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The Old Ways and the New Problems: Two Views on Indians as Ecologists

David Rothenberg reviews Shepard Krech III's The Ecological Indian: Myth and History and Calvin Luther Martin's The Way of Human Being

The Ecological IndianIt's become an article of faith among environmentalists, the idea of the Ecological Indian. Did Native Americans live in gracious harmony with their natural environment, woven into the fabric of their surroundings, until we white people showed up to destroy everything?  This is like that Catch-22 of feminists, who sometimes say proudly that women are closer to nature than men, and at other times say that the idea of women being nearer to nature is just another male stereotype used to put women in a prejudiced place.  Identity politics always has its pitfalls of generalization, as real people act so differently than the way studies expect.  We're all individuals, free to deviate from how we're supposed to behave.  The question is: What ideas keep us in line?  How do we know when it's time to change?

Both of these books take very different stands on the relationship between Indians and ecology.  One thing that the two books do have in common, though, is the use of the term "Indian" instead of "native American," though they do so for different reasons.  Krech seems to choose "Indian" because he is a historian mostly concerned with the past, when Indian was the term of choice.  Martin, also a historian, is more concerned with a luminous history that lights up the present, and he says that the Indians he has lived with and worked with call themselves Indians, and that's what most matters. 

Beyond that the books diverge widely.  The Way of the Human Being presents a poetic memoir of the author's own experiences among native peoples, arguing that even after years of oppression and addiction and suffering brought on by several centuries of uneasy encounter with Western civilization, they still possess an inherent grace and sensitivity to the world that reveals what is necessary to become fully human.  The Ecological Indian, on the other hand, would single Martin's book out as a contribution to the literature of what he calls the "Noble Indian," a too-easy misreading of complex history to use many, disparate peoples as a single foil for everything wrong with our own culture.

The Way of Being HumanKrech begins and ends with an image familiar to anyone who watched TV or read magazines in the early seventies: Iron Eyes Cody as the Crying Indian, with the legend beneath his sad face: "People Start Pollution.  People Can Stop It."  Fifteen billion people impressions, say the ad guys.  Nearly three times the world population!  No wonder the image is familiar.  We've trashed the planet, thus the "noble savage" has much to cry about.  Madison Avenue invented the image, but it resonated easily with worldwide consciousness.  But is this image the truth?

With a historian's careful eye for detail, Krech concludes what any honest historian who delves into the facts must say things are too complicated.  You cannot generalize.  This approach makes its own secret kind of generalization, resisting any interpretation of the data that even suggests that Indians might have any intuitive grasp of ecological limits.  Krech's basic view is that sure, Indians have known the land well for centuries, and what looked like wilderness to persecuted pilgrims was in many cases a carefully managed landscape.  But his view is that there simply never were enough Native Americans to discover scarcity at a total scale.  Whether cautious or exploitative, there were never too many Indians for the resources of the continent to be overburdened.

Did Indians know controlled burning, how to use fire to tend the overgrowth of forests and prairies?  Did they kill just the buffalo they need or send hundreds plummeting needlessly to their deaths over cliffs?  If you check the records, as Krech has done, you will find the obvious answer: both.  Did they use every single part of the beaver, or leave scores of rotting caribou corpses taking only the tongues?  Both, of course.  This book wants you to question, not to tell you the answer.

One main disadvantage of relying so closely on the historical record is that this record is mostly extant only after the Indians' contact with the Europeans.  Most of the stories of Indians killing too many buffalo come after they had horses, introduced from the south by Spanish and Mexican colonials.  They killed too many beaver when beaver became worth too much to the Europeans.  We're not going to find in historical record any "data" on how any particular tribe made use of the surrounding natural "resources" before outsiders came in to teach them how to think in these terms.  Indians before didn't need to think of numbers and dates and times and facts and figures-or is that my own sense of prejudice descending on my reading of the text? 

One difference the book reveals between Indians and Europeans is that we tend to believe knowledge is progressing, that science brings us new truths and better tools with each coming year.  But the Indians more often say that in the old days, things were much better.  People and animals spoke the same language.  The Elders could hear things, and were so much more wise.  They didn't have all the problems we have today.

It may be because of this tendency that the ecological Indian idea is of greatest importance in our present day, when we need models and inspiration, be they derived from ancient myth or historical record.  For forward-looking environmentalists, it is just as important if an Indian idea is transformed into something we can use today, than if a historian points out that no, actually, Indians destroyed their environment, too.  Each generation can use mythology anew to solve its own problems.

Sure, the Creek Indians may have hunted deer to extinction, but only after the arrival of the white man.  Still, they hunted with deep ritual appreciation, singing to the deer, "Awake, arise, stand up!  It is raising up its head, I believe.  I walk about.  Slowly it raises its body, I think; I walk about.  It has now risen on its feet, I presume, I walk about.  Awake, arise, stand up!" (p. 163-64)  The Creek were cautious with deer, as they had mysterious powers.  If you didn't show them the proper respect when you killed them, they could cause rheumatism, and you would walk the rest of your life with aches and pains. 

Isn't this interesting?  Today ticks spread by deer are carrying Lyme disease all across America, and arthritis and chronic pain are what it does to you.  Were the Creek onto this?  Krech doesn't choose to follow this line of thought.  Instead, he emphasizes that Indians can use the notion of ancient authority to justify any course of action, just like the palefaces can.  For example, the Innu of Labrador and northern Quebec use a verb that expresses their relation to the natural world as "attending to" or "paying attention."  The land is meant to support them in return.  They have used this traditional philosophy to argue in court that they should be given sovereignty over their lands.  However, some of the Innu use the same philosophy to justify intensive mining exploration in pristine wild territories.  They too see resources where others see unbroken fabric.  They want to cash in.

Probably the best part of this inconclusive book is the epilogue, which reminds us to be careful of how we generalize about natives as ecologists or balanced dwellers in the land.  The very idea of conservation comes from scarcity, and on a global scale, ours is the culture that has most become aware of this state of being.  Modern environmentalism may have been the root of the resuscitation of ancient Indian ideas about the Great Spirit and the noble way of living within it, not the other way around.  Does it matter who thought of what first?  Some Indian tribes want to get back to whaling, others want to store nuclear waste on their reservations, and argue that they ought to have sovereignty to be in charge of their own destiny.  There are no exceptions or rules here, just a mixed historical record and a global problem that we all ought to do something about, that all of our religious principles and high ideas support doing something about, but our greed and pragmatism prevent us from looking far enough ahead.  All of us, indigenous or expatriate, gringo and hick.

One valuable lesson to learn from this book is that no ideas should be defended or put forth because they supposedly belong to one ethnic group or another.  Environmentalism is no place for identity politics.  We should follow an idea because it works in a particular situation, for the diverse kinds of people affected, not because it is native or Indian or scientific or sacred.  We should do things because they work, one small step at a time.

Moonrise over snowy mountain peak.

Or am I falling into the pragmatic trap myself here?  What about principles of loving Mother Earth, revering an animate planet whose every microcosm is alive and real?  Can I not honestly believe in this as well?  For this I'd best turn to Calvin Luther Martin, also a historian, but far less interested in the historical record than in another way of being human, where the world and its animals matters so much more.  Martin's left academia, gone from Rutgers University to teach in an Indian prison in Alaska.  He doesn't care what was written in the 1790s about this tribe or that tribe burning hillsides or driving too many buffalo over the edge.  He's in the native world, right now, and he tells us about stories, how their words and meanings bend, in a vibrant, poetic tone, describing how he's crossed the line, tasted two realities, and how he's struggled to find a way to report back, over the edge.

In fact, he engages in exactly the sort of romanticizing of the Indian that Krech cautions us against.  But he does so with such commitment, and passion!  It cannot be easily dismissed.  He tells the story of Paul John, an Alaskan Yupiit, who has been invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to attend a meeting on the management of moose resources.  The men were poring over maps, populations were being tracked, and the plans were in place to stimulate a resurgence of moose in the region.  Paul John raises his hand, and speaks very softly.  "This proposal of yours is okay by me, but we should not speak of it too loudly.  Everyone knows moose can hear these sorts of conversations and might not like what we've planned for them.  They might just go and disappear altogether."  The meeting went on as if nothing happened. 

But Martin points out that something extraordinary happened.  A rare bridge had been made from one world to another.  It is on these rare bridges that true understanding of how to live in the world must come.  On each side of the bridge are stubborn world views that traditionally resist looking over to the other side.  But when they do make the effort, better understanding may come.

These bridges are decorated with sadness.  The sadness is not only a tear shed for a trashed landscape.  Martin's take on nature is as part of true humanity, not as a proving ground for any people's intelligence.  Harold Napoleon writes from his prison cell in Fairbanks of yuuyaraq, the "way of being a human being."  He recalls the turn of the last century's epidemics that destroyed so many of his Yup'ik people, when so many of the Elders, the only ones who still knew the way of the human being, were lost.  "The sorrow within was more than the spirit could bear," writes Martin.  "The talking world of spirits was repudiated and lay silent."  Important words passed out of the language, "since they no longer carried the weight of meaning." (p. 130)  This is why the noble Indian seems so scarce today.

But the dream of the way is returning.  Through literature, through re-learning the stories and integrating their importance with today's tough environmental problems.  Stories matter more than facts.  Without facts we are merely uninformed.  Without stories we would die.  "I am the long track of the moon in a lake, I am a flame of four colors, I am the hunger of a young wolf," writes N. Scott Momaday, a writer who blends his Indian heritage with the self-discovery demanded by Euroamerican literary modernism.  "I am the whole dream of these things.  You see, I am alive, I am alive, I stand in good relation to the earth, I stand in good relation to the gods, I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful." (p. 210-11)  Those fine words a product of the confluence of cultures, building upon so much carnage, so much misunderstanding, so much senseless waste.  We can recover the beauty if we learn and admit what we have all done wrong, if we dream on into the future, a whole dream with a place for dissent but room for discovery.  A dream of the earth, with past and future dissolved into the moment.  Taking all as equally so real, only then, with both the yes and the no, the stereotype and its opposite, prejudice and identity, all singing, all living, all dead, all data, and all emotion, take all sides at once, and then-well, if not then, when?-you'll know just what to do.

This book offers a much more radical take on what we might learn from the history of the American Indian.  We might learn to think beyond history, to consider a whole different way of framing our humanity within an animate Earth.  Indeed, this is not a way that has presented the destruction of Indian essence and autonomy.  There is a weakness in this way when confronted by the pull of money, trinkets, and the global market for wild commodities like beaver pelt and vast tracts of land.  Exploitative thinking is, like other diseases brought by white men, quite contagious.  In this sense, the tragic fate of Indian America was inevitable.  No one in our time knew enough.  Perhaps the ancestors knew better, but where are they when you really need them?

Placed together, these two historians teach us, in a way, not to rely on history.  It need not repeat itself.  We need not look for "proof" by poring over the dusty records of the meticulous pillagers, marauders, and savvy tradesmen.  An essence can be resuscitated, and perhaps even fabricated, out of the way we wish native people to be.  With time, we will live here long enough to become the native people of this landscape.  But to earn that title, we will have to learn much more about the traits and traces of all living things on the reverberant Earth.  We can look many places for clues: in stories, in data, in science, in our guesses about the way things might turn out.  We need all the help we can get, in terms of day to day getting by as well as sketching out the vast ideals to guide some saner way of moving forward.  Learning from Native America is complicated: positive pictures may be stereotypes, negative denouncements may be biased by a way of thinking that demands simple answers when realities are far more nuanced.  It may be difficult, but this is no time to give up or sit smugly among one's expectations.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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The Ecological Indian: Myth and History

by Shepard Krech III

   W.W. Norton & Co.
   September 2000
   320 Pp.



The Way of Human Being

by Calvin Luther Martin

   Yale University Press
   May 1999
   256 Pp.



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