The Myth of the Ecological Indian

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The Ecological Indian: Myth and History by Shepard Krech III
(W.W. Norton, 318 pages, $27.95)
Krech argues this image revived the 18th-century notion of the noble savage with an alteration suited to the times: now, Native Americans did not pollute their environment. Indeed, they possessed a peculiarly integrated relationship with their natural environment, marked by strong spiritual, even mystical, overtones. This suited the purposes of a great many people and has since become an accepted truth.

Of course, this is not historical truth, but political sentimentalism.

Krech, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, has written an honest and satisfying book. Unlike many academics, he writes to be read as well as to be published. He writes a spare, almost-elegant prose, uncluttered by self-conscious literary showmanship or jargon. The overwhelming impression is an humane common sense, growing at least in part from Krech's personal and professional experience as a hunter, scientist and anthropologist among Indians in the Canadian North.

His introduction alone is nearly worth the price of the book. He reviews the political-economic-sexual fantasies imposed upon Indians by European and American writers over nearly four centuries. Apparently, complete ignorance of one's subject has posed no barrier to a remarkable number of scribblers. Men who never set foot in North America, let alone dealt with Indians, such as Rousseau, who "portrayed Indians as gentle, egalitarian, free people living in pure nature"; Montaigne, who "used the New World as a stick for beating the Old"; and Baron de Lahontan, who "invented a natural, noble 'Intelligent Savage' named Adario as a literary device to critique the European scene (including those who left [Lahontan] without property)," wielded powerful influence over the Western intellect and public policy, molding the West's image of the Indian as noble savage.

Nor are Europeans alone to blame: Krech notes that James Fenimore Cooper's "most famous Indian heroes are dignified, firm, faultless, wise, graceful, sympathetic, intelligent, and of beautiful bodily proportions reminiscent of classical sculpture." Common sense might indicate and Krech shows the historical facts are much more complex and much less sentimentally inspiring. The images created by these writers serve "polemical or political ends." But the images are so abstract, so idealized as to be "ultimately dehumanizing. They deny both variation within human groups and commonalties between them."

Indeed, one might be surprised if Native Americans did not act in accordance with perceived self-interest. Most human beings do. Krech's work shows, quite simply, that Native American peoples (there are thousands of tribes, and to lump all together as "Indians" is as ignorant as to lump Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Dominicans, Brazilians and Argentines as "Latin Americans") have quite frequently behaved in ways that contradict the politically correct image? and, regrettably, recently adopted self-image?of Indians as always "protective of the land and careful in exploiting its wildlife."

Krech sweeps from the first known appearances of humans on the American continent in the Pleistocene age through the arrival of Europeans to the politically contentious present, exploring in detail the human impact upon the environment. He has a knack for couching his facts and inferences in a nondogmatic manner that can be quite winning. Thus, much of his argument is made more through his selection and presentation of facts, including those from which he draws certain conclusions at odds with the politically correct right and left.

For example, he discusses whether the first Indian settlers wiped out the large mammals they found in the New World. The megafauna "were exceptional. They included exotic hulking tusked mammoths and mastodons...ground sloths ranging in size from several hundred pounds to twenty feet long...rhinoceros-sized pampatheres, a kind of giant armadillo, and armored two-thousand pound, six-foot-long glyptodonts resembling nothing known today...three-hundred pound giant beavers, four-horned antelopes...stag-moose with fantastic multiple-palmated and tined antlers...dire wolves...short-faced bears...saber-toothed cats... All vanished."

All these animals disappeared within a millennium, between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, "a geological blink."

Krech candidly admits that there is conflicting evidence as well as conflicting opinions. He is strongly critical of Paul Martin's theories that "man, and man alone, was responsible" for the extinctions. Martin compared the Paleoindians' assault on the megafauna to a blitzkrieg. In 1967, Martin wrote, "that business of the noble savage, a child of nature, living in an unspoiled Garden of Eden until the 'discovery' of the New World by Europeans is apparently untrue, since the destruction of fauna, if not of habitat, was far greater before Columbus than at any time since." This made Martin a favorite of the stupid right-wing press because his arguments would push the Native American off his moral high ground on environmental issues.

Krech argues simply that the evidence indicates other, more profound factors may have been the primary causes of these extinctions, including "climate and attendant vegetational changes," without denying the human effect, noting that indigenous peoples in Hawaii and New Zealand exterminated numerous species of birds. He concludes that these extinctions "defy sound-bite simplification." He discusses the Hohokam, urban Indians who may have overirrigated their crops and unwittingly salinated their agricultural lands; the impact of foreign diseases upon the native populations; the Indians' use of fire to clear land for agriculture and hunting (not always controlled fires, either); their wasteful consumption of buffalo; and the economically driven extermination of fur-bearing animals for their skins.

In discussing many widespread sentimental beliefs, such as the notion that Native Americans never wasted resources, that the white man taught Indians how to despoil nature, that contemporary Indians are united in keeping their lands pristine, Krech carefully separates myth from fact and image from reality. Krech, in fact, has set out the argument for a new understanding of the relationship between Native Americans and their environments with the clarity and convincing evidence that bespeaks an honest, clear-thinking and knowledgeable man. He has written an unusually honest book, reflected in the coherence of his prose and the logic of his arguments.

Quite intelligently, Krech points out that much of the imagery of indigenous nobility is merely a foil for critiques of European and American society. Indians really have little to do with it, although several Native American writers have produced such foolishness as the idea that white people "destroyed planet earth," or are guilty of environmental racism or "radioactive colonialism." Perhaps an unwittingly comic aspect of this is the tendency of some white environmentalists to expect "indigenous people to walk softly in their moccasins as conservationists," and when Indians have not measured up to their yardstick, condemning them for not acting as Indians should. Such critics, Krech suggests, "victimize Indians when they strip them of all agency in their lives except when their actions fit the image of the Ecological Indian." Indians have favored development over alternatives, even when development meant strip-mining tribal lands or using them to store trash and toxic waste.

Any writer commenting on an ethnic or religious group will tend to generalize, which is the first step toward stereotyping. Over the four centuries since Columbus' arrival in the New World, apparently few writers on Native Americans?including Native Americans themselves?have not adopted stereotypes suitable to the use of white supremacists, Indian racists or romantic environmentalists, usually for the advancement of a private agenda. By refreshing contrast, within his self-imposed scope?the relationship of Native Americans to their environments?Krech neither demonizes nor deifies Indians. Rather, he portrays them as human, which is always a better idea.

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