Over the past several decades, the environmental movement has promoted a view of American Indians as the "original conservationists." References to this image abound:
- "The Indians were, in truth, the pioneer ecologists of this country," former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall once said.
- "For many thousands of years, most of the indigenous nations on this continent practiced a philosophy of protection (first) and use (second) of the forest," says Herb Hammond in the Sierra Club book Clearcut. "In scientific terms, we recognize that their use of the forest was ecologically responsible—meaning that it kept all the parts."
A Vision Imposed on Chief Seattle
The impression that American Indians were guided by a unique environmental ethic is often attributed to Chief Seattle. "All things are connected like the blood which unites one family," Senator Chafee quoted him as saying. "Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of earth."
Yet the words in the oft-quoted speech are not actually those of Chief Seattle. They were written by Ted Perry, a scriptwriter. In a movie about pollution, he paraphrased a translation of the speech that had been made by William Arrowsmith, a professor of classics. Perry's version added "a good deal more, particularly modern ecological imagery," according to one historian. Perry, not Chief Seattle, wrote that "every part of the Earth is sacred to my people."
The romantic image evoked by the speech obscures the fact, fully acknowledged by historians, that American Indians transformed the North American landscape. Sometimes these changes were beneficial, at other times harmful. But they were a rational response to abundance or scarcity in the context of institutions that governed resource use.
Like people everywhere, American Indians responded to incentives. For example, where land was abundant, it made sense to farm extensively and move on.
- It was common for Indians such as the Choctaw, Iroquois, and Pawnee to clear land for farming by cutting and burning forests. Once cleared, fields were farmed extensively until soil fertility was depleted; then they cleared new lands and started the process again.
- Wherever Indian populations were dense and farming was intense, deforestation was common. Indeed, the mysterious departure of the Anasazi from the canyons of southeastern Utah in the thirteenth century may have been due to depletion of wood supplies used for fuel.
Indians also manipulated the land to improve hunting. Upland wooded areas from east to west were burned to remove the undergrowth and increase forage for deer, elk, and bison. Indeed, because of this burning, there may have been fewer "old growth" forests in the Pacific Northwest when the first Europeans arrived than there are today.
The demand for meat, hides, and furs by relatively small, dispersed populations of Indians put little pressure on wildlife. But in some cases, game depletion resulted in the "tragedy of the commons." This term, coined by biologist Garrett Hardin, describes what happens when no one has ownership of a resource and anyone has access to it.
Wild animals represented a "commons." They belonged to no one until they were killed. If anyone left an animal, in the hope that it would be there later, someone else was likely to kill it. Without ownership, no one had an incentive to protect the animals. Anthropologist Paul Martin believes that the extinction of the mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, and saber-toothed cat were directly or indirectly due to "prehistoric overkill" by exceptionally competent hunters.
Louis S. Warren drives the final nail in the coffin of the "living in harmony with nature" myth:
"to claim that Indians lived without affecting nature is akin to saying that they lived without touching anything, that they were a people without history. Indians often manipulated their local environments, and while they usually had far less impact on their environments than European colonists would, the idea of "preserving" land in some kind of wilderness state would have struck them as impractical and absurd. More often than not, Indians profoundly shaped the ecosystems around them. . ."