Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian

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

5. Rationality and Resource Use among Hunters
Some Eskimo Examples

Ernest S. Burch Jr.

It is axiomatic among anthropologists and an article of faith among Natives that indigenous North Americans lived in harmony with their environments prior to European contact. To the extent that this proposition is correct, it suggests that Native American peoples used highly rational approaches to, and held remarkably long-term perspectives in, their relationships with their environments. Beneath the mysticism and rhetoric usually associated with assertions concerning these matters lie two sets of important empirical questions. First, did Native Americans really fit into their surroundings as perfectly as is generally believed, and if so, why? Second, did Native Americans' relationship to their surroundings deteriorate after contact with Europeans, and if so, why? These questions have been addressed in a number of recent publications (e.g., Hunn et al. 2003; Krech 1999; E. Smith and Wishnie 2000) but have not been answered to everyone's satisfaction. The purpose of the present chapter is to contribute to the discussion with an analysis of data from two Inuit Eskimo populations, the early contact Iñupiat of northern Alaska and the Caribou Inuit of the central Canadian subarctic.1

Before proceeding, I wish to comment on the general approach taken here. Human ecology is the study of the interactions between humans and their nonhuman environment; each side contributes input to and receives output from the other. A complete ecological study must deal with both sides of the equation. Most studies of northern ecology, however, focus

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