed animals. They often overhunted animals. But when they overhunted, they did so within the context of a moral universe that both they and the animals inhabited. They conceived of animals as having, not rights—that’s the wrong word—but powers . To kill an animal was to be involved in a social relationship with the animal. One thing that has impressed me about Indians I’ve known is their realization that this is a harsh planet, that they survive by the deaths of other creatures. There’s no attempt to gloss over that or romanticize it.
WC There’s a kind of debt implied by killing animals.
RW Yes. You incur an obligation. And even more than the obligation is your sense that those animals have somehow surrendered themselves to you.
WC There’s a gift relationship implied …
RW … which is also a social relationship. This is where it becomes almost impossible to compare Indian environmentalism and modern white environmentalism. You cannot take an American forester or an American wildlife manager and expect him to think that he has a special social relationship with the species he’s working on.
WC Or that he owes the forest some kind of gift in return for the gift of wood he’s taking from it.
RW Exactly. And it seems to me hopeless to try to impose that attitude onto Western culture. We distort Indian reality when we say Indians were conservationists—that’s not what conservation means. We don’t give them full credit for their view, and so we falsify history.
Another thing that made Indians different from modern Euro-Americans was their commitment to producing for security rather than for maximum yield. Indians didn’t try to maximize the production of any single commodity. Most tried to attain security by diversifying their diet, by following the seasonal cycles: they ate what was most abundant. What always confused Europeans was why Indians didn’t simply concentrate on the most productive part of the cycle: agriculture, say. They could have grown more crops and neglected something else. But once you’ve done that, you lose a certain amount of security.
WC I like to think of Indian communities having a whole series of ecological nets under them. When one net failed, there was always another underneath it. If the corn died, they could always hunt deer or gather wild roots. In hard times —during an extended drought, for instance—those nets became crucial.