Ted Perry wrote a script for a movie about pollution. In it, he paraphrased a translation of a speech made by Professor William Arrowsmith concerning a statement made by Chief Seattle. Since that time, the environmentalists have claimed Seattle said “All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of earth.” But historians say Perry put a lot of words in Seattle’s mouth that the chief probably never said — including “every part of the Earth is sacred to my people.”
This romanticized version of the Indian ecological ethic obscures that the fact that American Indians transformed the North American landscape, sometimes in beneficial ways and other times in extremely harmful ways. Their manipulation of the landscape was a rational response to abundance or scarcity interacting with tribal institutions that governed resource use.
Yes, like people everywhere, American Indians responded to incentives. Where land was abundant, it made sense to farm extensively and move on. I allude to that in my story. The Choctaw, Iroquois, and Pawnee would clear land for farming by cutting and burning forests. Once cleared, fields were extensively farmed until soil fertility was depleted; then they cleared new lands and started the process again.
Deforestation was common wherever Indian populations were dense and farming was intense. The Anasazi did not simply vanish from southeast Utah in the 13th century. There is archeological evidence that they depleted their wood supplies for fuel, so had to move away.
Similarly, where wild game was plentiful, Indians used only the choicest cuts and left the rest. What? No! They didn’t. Yes, they did. Buffalo were herded over cliffs because it was a much safer way to harvest the meat than throwing spears at large aggressive animals. And, yes, that practice wasted tons of meat that was left to rot or be eaten by scavengers.
Furthermore, my mother’s ancestors burned wooded areas from east to west to remove the undergrowth and increase forage for deer, elk, and bison. Historians believe that, 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 occasionally 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. In fact, the extinction of the mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, and saber-tooth cat may well have been due to prehistorical overkill by exceptionally good hunters.
The living in harmony myth is kind of silly, actually, because there is incredible evidence that it is not true.
“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. . .” Louis S. Warren