The Ecological Indian:
Myth and History

by Terry L. Anderson
(from the Detroit News, reviewing a book of the same name by Shepard Krech III)

October 4, 1999

One of my favorite places in Montana is the Madison Buffalo Jump state park near the Three Forks of the Missouri River. Standing in front of this cliff over which Indians drove buffalo for hundreds of years, one can only imagine the sound and sight of a thundering herd of the half-ton animals plunging to their death. Signs at the jump describe how the drive to push the buffalo over the cliff was organized and explain how each part of the animal from head to foot was used. Modern-day solitude at the site contributes to the romantic scene.

But reading Shepard Krech's chapter on buffalo from his book, The Ecological Indian, produces a very different image. The Blackfeet word for such a site was "piskun" meaning "deep blood kettle." Imagine 30, 60, 100, or even 600, 800, or 1000 dead or maimed beasts piled at the bottom of the cliff, blood flowing, hooves kicking, and meat rotting in the hot sun, and you have a clearer picture of what the site would have looked like 250 years ago.

To get a clear picture of camp life near a piskun, realize that 200 to 300 people would be living near the stench of rotting meat without toilet facilities. Not surprisingly disease, especially dysentery, were common. Grass would be trampled under foot and dust would arise, firewood would quickly be depleted and water polluted.

Continue imagining the difficulty of butchering and preserving the meat which Krech estimates could amount to as much as 240,000 pounds if 600 buffalo were killed. Krech describes what the scene at the Olsen-Chubbuck in Colorado eight millennia ago might have looked like: "As people butchered the animals, they ate the tongues, scattering the bones throughout the site. When it was over they had completely butchered the buffaloes on top, but they cut the ones beneath them less thoroughly, and hardly (if at all) touched the ones on the bottom, especially in the deepest parts of the arroyo" (144).

Krech's well-researched and documented descriptions of Indian use of fire, land, buffalo, deer, and beaver stand in stark contrast to the romantic view of Native Americans living in harmony with nature, taking only what they needed. Page 14 reproduces the 1971 Keep American Beautiful, Inc. poster showing Iron Eyes Cody as the Crying Indian with the caption "Pollution: it's a crying shame." Following on the heels of the first Earth Day in 1970, this picture became an icon of the environmental movement. From it, mostly non-Indians developed a romantic and noble image of "fundamental differences between the way Americans of European descent and Indians think about and relate to land and resources" (16).

The Ecological Indian is a book that debunks myths and brings reality to the environmental history of American Indians. Professor Krech, a Brown University anthropologist, systematically examines issues ranging from the possible role of Indians in Pleistocene extinctions of large mammals to the burning of ancient forests. In each case he carefully separates romance from data and draws his conclusions carefully.

In referring to accounts that Indians used every part of the buffalo, Krech states that "These accounts might not be `wrong' -- in some instances people did indeed use thoroughly the animals they killed -- only ungeneralizable" (145). In describing Indian use of fire, he concludes, "Despite European images of an untouched Eden, this nature was cultural not virgin, anthropogenic not primeval, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Indian use of fire." This book is what good science should be. It puts forth hypotheses, tests them with data, and only draws conclusions supported by those data.

The major fault with Krech's research and presentation is that he almost totally ignores the role of institutions in determining how Indians interfaced with nature. In the case of beaver, he does note that some tribes, such as the Cree, "restricted hunting in one another's areas as far back as the mid-eighteenth century" (190) and that this encouraged conservation. But Krech fails to carry this theme through the book.

My own research shows that southeastern and southwestern Indians had property rights in land that encouraged agricultural productivity, Great Lakes Indians had property rights to wild rice areas that encouraged cultivation, and California Indians had property rights to pinon forests that encouraged stewardship. Recent research by Professor Bruce Johnsen of George Mason University shows that clan fishing rights to salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest encouraged the owners to let larger fish pass upstream to spawn. This property rights system best explains systematic differences in salmon sizes that persist to this day.

In debunking the myth of the ecological Indian, Shepard Krech builds a foundation upon which we can better understand not only the relationship of Indians with nature, but more generally all humans with nature. In times of abundance, we are all likely to waste resources; but in times of greater scarcity, we are more likely to conserve. Even then, conservation requires a system of property rights that gives individuals the incentive to husband their resources. The ecological Indian was no romantic; he was a pragmatist who survived when he got the incentives right.

* * *

Terry Anderson is Executive Director of the Political Economy Research Center
-- an environmental think-tank promoting a market approach to environmental policy
-- and is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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6 oct 1999