Delicate balance in coexisting with nature


Book: `The Ecological Indian' offers important clues about man's historic relationship with the environment.

January 12, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE BOOK I'M pushing this year, by Eastern Shore native and Brown University anthropology professor Shepard Krech 3rd, is not about the Chesapeake Bay, but it's powerfully illuminating for anyone concerned with living more lightly on our lands and waters.

Krech, whose father is a retired country doctor and longtime supporter of the bay, grew up hunting with his grandfather, who "made it seem normal to be both a sportsman and a conservationist."

He revisits that theme in "The Ecological Indian" (W. W. Norton, 1999), wading into the complicated history of how Native Americans related to the environment.

Do the facts support popular, 20th-century views - held by whites and Indians - of people living in balance with nature for hundreds of generations? Or does mounting archaeological evidence, such as that of Indians' manipulation of nature by setting fires, point to a less flattering picture?

Don't look to Krech for sound-bitey conclusions. This is a rich book, lucidly written, but a full-blown work of research, with sources occupying a quarter of its 308 pages.

It's a first-rate education for anyone wanting clues in our history to a seminal question for our future: Can growing numbers of us learn to coexist peaceably with nature?

Krech's work will anger some who hold simplistic views of Indians as original environmentalists, though he writes with a respect born of years of field research with Arctic tribes.

It is clear Native Americans were "inherently ecological," he said in a recent interview.

By that, he means they had a vast and intimate knowledge of the natural system, of the interrelationships among plants and animals and landscapes that held them.

Even burning of the landoften (but not always) bespoke a keen sensibility of using fire to improve hunting, planting, trapping and the harvest of berries.

But ecological awareness does not equal a conservation ethic, Krech says. Their close kinship with nature does not mean Native Americans always walked lightly on the land.

"The Ecological Indian" examines the earliest historical records of Indians across the continent with regard to their use of buffalo, beaver, deer and caribou. With all of these staple species, Krech finds ample evidence of appalling waste and overkill by any modern definition of conservation.

Examples include hundreds of animals slaughtered and left to rot with only choice parts taken; also the killing of young and old, male and female, big and small without seeming regard to sustaining populations.

For those who think the consumer society is a recent artifact, there is a nugget in the book about Plains Indians' use of buffalo hides after they got horses in the 17th century. Average teepee sizes shot up from six hides to 12, as horses replaced dogs to carry belongings.

But if Native Americans were so wasteful, why didn't they ruin their lands centuries, or millennia before European contact?

In most cases, Krech says, Indians didn't devastate nature as we moderns have done because there weren't enough of them. (That changed after Europeans recruited natives to supply markets for fur and meat.) He puts maximum Indian populations at around 7 million - think of the current population of New Jersey with the whole United States to roam in. And European diseases, against which Indians had no defense, had reduced the number of Indians by more than half as early as 1700.

Krech speculates that this explains some of the contradiction between Colonial depictions of America as "Eden," and the fact that Indians extensively manipulated the environment through fire and hunting.

The population decrease from disease meant settlers saw not so much virgin lands as lands "widowed" for decades, he suggests.

Krech is not judgmental about Indians' lack of a conservation ethic, because they operated within a different belief system from today's wildlife managers.

Many tribes believed that beaver and deer, if proper ritual respect was shown those killed, were all reincarnated. So the more killed, the more would be reborn.

Plains Indians believed buffalo sprang each year from an inexhaustible herd that grazed beneath the earth. They did not relate buffalo numbers in a given year to hunting practices of the previous year.

This reminded me of many bay watermen who more comfortably ascribe shortages of seafood to God than to catching too many.

Indeed, globally and historically, Krech says, hunter-gatherer cultures whose belief systems incorporate harvest limits are rare.

I think it's not just hunter-gatherers, but all of us who don't want to accept restraint. We just haven't hit natural limits yet like our bay crabbers - as long as the fossil fuels hold out.

In recent times, many Indian tribes have developed admirable environmental ethics, even as others assert their modern American rights to develop and pollute.

Ultimately, an uncritical embrace of Indians as environmental models shows our need to believe there was a "purer" time, a gentler way of relating to the earth.

History tells a different story, but that doesn't mean modern efforts to restore the bay can't succeed. Success will take truly unprecedented changes in accepting restraints and limits, including recognition that the higher population rises, the harder that will get.

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