Most environmentalists tacitly assume that primitive people lived in ecological harmony with their surroundings, and had little impact on their habitat. Implicit in this assumption is the idea that the environmental ravages of Western civilization are the result of a fall from the primitive earthly paradise, and western European cultural roots are to blame for the present environmental tragedy. Records of the abundance of wildlife encountered by early European explorers and later by American-born mountain men, traders, and settlers, are often used as evidence to prove that primitive people, by virtue of their superior ecological wisdom, were inherently better stewards of the American continent. Were they?
In a tidal mud flat at the mouth of the Noatak River in western Alaska, I once found the tooth of a Woolly Mammoth. It was the size of a large cantaloupe and had a rough, file-like flat surface and pointed projections which were the roots. Perhaps 10,000 or more years prior to my visit, this mammoth had wandered the Alaskan tundra. What happened to it and dozens of other giant Ice Age mammals has puzzled scientists for years, and the issue is still not resolved. Besides the Woolly Mammoth, other large animals — including the Giant Sloth, mastodons, and their predators such as the Dire Wolf and Short-faced Bear — became extinct within a geologically short time span of several thousand years. Interestingly, as far as is known, there were no corresponding extinctions of small mammals — the only species to disappear where mammals in excess of 100 pounds. Why?
Some people have postulated that climactic changes stressed these large mammals to the point of extinction; but would not climactic change affect smaller animals also? There are several schools of though on the topic, including adherents of the Overkill hypotheses who argue that paleo-Indians slaughtered these animals into extinction. Could this be? What are the implications for our own mythology of the natural balances that existed among the Indians and Eskimos at the time Europeans ventured to the continent? To answer these questions, we can apply ecological principles to humans and attempt to thread together a plausible explanation of the relationships between technologically primitive peoples and their environments. I will examine North American Indian and Eskimo cultures, but the same principles would apply to any low-technology people, including the ancestors of the Europeans or any other geographical or racial group. What follows is speculation, and it would be difficult to prove right or wrong the suggestions presented. I admit the opportunity for error in interpretation is great; nevertheless, I feel the process of viewing people within an ecological context could shed insights that may change dramatically the way we view ourselves — technological humans — and our relationship with Earth.
Long before the Pleistocene extinctions, something happened to make humans different from almost all other animals — we substituted cultural flexibility and technological innovation for biological evolution. Biological change is slow and conservative; it tends to preserve the status quo. This is one reason why humans tend to be essentially the same in mental ability, behavior, and capacity to interact. Despite slight differences in physical appearance and other minor traits, our basic genetic make-up is essentially the same from race to race — hence our country’s premise that all people are created equal. But culture is much more flexible and the incredible ethnic diversity that developed in human groups prior to the advances in modern communications resulted from this ability of culture to evolve rapidly. Also, while biological change is not easily transferred throughout a population since it requires the passage of genetic material, cultural and technology are easily exchanged between groups. A European can learn how to paddle a kayak, while an Eskimo can learn to shoot a rifle, despite different cultural backgrounds. Thus culture and technology gave humans the ability to adapt to new environments quickly and this ability is the major reason for our present dominance of Earth.
Evolution can be viewed as a process of change geared toward increasing each individual’s share of resources so as to ensure the successful reproduction of descendents. In evolutionary terms, if you do not leave behind a share of your genetic code (sisters and brothers also share a portion of your genetic code, so by helping them you help your genetic line) you’re a failure. The animals who leave the most offspring who also reproduce win the evolution sweepstakes. Since no one individual or species can have the best adaptations for all environmental conditions, each may prosper under one regime and lose under another. Indeed, the many extinct animals like the mammoth are examples of species whose specific genetic code worked well under one set of environmental constraints, but failed miserably under another.
One environmental pressure mammoths had to contend with was predation, against which their large size was good insurance. Only a very large predator could pull down a full grown mammoth, and during much of the mammoth’s evolutionary history there were no predators big enough to seriously threaten them. But every adaptation has its energy costs and these costs weight against the benefits derived.
The mammoth’s strategy had several costs. First, the large body required massive quantities of food. (The mammoth’s relative, the African Elephant, requires 400-500 pounds of forage a day!) Second, the large food requirements meant that mammoths could never be extremely numerous or form extremely large herds lest they quickly overgraze their food supply. Third, as a rule, the larger the animal, the longer it takes to reach sexual maturity, the fewer the young it produces, and the longer the interval between births. This reproductive strategy is fine if most of the young survive and most adults live long enough to produce several young. For the mammoth, these costs were probably worth the risks since all but the youngest mammoths were invulnerable to predators.
Predators are also subject to cost-benefit analyses. Predators do not usually kill more than they can eat because they must expend energy to obtain food and each animal tries to maximize energy return for energy output. For a predator to feast on mammoths, it had to find them first — ecologists call this search time. Second, unless the mammoth was sick or injured, a predator risks physical damage. To a predator dependent on claw and fang for survival, a broken leg or jaw is certain death. A predator does not usually kill more than it can utilize because the capture of prey involves risks.
Why didn’t an extremely large predator evolve to attack mammoths? There were large predators like the Dire Wolf and Saber-tooth Cat, which no doubt preyed on mammoths, particularly the young or injured, but there were no predators large enough to prey exclusively on mature healthy ones. Food constraints placed an upper cap on predator size. The larger the animal, the more food it requires. A predator adapted to hunting only mammoths might have had to be so large that it would have had a difficult time obtaining food when mammoths were scarce or widely scattered. As explained above, low numbers and dispersal of mammoths may have been the norm. Also, a predator large enough to regularly prey on mammoths would not have been agile enough to catch smaller prey to fulfill its food needs between mammoth kills.
Into this world of mammals whose major defense was their huge size came a new predator — paleo-Indians. These new predators had several advantages over many of their competitors. They hunted in groups, rather than alone, and the combined efforts of many men made the group like one very large predator, what ecologists call a “super predator.” Yet this super predator had a major advantage over others: In times of poor hunting, these hunters could divide into smaller units and subsist on smaller prey or plant foods. Furthermore, they had weapons. Armed with spears, the hunters no longer had to have direct contact with their prey, thus risk was lessened significantly.
No one knows exactly how long humans have lived in North America. Questionable evidence from a few sites suggests occupation as early as 35-30,000 years ago. Near the close of the Ice Age, 12,000 years before present, archeological evidence suddenly becomes abundant. Anthropologists speculate that a massive invasion of humans from Asia must have occurred then; or for some unknown reason, people already present, if there were any, underwent sudden population growth. The artifacts from all these 12,000-year-old sites include distinctive spear points associated with large mammal kills, particularly of mammoths. The humans who made them are called Clovis people after a New Mexico town where the first discoveries were made. Whether Clovis hunters were recent immigrants who traveled across the Bering Sea Land Bridge and down into North America or merely an inspired group of existing hunters, we do not know; but the new technology, those spear points, increased the hunting success of these people. Clovis points became the rage, and soon everyone had to have them. These points have been found in such far-flung places as New Mexico, Alberta, and Vermont.
Was it coincidence that at this time many Ice Age mammals became extinct? In the face of a new, unfamiliar predator, the large Ice Age mammals were extremely vulnerable — especially if they relied upon their size to deter predators. Mammoth strategy may have become antiquated like the strategy of Arctic Musk Oxen — which thwart wolf attacks by forming a circle, but are shot by humans with guns one by one as they stolidly stand their ground. Perhaps mammoths and other Ice Age megafauna stood their ground instead of fleeing, a fine strategy against Dire Wolves, but fatal in the face of men hunting in groups and throwing spears with deadly hide-piercing points.
Very likely, Clovis man did not wipe out the large mammals single-handedly. Changes in climate, and as a result vegetation and its nutritional value, which affected reproduction and survival success of these large animals, also played a major role in their demise. Yet certainly Clovis people and other early Clovis culture added the final coup de grace to already dying fauna.
Why did these paleo-Indians destroy the mammoths and mastodons and not smaller mammals like deer and Elk which also roamed these Ice Age plains? First, there were fewer mammoths and other large animals than Elk and deer, and their low reproductive rates and low densities made them vulnerable to extirpation. These same biological attributes mark the Grizzly Bear, Whooping Crane, Blue Whale and other animals that today are near extinction. Second, early hunters likely preferred hunting the bigger animals for they gained a larger return on their investment of time by killing a mammoth rather than a deer. Third, large animals were easier to stalk and approach than the shy and quick deer.
I dwell at length on Pleistocene extinctions because the constraints that limited Clovis people also limited the more contemporary Indian cultures. Did primitive people kill in excess of their needs? Did they ever waste meat? Most assuredly they did if the opportunity presented itself. Many archeological sites vividly show where entire herds of Bison and other animals were stampeded over cliffs and killed. Undoubtedly, much of this meat rotted because there was no way to preserve the extra. In the days before the horse, primitive people could not carry large amounts of skins, meat, or other animal matter very far. Excess meat was left behind. Often it was easier to move the entire village to the kill site than to bring the meat back to the village. After the introduction of the horse in the 1600s and 1700s, occasional waste of meat still occurred — perhaps even more, since the horse made it easier to obtain meat. Francis Parkman in his book The Oregon Trail describes an Arapaho Indian village he visited in Colorado. “Approaching the village, we found the ground strewn with piles of waste buffalo-meat in incredible quantities.” When food was abundant, only the choicest parts would be eaten; while in times of starvation, humans would eat their own clothing or scour the camps for old bones and pieces of hide.
Whether one wasted a resource or not was often a matter of the energy expended versus energy obtained. Most Indians were mobile and could not carry much extra baggage. Consequently, although hides were valuable for making clothes, if they already had enough garments they probably would not carry extra hides with them. It was cheaper in terms of energy to procure new hides when new clothes were needed than to carry extra hides from past kills. Mobility also limited what they could accumulate as welath and what they “needed” to survive. Thus, although they might occasionally waste resources, mobile hunting and gathering people place fewer demands on their environment for the very reason that they cannot use resources on the scale that sedentary people can. Agriculture and the large population base it supported brought the beginning of the fall from Eden.
It is entirely “natural” to waste abundant resources, not a deviant human behavior, and there are examples of “waste” among many other animals. For several weeks I watched Brown Bears eating salmon caught on the spawning beds of an Alaskan stream. During the early part of the spawning run, the bears consumed entire fish; but as salmon became easier to procure, the bears became more selective, only eating choice portions of the fish such as the eggs, and leaving the rest to the gulls. When the run was over and even the rotting fish bodies were scarce, the bears again ate anything they could find.
What we call waste is a matter of definition. The excess meat not eaten by Indians supported a community of scavenging “camp followers” including Ravens, Wolves, and Grizzlies, just as today waste from road kills supports many species including magpies, Ravens, and Coyotes. This could also be said of slob hunting. I am not condoning road kills or slob hunters, but merely suggesting that one animal’s waste is often another’s dinner. [Ed. note: This point is excellently made in the chapter “Mink” in Sally Carrighar’s classic One Day at Teton Marsh.]
Primitive hunters are opportunistic. If they can capture many animals easily, they do — even if some of the resources may be wasted. One early visitor to the Coeur d’Alene Indians in Idaho recounted a winter deer hunt during which the Indians, equipped with snow-shoes, were able to walk up to dear floundering in unusually deep snow. The deer were so exhausted that the hunters did not even use bows and arrows, but merely grabbed the animals and broke their necks. According to the account, they killed 600 deer on this trip.
There were two other important ecological points to take from this account. First, the Indians did not waste arrows to kill deer because arrows, in terms of energy, are expensive to make. Hence, if killing could be accomplished without shooting, the Indians saved their weapons. Second, with the deer nearly dead, there was little risk involved in the killing, thus many deer were killed. Indians fulfilled the role of a large predator and likely reduced the deer herd to a level more in balance with available food resources. (This argument is used today by sport hunters to justify their activities. With certain reservations, I accept this.)
Living on the Kobuk River in northwest Alaska, one autumn during the southward Caribou migration, I watched local Eskimos hunt. The hunters waited for the Caribou to begin swimming the river, then, while the animals were helpless in the water, the hunters moved their motorboats among the herd and shot the animals with rifles. A few hunters, perhaps having seen too many cowboy movies, roped Caribou and dragged them back to shore where they shot them as the animals stepped onto the beach — thus saving the hunters the chore of dragging the heavy animal from the river. To most of us conditioned by ideas of “fair play,” such actions seem unsporting. But efficiency governs subsistence hunting; and if ethics are lacking, subsistence hunting may not differ substantially from commercial hunting except that commercial hunts usually involve larger harvests.
If humans often waste resources, why was there still so much wildlife in North America upon the arrival of Europeans? Some of the reasons I’ve given — time necessary to hunt, lack of highly efficient weapons, etc. Another reason is that, while stalking game, the Indians had to contend with a constraint we seldom consider today — attack by other humans. George Catlin, the painter who traveled the Great Plains in the 1830s recording Indian life, mentions such costs when describing the Mandans, a tribe who lived on the upper Missouri. “… being a small tribe and unwilling to risk their lives by going far from home [to hunt] in the face of their more powerful enemies, they are often at times left almost in a state of starvation.”
Manufacturing costs also limited hunter kills. Most hunters did not randomly spear everything that crossed their path because if they did so, they would lose their spears or spear points. Making a spear is work, and human behavior has not changed that much in the last 10,000 years. We can safely assume these hunters preferred to sit around the campfire bragging about their prowess as hunters and lovers than to spend their time making new spears.
Ishi, a California Indian who was “discovered” in 1911 and brought to San Francisco where he was studied by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, provides many insights into the attitudes of technologically primitive people. Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, in her book, Ishi — In Two Worlds, described Ishi making an arrowhead. “Ishi completed the flaking and notching of one (arrowhead) in about 30 minutes. He admitted that it was fatiguing work. The rapid low click click of falling flakes is best accomplished with no change in position and with regularly maintained rhythm; it is exacting work…”
Despite the difficulty of manufacturing hunting implements, and the time required to capture prey, primitive humans could hunt game populations to extinction — at least locally. Evidence suggests that Maori aboriginals of New Zealand hunted the Moa, a large flightless bird, to extinction; and many birds on the Hawaiian Islands disappeared shortly after the arrival of Polynesian settlers.
One does not have to kill every last prey animal for its population to become functionally extinct in terms of supporting a local predator group. Thus primitive people might kill most of a local deer herd, so that it took too much effort to capture more deer. When this point was reached, people either changed to a different food source (called prey switching), took over new territories (war, in our lexicon), or starved.
Wildlife populations regularly fluctuate in numbers due to many factors besides predation by aboriginal hunters — including drought, fire, disease, and competition with other species which are also fluctuating in numbers. It has become standard dogma that North America was populated border to border with immense herds of Elk, Bison, Pronghorn Antelope, Mule and White-tail Deer, Caribou, and smaller creatures. Undoubtedly, for most species, there were far more animals prior to the advent of white people in North America, but it would be incorrect to assume that animal populations were static and evenly distributed.
Many journal references attest to the immense Bison herds that once roamed the Great Plains, but read carefully and it becomes clear that there were man empty miles between these large congregations. Thomas Farnham in his book Travels in the Great Wester Prairies in 1839 wrote: “One of our company killed a turtle, which furnished us all an excellent supper. This was the only game of any description that we have seen since leaving the frontier.” Days later he would write: “They [the hunters] scoured the country all day in quest of game, but found none… The country being constantly scoured by Indian hunters, afforded us but little prospect of obtaining other game.”
The naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who in 1832 traveled across northern Oregon’s Blue Mountains — an area that today boasts one of the largest Elk herds in the country — wrote: “Game has been exceedingly scarce, with the exception of a few grouse, pigeons, etc. … since we left the confines of the buffalo country.”
These people were traveling fast and no doubt missed the occasional deer concealed in the brush or Elk herd hidden by a mountain. Nevertheless, wildlife then, as now, is not equally distributed in time and space. Many areas were virtual wildlife deserts, at least in some seasons, and most primitive hunting and gathering societies moved regularly from one resource concentration to another. If the expected concentration failed to materialize, people starved.
One reason for the myth of abundance has to do with travelers’ reports and misinterpretation of these reports. First, one is more likely to mention an immense concentration of animals than lack thereof. Second, we tend to interpret these references as applicable to all landscapes. I once watched a Caribou migration in the Brooks Range within what is now the Gates of the Arctic National Park. The moving animals appeared to fill the entire valley. Similar spectacles greeted many of the first Europeans who ventured into the American West. Nevertheless, had I been able to travel quickly beyond this valley, I would have found no Caribou for miles in any other direction, yet it was easy to imagine that Caribou were everywhere abundant.
Time spent hunting, risk of injury from prey or enemy, these are the costs imposed from outside the hunter. There were also self-imposed costs. Although they may have killed huge numbers of animals when possible, hunting people frequently observed codes of behavior designed to show respect for the slain animals. Whether ultimately this was due to concern for the animals or due to concern for the hunters’ continued success is debatable. Self interest is not necessarily bad. One problem with modern technological societies is that we fail to see a connection between our actions and their consequences. Primitive hunters felt that their personal actions influenced their success in hunting, and taboos and protocol for hunting were incorporated into the culture to ensure favorable hunting conditions. The fact that people can and do impose codes of behavior among themselves is a positive human trait that gives today’s conservation efforts meaning and hope of success.
One of the factors which contributes to many of our misconceptions of how the natural world was prior to European domination is our static sense of time. We assume that the way we found the environment is the way it always was. Yet, both wildlife and human populations underwent huge fluctuations in numbers and distributions. For example, between 1100 and 1300 AD, most of the Great Plains was deserted, for a great drought lay upon the land. There were no immense herds of Bison then as were reported during the 1800s (when increased rainfall during the Little Ice Age helped to increase Bison herds, perhaps to levels never before experienced); and as a result, few Indian tribes lived here. This same dry period drove the Pueblo Indians out of much of their occupied territory in the Southwest, where extensive Indian deforestation of the arid canyon country exacerbated the drought conditions.
As the drought abated and Bison herds began to recolonize the plains and prairie, tribes gradually moved into the region. From the north came the Algonquian-speaking Blackfeet who first settled in souther Saskatchewan and moved into Alberta and Montana in the early 1700s, displacing the less aggressive Flathead tribe who were forced onto the less desirable land west of the mountains. The Crow, a Siouan-speaking people, came from the eastern lake states and settled in eastern Montana. The Caddoan-speaking Pawnee moved into Kansas, and the Shoshonean-speaking Comanche moved from the Great Basin onto the southern plains. Few if any of the tribes we commonly associate with the Great Plains can trace their residency in their particular region back more than a few hundred years. Some tribes invaded their territories at the same time or even after the first English, American, Spanish, and French established posts or colonies within the region. The Navaho arrived in the Southwest 400-500 years ago, about the same time as the Spanish.
These tribes would have continued to move, expand, or decline, and some would have become extinct, had not the white culture moved in and fixed the residency of each to a reservation. (The dominant culture has also done this with wildlife and wilderness — all are confined to “reservations.”) Usually, displacement involved a people with more advanced technology taking over lands of those with lower technology. We don’t know if Clovis people displaced others, for it was too long ago, but there are many examples throughout history of a technologically advanced group, able to capture more resources, overrunning less sophisticated groups. This has nothing to do with race and can develop anywhere any group gains some advantage on resources and technology.
History books are filled with examples of how technologically superior and aggressive groups took away land and resources from less fortunate people. The Greeks dominated the Mediterranean because of the advantage of their sailing ships. The Incas, with their sophisticated road system, food storage, and other means of resource control, dominated the tribes throughout their empire in South America. The Japanese invaded the Japanese Islands and relegated the original inhabitants to the most northern island of the chain. The first North American Indian tribes to obtain the horse expanded their territories at the expense of other tribes until the other tribes too gained the horse. This is not to excuse what has happened, nor to justify these events as morally right because they are “natural.” Many actions natural among some animals and human cultures — such as infanticide, slavery, incest, deception and war — we do not condone, nor do these actions always have long term survival value for the individual or the species.
Native American tribes furnish examples of such actions. The Eskimos were the last immigrants that we allow ourselves to call “natives” by virtue of their prior occupancy. The Eskimos arrived in North America about 3000 years ago, long after Indians had colonized the area. The Eskimos were technologically sophisticated, thrived in cold regions, and within a few centuries began to take over vast expanses of the north. Some of this land had been uninhabited by humans, but in other areas, the Eskimos were in constant conflict with the already established Indians. The word “Eskimo” is a derogatory Indian term which means “raw meat eater,” implying that Eskimos were so uncouth as to eat their meat without cooking it. (The Eskimos’ term for themselves, “Inuit,” means “the people.”) By the 1700s, when Russian settlement began in Alaska, Eskimos has displaced Indian groups and lived far beyond the range we normally associate with the group, even occupying the southern Alaska coast southeast of present-day Valdez.
Conflicts between Indians and Eskimos occurred long before European settlement. From 1769-1774, Samuel Hearne, of Hudson Bay Company, traveled by land through much of what is now Northwest Territories in Canada, being the first white to do so. Accompanying Hearne was a group of Indians who acted as guides and interpreters. At what is now known as Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River, Hearne’s group came upon a camp of Eskimos whom his Indians surprised and slaughtered, apparently simply because they were Eskimos. Hearne watched as one Eskimo was pinned to the ground and tortured. Hearne, horrified, requested that the Indians show the girl mercy; they reluctantly put her out of her misery.
It is often assumed that North America’s aboriginal peoples lived in mutual harmony broken by the expanding white culture. Certainly the westward migration and new weapons and diseases did much to upset intertribal relationships, but some racial and tribal hatreds have a long history. Even today in Alaska, an Eskimo can insult another Eskimo by saying he “hunts like an Indian.”
These conflicts raise questions about Indian land claims — which claims are commonly based on the assumption that, prior to the intrusion of European culture, all tribes lived in harmony, with each group allotted its own inviolate territory. Indian groups constantly remind the dominant culture that they want their land back. If such demands are accepted, problems arise concerning conflicting claims. Should the Navaho, who invaded the homeland of the Pueblo Indians, be required to move back north from whence they came? Should the Tlingit Indians, who invaded Southeast Alaska 300 years ago, be expected to move back to the interior of British Columbia where they lived before they took lands from Eskimos, Haida, and other groups? Should the Flathead be allowed to recover the lands east of the Rocky Mountains taken by the Blackfeet? A hierarchy based on peoples’ lengths of residency in a particular area would be fraught with problems and would discriminate against many — Indian, white, black, Asian, and Mexican — who came late to the region but now make it their home. If the millions who call North America their home are not “native Americans,” what are they?
A complicating factor regarding Indian land claims is the question of whether Indians were forcibly displaced. Although armed conflicts of white settlers and cavalry versus Indians did occur, such as the tragic encounters of Wounded Knee and Battle Creek, far more Indians were killed by introduced diseases like smallpox, for which they had little resistance. The Blackfeet, for example, never lost a battle to the US cavalry, but suffered incredible losses from introduced disease. There are documented cases where unscrupulous frontiersman gave Indians blankets infected with smallpox to break Indian resistance. Virtually entire tribes were destroyed, with the few survivors often starving because they missed an important seasonal harvest, such as a salmon run, while debilitated by disease. In many cases, white settlers did not so much forcibly take away lands from Indians as they simply occupied depopulated or weakly defended territory. Thus it was not only an invading culture and people which threatened the Indians, but also invading diseases which tore asunder the social fabric of tribes and made them vulnerable to loss of territory. Even if the retreating frontier had not caught the Indian, introduced diseases would have dramatically changed the structure and composition of tribes and their relative territories.
Our static view of human territories has contributed to the mistaken belief that Indians were the “first ecologists.” American Indians achieved a relative balance because their primitive technology allowed for many checks on their population growth and environmental impacts. Bows and arrows, although used in Europe and the Middle East for perhaps 8000 years, were not known in North America until 25000 years ago. Their widespread adoption was a significant technological advance over spears. Such changes in technology often cause social changes. For example, among Plains Indians prior to the return of the horse, many tribes lived in small family units. Hunting Bison on foot was risky, for a herd could easily trample a hunter. Many early Plains tribes grew corn to supplement their hunts. Despite these two cornerstones of their income — Bison and corn — starvation was a periodic event, and like the animals they hunted, many tribes suffered population crashes followed by years of growth.
Horses obtained by Indians from early Spanish explorers marked a major cultural and technological change in Indian societies. With the added mobility of the horse, hunting efficiency increased tremendously. Hunters could travel much further after game and exploit regions previously unavailable to them. They could transport game back to distant camps. The risk of hunting Bison was lowered, making it easier to kill large numbers of animals. (Of course, racing a horse through a rampaging Bison herd still involved risk, but was safer than being on foot.) Like Clovis men hunting mammoths, horse-mounted Indians were a new type of predator against which Bison had little defense. Evidence suggests that mounted Indians exterminated marginal Bison herds, and one could speculate that Indians might have eradicated Bison had not the white settlement of the plains ended this brief era of the mountain Indian.
With extra food collected, Indians increased their nutrient intake, which led to higher birth rates and survival rates of young. Also, the greater food resources enabled tribes to live in larger social units. Before the mobility provided by the horse, large groups of hunting people were possible only for short periods because heavy hunting in a local area would quickly eliminate game animals. With excess resources, Plains tribes could devote energy to ceremony and war. George Catlin in the 1830s reported, “Indians in their natural condition are unceasingly at war with tribes that are about them, for the adjustment of ancient and never-ending feuds, as well as from love of glory, to which in Indian life the battle-field is almost the only road … their warriors are killed off to that extent, that in many instances two and sometimes three women to a man are found in a tribe.”
Despite myths about the sacredness of life to Indians, many tribes killed Beaver and other furbearers to trade for whiskey, blankets, rifles and other goods. These goods (excepting whiskey) made life easier. Some became necessities; failure to obtain rifles could doom a tribe to expulsion by armed tribes.
Although American trading companies relied heavily on white trappers to supply furs, the Canadian Hudson Bay Company used Indian trappers almost exclusively and these Indians trapped many populations into extinction. The near-extinction of the Buffalo was partly caused by Indian hide hunting. Thus were the Plains Indians accomplices in the demise of their own culture.
Many argue that such activities were spurred by the coming of white trade goods which corrupted the pure Indians. Yet this claim ignores the fact that Indians regularly traded among themselves and killed for “commercial value.” In Alaska’s Brooks Range, Eskimos killed extra Caribou to trade meat and hides to coastal groups for luxuries such as seal oil. Many tribes even traded slaves obtained in war. Among Plains tribes, women were treated little better than slaves and men regularly traded their daughters or wives for horses — usually one woman for one horse.
Of course, there were Indians who loved the land. Today we refer to these Indians as “traditionalists,” but they represent the typical attitudes of Indians no more than John Muir represents typical attitudes of Americans of European descent. Environmental awareness is as lacking among many descendents of American Indians and Eskimos as in American culture as a whole.
There is danger in ascribing special consideration to the demands of Indians based on the assumption that they have a greater right to speak for the land. Indian tribes throughout the West generally show no greater concern for the land than the dominant white culture of which they have largely become a part. Many reservations are excessively logged, grazed, and hunted.
My main point is that what has passed as an environmental ethic of Indians and Eskmos was the result of complex interactions of cultural beliefs and environmental constraints. Since culture is ultimately an adaptation to a particular set of environmental conditions, a change in conditions results in a change in cultural values.
This is seen clearly in the actions of Indians and Eskimos who espouse preservation of cultural traditions but who are selective about what they wish to preserve. For example, Indians were allowed to kill Bald Eagles — an Endangered Species — because they claim eagle feathers are an essential feature of their religious ceremonies. Though these Indians argue that they should be immune from the constraints of the Endangered Species Act, few of them are concerned enough about their culture to capture eagles as was done in the past — by sitting long hours in a blind beneath bait until an eagle approached, whereupon the Indian would grab the eagle’s legs. This is a tedious and somewhat dangerous way to obtain feathers, yet it is as much a part of the Indian tradition as using the feathers in ceremonies. Similarly, many Indians and Eskimos argue that they should have special hunting privileges, including the exclusive right to hunt certain species or to take wildlife regardless of closed seasons or bag limits. But is not the making of arrows, spears, sod huts, and hallowed-out canoes equally important to Indian culture? These tedious tasks are often forgotten by those claiming to uphold tradition. Should individuals using technological innovations such as all-terrain-vehicles, snowmobiles, rifles, nylon nets and outboard motors have freedom from restraints imposed upon other hunters who use the same equipment?
As a sub-set of modern society, most Indians and Eskimos are poor and have had little power to direct their lives. I do not blame Indian leaders for attempting to develop natural resources on their reservations and for other actions which fly in the face of our myths about Indians. Indians have, for the most part, been denied the wealth that has accrued to the population as a whole; and because of this we tolerate obvious contradictions to the Indian myth. Yet, if we wish to protect the land, we should demand that our laws apply equally to all citizens.
Given human evolutionary history, I do not see the ravages by the American people upon the land as an unnatural perversion. Rather, I suspect that most of our environmental impacts stem from the rapid rise of technology and the slower response of our culture to evolve constraints upon its actions. With few exceptions, it appears that all humans — regardless of race or culture — given the same opportunities, display the same disregard for the health of nature.
I believe the concept that Indians were the “first ecologists” is more myth than fact, and not the result of a conscious conservation ethic as much as a primitive technology which prevented widespread control of natural forces. Whether a genuine land ethic existed in the past can be debated, but because of the ease of cultural value transmission from group to group, I argue that many, though not all, of today’s Indians and Eskimos possess essentially the same cultural values and technology as the overall US population.
I have painted a grim picture of human behavior, but it is important to realize that all people have the capacity to act in an intelligent and respectful manner. Although conservation is not a dominant human trait, it exists in all cultures to some extent — even our own. Who would not argue that John Muir worshipped the Sierra or that Aldo Leopold spoke for reverence toward the land? Concern for the land may become increasingly prevalent as global crises demand of us such changes in attitude. It is this flexibility of cultural values to adapt to new environmental situations that gives those concerned about human impact upon Earth a glimmer of hope.