The Ecological Indian: Myth and History

Krech, Shepard III. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

In his rather controversial study, The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech III explores the historical realities of what has become the widespread public (and to a large extent, academic) perception of Native Americans as uniquely-sensitive caretakers of the natural environment, personified in the “Crying Indian” of U.S. television commercials in the 1970s. Krech traces these powerful images of the “Noble Savage” or “Noble Indian” back to their roots in classical antiquity, and pagan or Christian beliefs in Elysiums and Edens, populated by innocent but wise people living in harmony with nature. Many Europeans, especially French thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel de Montaigne, believed that the “simple,” “egalitarian,” and “natural” lifestyles of the indigenous peoples formed the perfect foil to the flaws they detected in their own societies. Throughout the following centuries and up to our own time, writers and philosophers have perpetuated these mythical images of the indigenous peoples; and, significantly, so have many native groups themselves, in order to strengthen their claims to their lands and resources and preserve their cultural identities.

The book is divided into seven chapters that examine the megafaunal extinctions of the Pleistocene Era, the rise and fall of the agricultural Hohokam people of the desert Southwest, the natural environment of New England at the time of English colonization, the native peoples’ use of fire, and Indian use (and misuse) of three crucial animal resources: the buffalo, deer, and beaver. Krech opens with a consideration of the evidence that the humans who inhabited the North American continent between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago—the “Paleoindians”—were responsible for the disappearance of numerous very large animals, including mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, huge dire wolves, and enormous cats with fearsome teeth.

While Krech appears to agree that Paleoindian hunting did have a decided impact on these species, he argues that it is necessary that “we look elsewhere for causes before we conclude that humans alone were responsible for the Pleistocene extinctions” (p. 38). In particular, he focuses on rapid climate changes that occurred at the end of the period, and contends that a number of plants and animals were unable to adapt to new, drier conditions. However, he also points out that humans have caused extinctions in other locations, such as Hawaii and New Zealand. Thus, he concludes, not unreasonably, that “multiple causes provide the best explanation” for the megafaunal extinctions (p. 42).

Krech turns next to more recent examples of the impact of Native Americans’ agriculture on their environment and their own survival when he looks at the controversies regarding the demise of the Hohokam, who built an impressive hydraulic civilization in what is now southern Arizona as early as 100 A.D., but apparently disappeared by the end of the fifteenth century. While some scholars have argued that the Hohokam were ecologically “naïve” because they did not grasp the consequences for the land of their irrigation methods, particularly the problem of salinization (the build-up of salts in the soil), others have believed that their long persistence in such a rigorous environment indicated a high level of ecological understanding. Again, Krech lays out and weighs the evidence for both sides of these debates, as well as other theories that have been advanced to explain the apparent “extinction” of the Hohokam, such as earthquakes or invasions. He thinks the “most compelling explanations” are related to their desert environment and water, especially drought, a high water table, salinization of the soil, and floods. (p. 58).

English colonists often extolled the Atlantic coastal region as a veritable paradise of fertile land free for the taking, but Krech notes that much of what they saw, for example the park-like savannahs and meadow openings in the forests, resulted from Indian modifications of the environment, particularly through the use of fire. In one of the most interesting chapters, Krech examines how Indians burned grasslands to discourage the growth of shrubs and trees and to improve grazing for their horses or the animals they hunted for food, such as buffalo and deer. They burned forest to clear land for their fields. They used fire to drive and trap animals, or in order to move them to more convenient locations near their camps. They also used fire as a weapon of war, and to communicate with their own group, or other native groups. However, as Krech points out, native peoples also burned for trivial reasons, neglected their campfires, and started raging fires that did more harm than good to the environment, including the destruction of large numbers of game animals.

Krech’s book is important and useful because it restores agency to Indian people and doesn’t freeze them into romantic, static stereotypes of primitives who were so close to nature as to be nearly indistinguishable from animals. It is also interesting that he appears to be reacting specifically to Vine Deloria, Jr.’s portrait of Indians as true environmentalists and the whites as the destroyers of the earth. The earlier chapters of the book seem to be more focused, and to weigh and consider various questions and arguments in a more analytical fashion than the later chapters, which have more of a narrative quality. It is especially ironic that many Native Americans who insist on the right to manage and profit from the animal, timber, or mineral resources of their lands have increasingly come into conflict with white environmental activists intent on “preservation.”

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