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The record of Indigenous North Americans' as environmental custodians

Were "Intact Aboriginal Cultures" really good "environmental custodians"? Not in North America Mate

james wrote:

Whilst I agree with nearly everything written by Tim, I have to take some
exception to what has been said of First Nations. Whilst one shouldn't overly romanticise aboriginal cultures, it needs to be acknowledged that, on the whole, these societies, where they have been left intact, have been good custodians of the environment. The fact that many North American Inuit, whose societies have been corrupted by our rampant 21st century free market growth capitalism, are now also engaging in ecological vandalism, does not negate this fact. James S. 18 June 08

Some myths just won't lie down and die. It doesn't matter how many facts are thrown at them. Facts like:

  1. According to microbiologist Peter Salonious the agriculture of the North American indigenous peoples was not sustainable and a population crash would have culled them if a European conquest hadn't.
  2. There are examples of how indigenous peoples wasted resources. Buffalo jumps, the stampeding of hundreds of animals over cliffs far in excess of tribal needs that strata examination shows were carried out centuries before European arrival. The extinction of horses before the Spaniards re-introduced them. The comment by David Suzuki that the only reason why the Haida did not chop down more Douglas Fir is that it took a full week to chop down a single tree with the axes they had. It was technology, not a spiritual reverence for nature, that constrained them.
  3. Indigenous peoples in North America were tribalists like the Europeans. Go forth and multiply or a rival tribe will outbreed you and destroy you. Their numbers were limited by war, famine and shortage. But not by respect for limits.

Robert Whelan said it best. “We now know that native peoples can be as destructive of their environments as anyone else, and that historically aboriginal tribes often changed whole ecosystems by the repeated burning of forests and by hunting animal species to extinction. The noble eco-savage is a white , Western artifact. When policy issues, such as land rights, are decided on the basis of this misconception, it leads to disappointment…” (Wild in the Woods)

What it also leads to is a false sense of security. And this what makes this issue so important. So dangerous. Why? Because Aboriginals are being used. Just as environmental NGOs lead people to believe that the environment has a watchdog to look after it, Canadians believe that when Machiavellian logging and mining corporations name Aboriginals to their boards and form partnerships with them to strip the boreal forests that somehow the land will be protected because natives are genetically or culturally endowed with inborn wisdom to manage it. They believe this because they are taught by politically correct sociology professors and Green rhetoricians to think that is so. That is why it is important Anthropology 101 is not taught by Kevin Kostner, or that our image of natives is not conditioned by Hollywood movies like Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, and Dances with Wolves.

The repercussions of this romantic attachment to the myth of the noble eco-savage are the death of our planet. The boreal forest is being clear cut because these “noble wise stewards” are serving as PR front men for corporations who are doing it. The methane gas released by this logging will keep being released for the next 10 years and it is one of the worst GHG going. Must admit, it was a clever move for the companies to bring the natives on board. As Brishen Hoff shrewdly pointed out, it was very much the same as their trotting out Greenpeace founder Dr.Patrick Moore as a representative or spokesman to prove that their project is “green”. In British Columbia, Moore appeared for the big logging companies as a spokesman for the “Share the Stein Coalition”, and using the same formula, he has appeared as the token green voice for the nuclear industry.

To attack the native-corporate partnership is to also expose native complicity and greed. But political correctness will not permit us to do so. False anthropology has affixed a halo on their heads that we cannot knock off. The myth of their inherent ecological nobility is the political kryptonite which keeps the would be critics, the biologists and scientists of Environment Canada and maverick environmentalists at bay. Two attempts were made to challenge the myth. One was made in Canada by myself and Brishen Hoff in our article “The Myth of Wise Aboriginal Stewardship”. But the Thought Police saw to it that it was never published. Even conservative media ran for cover.

But in America, the First Amendment still prevails. And finally there is man who, I think, has knocked that halo clean off. A comment follows.


First Americans, First Ecologists?

By Michael Medved, 18 Jun 08 (original at www.townhall.com)

Political correctness portrays untamed America before European invasion as a natural paradise, where Indians maintained an exquisite ecological balance, living in a harmonious, idyllic relationship to the natural world. According to conventional wisdom, this pre-Columbian Eden flourished for peaceful millenia until brutal disuprtion by thoughtless, menacing and mercenary white colonists. Stewart Udall, one-time Arizona Congressman and later Secretary of the Interior for President Kennedy, became an early advocate of this point of view in his influential 1973 article, “Indians: First Americans, First Ecologists,” urging modern citizens to follow the native example of treating the landscape with love and respect.

Udall's arguments received powerful support from the popularization of the moving speech of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish elder who addressed a meeting in 1854 in the raw settlement in Washington Territory that ultimately took his name. “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people,” Seattle supposedly told his listeners. “Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.” Later, the aged sage assaulted the insensitive ways of the new arrivals. “There is no quiet place in the white man's cities,” he lamented. “The clatter only seems to insult the ears…I've seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a train.”

Actually, it's unlikely that Chief Seattle ever saw even a single buffalo, either rotting or otherwise, or ever looked at a train for that matter, since buffalo never lived in his verdant corner of the Pacific Northwest, and railroads (along with “the clatter” of white the man's cities) only arrived several decades after the alleged speech. His poetic remarks (immortalized in a bestselling children's book, “Brother Eagle, Sister Sky”) represent an internationally influential hoax-- a more or less whole-cloth invention by a screenwriter named Ted Perry for a now-forgotten 1972 TV documentary, based very, very loosely on an account in a Seattle newspaper (twenty years after the kindly chief's death) of a real talk he may (or may not) have delivered in his largely indecipherable native language to the drenched but respectful pioneers.

In the same era that school kids learned to memorize the bogus words of Chief Seattle, another aged Indian emerged in the pop culture with the sacred purpose of protecting the North American environment, and cementing the widespread image of Indians as eternal guardians of the sacred landscape. In 1971, a brilliant “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcement offered an eloquent plea for ecological consciousness, with the tag line “people start pollution; people can stop it.” The commercial showed garbage thrown from a speeding car landing at the moccasined feet of an elderly native in traditional garb who looks toward the camera with a fat, glistening tear flowing down his weather-beaten cheek. The actor featured in the commercial, a Hollywood veteran with the marvelous name “Iron Eyes Cody,” became famous for those few seconds of video, which easily overshadowed his more than 200 films (including Indian roles in “The Big Trail” with John Wayne (1930), “A Man Called Horse” with Richard Harris (1970) and many more. Iron Eyes became an impassioned advocate for Native American causes and a regular on TV talk shows before his death at age 95 in 1999. Only with his obituaries did the truth emerge about the cherished Native American symbol “Iron Eyes Cody” – whose parents (Antonio De Corti and Francesco Salpietra) both immigrated to the United States from Sicily, and possessed no hint of Indian blood.

The cherished notion of Indians as ecologically enlightened protectors of the natural order actually carries no more authenticity than Chief Seattle's ruminations on rotting buffalo or the purportedly Cherokee identity of the Sicilian-American “Iron Eyes Cody.” In a densely researched 1999 monograph from Britain's Institute of Economic Affairs (“Wild in the Woods: The Myth of the Eco-Savage”) Robert Whelan blasts the popular but puerile proposition that before 1492, Native Americans lived as blissful stewards of pristine environments they cherished and protected.

The truth is that native peoples, like all other aboriginal societies on the planet, did anything and everything to their surroundings that might help them to survive. “There is now a very considerable body of research,” Robert Whelan writes, “which demonstrates conclusively that the Indians made a massive impact on their environment before the arrival of the white man, and that much of this impact was damaging and showed no conception of a conservation ethic.”

For example, to hunter-gatherers who lived in temporary structures, trees constituted an impediment that separated them from the animals they wanted to eat. As forests grow, “The open savanna that once supported bison, elk, deer, antelope, beaver, bears, birds and wolves becomes the closed boreal forest inhabited by squirrels, ravens, and pine martens, but little else.” So naturally, the Indians (particularly on the Eastern Seaboard) did whatever they could to get rid of the leafy interlopers. Early white settlers expressed surprise to see vast tracts of forest deliberately wiped out: “The Savages are accustomed to set fire of the Country in all places where they come, and to burne it twize a year, vixe at the spring and the fall of the leafe,” recorded the Puritan Thomas Morton (an outspoken admirer of the Indians) in 1637. Lewis and Clark reported in their 1805 diaries that “Indians in the Rocky Mountains would set trees alight as after dinner entertainment; the huge trees would explode like Roman candles in the night.” In response to a 1992 earth summit, BL Turner and Karl Butzer researched the environmental impact of Native Americans, and found that “Deforestation in the Americas was probably greater before the Columbian encounter than it was for several centuries thereafter.”

In fact, in their pursuit of succulent suppers, Indians did a great deal of collateral damage, even driving some species extinct. In 1998, our family accepted an invitation to spend a few days at an historic Wyoming ranch where the couple that owned it took us on an unforgettable tour of their property. They brought us to a red-earth outcropping that rose like a wedge from the surrounding terrain. “This was an Indian Buffalo Run,” they explained. The local tribes developed a means to frighten huge herds of buffalo and to direct their stampede &endash;right off the edge of the cliff into a heap of meat more than a hundred feet below. There, awaiting tribesmen could collect as much of the carcasses as they could eat and preserve. They left the rest to rot, creating a mountain of bones still visible (and formidable) below us. Continued…

In 1989, the Vore family donated a similar Buffalo Jump to the University of Wyoming, and scholars have been poring over the scene ever since. In the 1970s, during construction of Interstate Highway 90, “less than 10 percent of the site was unearthed at that time, but the analysis revealed at least 20 bone layers which extend about 100 feet across the sink hole and nearly 25 feet down.” Because the bones had been preserved by annual layers of sediment called varves, scientists can precisely date the Indians' feasts, and easily glean information about artifacts, weather, and their dining habits.

Shepard Krech III, professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Brown University, describes the Olsen-Chubbuck buffalo run excavation in southern Colorado where, five thousand years ago, two hundred bison “of a species one-third larger than today's” produced 50,000 pounds of meat&endash;and a total waste of the 25% of animals squashed in the bottom of the heap. “Archaeologists who excavated the site found skeletons massed on twisted skeletons, wedged in massive piles against piles and against the steep banks of the narrow gulch. The event probably happened in a flash.”

Tribes displayed neither tidiness nor restraint in harvesting various animals for food. University of Utah archaeologist Jack M. Broughton spent seven years sifting through the bird bones in a Native American dump near San Francisco Bay. “From 2,600 to at least 700 years ago,” a University press release announces, “native people hunted some species to local extinction,” and the animals only rebounded when the Indians became decimated by disease. Broughton's earlier research on Indians' quest for “anything big and juicy” turned up similar fates for fish such as sturgeon, as well as local varieties of elk, deer, geese, and ducks.

Anthropologist Paul S. Martin of the University of Arizona thinks the arrival of the first peoples to North America in prehistoric times meant the end for several big animals: “The basic facts are clear. People established themselves, colonized and spread into the New World at least by 11,000 years ago, if not earlier. And, at this time, large animals&endash;camels, and extinct species of horses, ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, in addition to mammoths and mastodons, and a dozen or two dozen more genera of large animals&endash;all go extinct at roughly the same time.”

Calvin Martin, in his fascinating Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships in the Fur Trade, explains that Northeastern Native Americans (Objiwa, Hurons, Micmac, League Iroquois, Cree, Montagnais) developed religions that ascribed spiritual powers to all animals, including beavers, and held that each creature existed in a sphere parallel to that of man. The process of hunting, then, became far more than the physical mechanics of trapping and killing, but involved a spiritual interchange of consent and mutual respect. After fur trading began, when natives began to perish in great numbers due to disease, Indians assumed the beaver were exacting retribution against the humans for the plundering of their pelts&endash;leading to the conclusion that the natives could protect themselves only by securing the rodents' elimination. “By 1635, for example, the Huron in the Lake Simcoe area had reduced their stock of beaver to the point where Father Paul LeJeune, the Jesuit, could flatly declare they had none,” Martin writes. In a matter of several years, the beaver had been slaughtered to near extinction, as well as moose and other furbearers. Martin concludes, “The game which by all accounts had been initially so plentiful was now being systematically exterminated by the Indians themselves” with a desperate, cultic, religious fervor.

The baseless myth of indigenous peoples living in respectful balance with their natural surroundings and making no mark on the space they inhabited for thousands of years plays an important role in most allegations of Indian genocide, because it reinforces the image of Natve Americans as childlike innocents, no more capable of protecting themselves than the noble beasts they supposedly revered. This vision supports an image of explorers and colonists as intruders, despoilers and mass killers, with nothing to offer the pure, proud peoples of the New World except for disease and exploitation, corruption and decadence, and feeds the toxic argument that Americans should feel guilty about the very origins of our civilization.

Original at www.townhall.com


Michael Medved's article documents rather thoroughly that Native Americans as “stewards of the environment” is a useful myth. Worldwide, in fact, one has few examples of people becoming conservationists until their way of life is utterly threatened and conservation becomes a matter of survival. Some, such as the Easter Islanders, have not made the transition in time. The Pacific Island Yapese, by contrast, did begin to conserve and limit population size and fertility, but only after a long period of famine.

Europeans and European-Americans are as early as any to become low fertility conservationists. Indeed, in abolishing slavery and founding societies for the Protection of Animals they have gone farther, extending a level of compassion for all humans other species, that seems unique in world history.

I have one further observation. In my youth, I made contact with many members of the Communist Party of Canada. Some of them were former members of the American party who fled the United States during the McCarthyist persecution. I asked them why they became Communists, and they all talked about the obvious inequity and brutality of 1930s, and how socialism offered a superior alternative. I was very sympathetic to their attitude to life until I asked them about the Soviet Union as it was now (1970s). Surely it disappointed them. Not at all. They not extolled its virtues, but more than that, they denied any grave injustices under Stalin. And obviously, during the 1930s, they refused to entertain the notion that their utopian alternative was not entirely utopian. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a lot about mentality. It finds its analogue among Christians who must believe in a paradise beyond this world. No criticism can touch this vision, for people have a desperate need to hold on to it. Michael Crichton spoke of environmentalists requiring a belief in an unspoiled “Eden” that existed before we corrupted it and will again exist once we have had our comeuppance. My thought is that the belief that Aboriginals were noble eco-savages falls into this same category. The Platonic need to believe in perfection. In greener pastures, a measuring stick against which we can hold this society to account. It is very demoralizing to learn, alas, that there are no greener pastures. We are oh so much alike. Every culture seems to be flawed. All of us programmed to push the limits. If you show me exceptions, they are far too inconsequential to matter. What humanity requires, perhaps, is a predator. I have never observed the local deer population standing around discussing how to effect Limits to Growth. They have delegated that task to the local wolves. Tim

Comments

Tim wrote:

Were "Intact Aboriginal Cultures" really good "environmental custodians"? Not in North America Mate

james wrote:

Whilst I agree with nearly everything written by Tim, I have to take some exception to what has been said of First Nations. Whilst one shouldn't overly romanticise aboriginal cultures, it needs to be acknowledged that, on the whole, these societies, where they have been left intact, have been good custodians of the environment. The fact that many North American Inuit, whose societies have been corrupted by our rampant 21st century free market growth capitalism, are now also engaging in ecological vandalism, does not negate this fact. James S. 18 June 08

Some myths just won't lie down and die. It doesn't matter how many facts are thrown at them. Facts like:
List of American Indian eco-crimes follows

Tim,

I find the detail and purpose of your post quite curious.

James makes a disclaimer acknowledging fallibility across the full range of indigenous performance. He then proposes that on balance these cultures have performed well. He goes on to cite Inuit culture as an example of a generally good model for sustainability whose performance has been degraded by western influence.

Without contending James' particular example you and the next writer focus on North American Indian performance and conflate those (selective?) aspects as proof that Indigenous stewardship everywhere is a myth.

However, even if as poor as you suppose, North American Indians were:

  1. just one of a myriad global examples.
  2. not an homogeneous entity or even remotely similar in culture or background across their range. At least three separate waves of immigration came from the north at widely separate time frames. The last wave arrived not all that long before the Europeans. The destabilising, destructive pressures of adaptation and territory establishment were still raw and volatile in many places by the time Europeans arrived to throw their inimitably disruptive hat into the ring.

More generally, examples of agricultural and territorially competitive cultures are more likely to be in ecological imbalance than long-settled, spatially inter-related hunter gatherer clans.

The arena and peoples you present is entirely unlike the stability exhibited by many other indigenous folk, such as the Inuit. Thousands of years of stable secure occupancy of a territory demonstrates that an ecological balance had been struck, even if that balance is a different one to that which was in place prior to arrival. Many say Australian Aboriginals are ecological vandals for changing the Australian ecology. Any new species will change an ecology, and ecology is always changing. How securely a new balance is struck from that change is the real measure of the process.

Which is the vitally relevant point. Unlike those cultures which did redefine and enjoy a local ecological harmony, our culture has no hope of finding any such balance. When we run out of the oil which keeps our carnival of mitigation initiatives rolling, we are dust.

Thus a view of the North American situation is not really relevant as a contention to what James proposes. It is a view to be explored in extension to it. Further out on the same relatively narrow limb are the Aztecs.

Tim wrote:

Worldwide, in fact, one has few examples of people becoming conservationists until their way of life is utterly threatened and conservation becomes a matter of survival.

No examples or simply no academically documented examples?

I wonder why the latter might be? Might it be the near complete decimation of local culture and landscape by the time we bothered to look with something like an objective eye?

How many tribes exist across the planet that you simply cannot make your statement about with any accuracy at all let alone the comprehensive certainty that you have done? Short of peer reviewed detail, do we instead have to rely on simple deduction from eco-systems around the planet that remained full and well-balanced until recently even though they’d been inhabited by native peoples for centuries?

Indeed, in abolishing slavery and founding societies for the Protection of Animals they have gone farther, extending a level of compassion for all humans other species, that seems unique in world history.

Unique?

Perhaps because:

  1. our sytemic growth found effective technological and economic proxies for slavery, and,
  2. the inequitous privilege accrued via a heirarchical and then privatised land tenure system lead to the development of huge private hunting reserves. With the democracy that welled uncontrollably from an escalating energy supply, the same cultural aspiration lead, in turn, to more public and more widely functional forms of conservation reserves. Inherently altruistic to other humans and other species? That draws an overly naive bow, I think.

Michael Crichton spoke of environmentalists requiring a belief in an unspoiled “Eden” that existed before we corrupted it and will again exist once we have had our comeuppance. My thought is that the belief that Aboriginals were noble eco-savages falls into this same category. The Platonic need to believe in perfection.

As with all things there is some truth in this. However to see it as the whole truth builds a wall that obscures much more than it observes.
I agree that instances of overshoot and ecological impropriety are found in non-western and non-modern societies around the planet. And that some modern people indulge in blind, self-indulgent romanticism. But it is also true that history and evident natural inheritances clearly indicate human societies can and have lived in long enduring (AKA sustainable) balance with surrounding ecology.

To ignore this and rest solely upon the much more narrowly expressed, but much more spectacular (and culturally familiar) ledge of proven human suicidal destruction is miserable at best and a deceptive cop-out at worst. It renders us into a deterministic corridor along which we can only fail. It declares that trying to do better is futile as humans have and can only ever wreck stuff. It is as much a flawed and systemically expedient meme as is the notion that immigration can’t or shouldn’t be stopped.