Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian

By Michael E. Harkin; David Rich Lewis | Go to book overview

1. Beyond The Ecological Indian

Shepard Krech III

At the heart of The Ecological Indian is the question of the fit between a noble image of American Indians and American Indian behavior. Since the early 1970s, a cherished received wisdom has been that North American Indians were original ecologists and conservationists.1 But were they in actions as well as in image and ideals? Images, of course, have specific intellectual and popular histories and can be measured against human behavior (the myth— as dogma or cherished theory—and history of the subtitle). So in The Ecological Indian the two are juxtaposed in chapters ranging from the Pleistocene to the present, image against evidence from the sciences, archaeology, ethnology, and history, embracing testimony from indigenous and non-indigenous people as well as written and oral accounts removed in space or time, always querying the extent to which behavior reflects or departs from image. Were American Indians ecologists? That is, did they think of the environment and its components in interrelating, systemic ways? Were Indians conservationists? Did they intentionally use wisely to maintain future availability of resources, avoid waste or despoliation, and the like?2

My most general conclusion is that the rhetoric implicit in the image of the Ecological Indian masks complex and differing realities. Specific conclusions on the fit between image and behavior with respect to ecology, conservation, and other topics were mixed. To begin with, there were probably no more than 4 to 7 million people in North America on the eve of the arrival of Europeans. In the 2000 census, 4.3 million people lived in Colorado and 7.1 million in Virginia (and only 500,000 in Wyoming). Imagine the population of Colorado or Virginia scattered to the continent's winds and you might begin to imagine how often you would encounter other

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