The Books

By The Editors / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007

The Ecological Indian: Myth and History by Shepard Krech III (W.W. Norton & Co., 318 pages, $27.95).

By Chad Galts

There is no more sickening statement of human greed and indifference to nature than the hole that's in the ground about an hour southeast of Phoenix. The hole, a strip mine known as the Ray Mine, is roughly a mile-and-a-half wide and a mile deep - a yawning gash in the Sonoran desert surrounded on three sides by miles of mounded copper-ore tailings, on which nothing will grow. The force that has been required to convert this patch of desert into a sprawling boneyard of spent rocks defies contemplation. Among other things, a strip mine and its tailings are evidence of the greed and desire for control that is the legacy of every person in the Western hemisphere.

If Europeans had never come to the New World, or if they'd been turned away by its native inhabitants, would all of North America still be as pristine as an Ansel Adams photograph? The answer, according to Shepard Krech III, is probably not. In The Ecological Indian, Krech joins a wave of recent historians who have found the relationship between Native Americans and their natural environment far more complex than the one in earlier, more romantic histories. Europeans were not the first occupants of North America to alter their landscape. Indians were

not, Krech writes, "brimming over with ecological prescience and wisdom." The wholesale destruction that accompanied the exploration and colonization of the New World was not an entirely European affair.

Krech begins with the 1971 advertisement that featured Iron Eyes Cody as "the Crying Indian" standing in front of a litter-strewn landscape. "On matters involving the environment, he is pure and white people are polluting," Krech writes. "He could cry because he lived in nature without disturbing its harmonies (or throwing trash upon it)...he possessed authority to speak out against pollution." This image seems to grate against Krech, a professor of anthropology at Brown and director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. The Ecological Indian is an attempt, he writes, to determine how faithfully the image "reflects Native North American cultures and behavior through time." It's quickly clear that Krech's goal is to debunk the kind of thinking that produces whitewashed, or politically loaded, versions of Native Americans. He points to Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves - movies that "play on [Indians'] presumed ecological sainthood" - as two especially saccharine, egregious examples of Hollywood romantics run amok with half-baked notions about Native life.

"From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, Europeans discovered the Garden of Eden somewhere in North America," Krech writes. Prompted by the devastation wrought by urban overpopulation and the industrial revolution in Europe, explorers and settlers came to America for a fresh start and raw materials. For three hundred years they cut, burned, killed, and looted what they took to be an inexhaustible landscape. Notions of conserving and preserving trees and wildlife didn't appear until the late nineteenth century, but the concept was slow to build steam, and by then, of course, much had changed that would never be changed back.

As Krech thoroughly documents, Indians played a key role in this destruction. The introduction of the horse, firearms, steel, gunpowder, and every other Old World technological advancement turned already prolific Native hunters into spectacular killing machines. Skills hard-earned through subsistence and survival were quickly translated to that other great European import: a market economy. The demand for deer skins and beaver pelts in particular sent both animals - at the hands of Indians and Europeans alike - to the brink of extinction several times.

A key element of Native peoples' environmental management techniques, both before and after contact with Europeans, Krech writes, was fire. Indians cleared fields, burned away undergrowth, and controlled the movement of game with seasonal, carefully placed fires. The problem, of course, is that Indians had no way of controlling the blazes they ignited: one poorly placed signal fire often resulted in thousands of acres of charred forest and toasted grassland. "Indians were not always concerned with how far, fast, or hot each and every fire burned," Krech writes. "Whether this was 'careless' behavior, as many disapprovingly labeled it, depends on what, precisely, must be taken care of and in what way."

Krech's point, here and elsewhere in the book, is that Indians' ideas of the environment are not interchangeable with ones we may hold today. The concept of preservation is based on a perceived reality of depletion and scarcity. Earth First!, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and other environmental action or awareness groups have made people intimately familiar with the deterioration of the natural world. They are modern groups with

variously modern ideas about nature. But to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Native American (or, for that matter, to any American settler or modern-day camper lost alone in the woods), the natural world was a terrifying and hostile place. Survival depended on the ability to compete with, command, and subdue nature. Early Native Americans were hardly interested in protecting such animals as wolves or grizzly bears - predators that regularly threatened their lives and livelihoods.

The devastation of the American buffalo is one story that remarkably retains its ugliness over time. "From 1600 to the 1870s," Krech writes, "the language of buffalo herds was cast in phrases like. . . herds that blackened the plains, and bison in such great numbers that they drink a river dry or the ground trembles with vibration when they move." The number of buffalo on the American continent prior to the arrival of Europeans has always been a source of heated debate - the more clear-headed estimates range from 30 to 100 million. By 1880 the animal was nearly extinct. The causes for the near-eradication, Krech says, have made for an equally contentious debate. "Some," he writes, "have blamed Indians. Others have asserted that even if people of European descent must share in the blame, Indians probably would have exterminated the animal."

In his telling of the story of the buffalo, Krech's argument is as well-supported as everything else in The Ecological Indian, but it also highlights one troubling aspect of the book: it's not a history, it's an argument. Faulting a book for what it doesn't say (unless the omissions are deliberate evasions of contradictory evidence) is unfair, but Krech's account of the buffalo, in effect, obscures a much more complicated story. What he chooses to leave out of his account - the greedy, rapacious, blood lust of European settlers who did more damage to the buffalo population than any tribe could have hoped to accomplish - would do nothing for his argument. But for those who may be unfamiliar with this side of the story, Krech's arguments - and statements such as "Indians probably would have exterminated the animal" - can sound dangerously definitive.

The Ecological Indian should not be read by itself. Krech is a good scholar and makes a compelling case for Indians' active, sometimes destructive relationship with the environment. But without once mentioning the exponentially greater consumption by Europeans, the book presents a myopic view of history. If you're going to read The Ecological Indian or recommend it, be sure to include some additional titles. Dee Brown's classic Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee or the forthcoming book by former Brown assistant history professor Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison, will round out the picture nicely.


The Ecology of Atlantic Shorelines by Professor of Evolutionary Biology Mark D. Bertness, illustrated by Kelly Benoit Bird (Sinauer Associates Inc., 418 pages, $39.95).

The Computer in the Visual Arts by Anne Morgan Spalter '87, artist-in-residence with the Brown Computer Graphics Group (Addison-Wesley, 650 pages, $45).

The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution by David Shenk '88 (Indiana University Press, 161 pages, $19.95).

Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London by Sharon Marcus '86 University of California Press, 323 pages, $45).

The Bad Girls' Guide to the Open Road by Cameron Tuttle '84, illustrated by Susannah Bettag (Chronicle Books, 192 pages, $14.95).

Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson '92 Ph.D. (Harvard University Press, 338 pages, $16.95).

Discounts and Deals at the Nation's 360 Best Colleges: The Parent Soup Financial Aid and College Guide by Bruce G. Hammond '90 M.A.T. (Golden Books, 325 pages, $19.95).

Andes Rising by James Munves '43 (New Directions, 189 pages, $21.95).

Miracle Man by Ben Schrank '91 (Quill, 290 pages, $13).

Bliss Jumps the Gun: A Lenny Bliss Mystery by Bob Sloan '78 (W.W. Norton & Co., 279 pages $22.95).

The Professor of Light by Marina Tamar Budhos '87 A.M. (Putnam Group, 254 pages, $23.95). ***

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September / October 1999