Ecological Indian Is a Myth: Neither criminals nor saints, early natives were simply human

For the first three-quarters of this century, the “frontier school” dominated scholarship on the American west.

First expounded by Frederick Jackson Turner at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the frontier thesis (also known as the “Turner thesis”) held that the existence of a vast interior offering seemingly limitless opportunity had had a greater influence on American ideals — democracy, social equality, rugged individualism and self-reliance — than the laws and cultural traditions Americans inherited from Europe.

If Turner was the father of the romantic notion of the frontier, Owen Wister was its poet laureate. Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian, marked the first literary appearance of the larger-than-life, stoic cowboy hero. It topped major bestseller lists in North America and Europe for over a year and had to be reprinted 14 times in its first eight months of publication.

Wister’s plain-spoken, clear-thinking, man-of-action protagonist, known simply as the Virginian, fed and fed off Turner’s academic theories. Together, the two spawned a sort of John Wayne self-image that Americans nurtured through to the 1970s.

Attempts over the past 30 years to correct the shortcomings of this view — to acknowledge the roles of Indians and women, for instance — have swung much too far, though. The dominant thesis at present, sometimes referred to as the “Lamar school,” after Yale historian Howard Lamar, postulates that the American West was only saved from the ravages of corporate colonialism by the intervention of a powerful central government and proto-feminists.

In effect, one overly mythologized school has been replaced by another. And more balanced attempts to update western history, such as those offered by historian Robert M. Utley and novelist Larry McMurtry, have been trampled in the stampede.

One of the most pervasive myths of the newly dominant scholars is of the ecological Indian, at one with nature; not scientifically knowledgeable about the environment but so in tune with the harmonies and rhythms of earth spirits that he intuited what was best ecologically, without fail.

As most other North American school children did, I learned that plains Indians used every part of the buffalo: the meat for sustenance, the hide for shelter and clothing, the sinews for thread, the bones for tools and weapons, and so on — an early reduce, reuse and recycle program. And I believed those lessons (which serve as precursors to belief in the ecological Indian), until I visited my first buffalo jump.

How, I wondered, could there be all of those bones, at such places as Head-Smashed-In in southern Alberta and Madison Buffalo Jump in southwestern Montana, if Indians indeed used every bit of each animal they slaughtered? It is not as if there are a few artifacts and remains at these jump sites, there are bones from literally thousands of carcasses. So many that such sites were occasionally mined for fertilizer.

Now along comes an answer. In his new book, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, Brown University anthropologist Shepard Krech III acknowledges the pre-Columbian residents of North America often instinctively knew things about nature that our more scientifically and technologically advanced societies did not learn until much later.

But he also contends that Indian culture was too primitive (my word, not his) to have been fully environmentally aware. Indians did not overkill the buffalo themselves, Krech explains, because their populations were too small to do so. It was demographics, not wisdom, that made them eco-friendly.

Buffalo jumps were remarkable accomplishments for Stone Age people without horses. Herding hundreds or thousands of 500-kg beasts over hundreds of square kilometres towards a single narrow point of land, using nothing but patience, wit and concealment is mind-boggling.

Still, ecology had little to do with it (environmentalism is a pastime of comfortable societies, not those engaged in subsistence survival). Once Indians had the buffalo thundering toward the precipice, there would have been no way for them to stop the charge.”Okay, turn off the stampede, we have the 100 animals we will need to ride out the winter!”

Krech’s description of a jump site is disgusting: 200 to 300 people camped for weeks near 100,000 kilograms of meat slowly rotting in the summer sun, with no toilets, and water supplies that became contaminated quickly. No wonder the Cree called them piskun, or “deep blood kettles.”

Krech also offers evidence that Indians hunted to extinction several large Ice Age mammals, nearly eradicated certain populations of deer and beaver, and burned out millions of acres of forests to improve agriculture and game.

Indians were not environmental criminals, but neither were they saints; just humans.

November 19, 1999