'The First Environmentalists'
Geist also disputes the view that Indians' practices had doomed the bison irrespective of government policy. While it's true that they sometimes slaughtered whole herds, often by driving them over cliffs, these methods evolved before Europeans introduced the horse, after which hunting techniques adapted accordingly. Krech portrays Indians' eating of buffalo tongues and humps, leaving the rest, as indiscriminate waste, but Geist points out that for people who subsisted on animal products a diet of only lean meat could actually kill--fat played the part that carbohydrates do in our diet.
Scholars like Krech and Flores may be sincere in challenging the romantic image of Native Americans as the "first environmentalists"--so it is unfortunate that their theories so neatly suit the purposes of the "wise use" movement, in which advocates of white entitlement are contesting indigenous peoples' sovereignty, especially with regard to control of their own resources and lands. One recent and dangerous manifestation is the Rice v. Cayetano case pending before the Supreme Court, in which a white rancher in Hawaii is suing the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs because only ethnic Hawaiians are allowed to vote in elections for its trustees, who manage income from their designated trust lands. Rice, supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation, People for a Color Blind America and other right-wing groups, has previously sued to try to stop Hawaiian-language classes. It is in this context that the arguments of books like The Ecological Indian must be weighed.
In fact, Native Americans have never denied that they killed buffalo, deer, beaver and other game in increasingly large numbers. By the early 1800s, their traditional lifestyles had been changed by the influx of whites and the market economy, in which hides became lucrative commodities. "By the time Europeans arrived, North America was a manipulated continent," Krech writes. As Grinde and Johansen note, natives sometimes did alter nature by cutting trees, grazing animals and diverting streams and rivers to irrigate crops. Yet, to judge from a wide body of literature--settlers' descriptions of predominantly unmarred wilderness--Indians either trod lightly on nature, for the most part, or were cunning trompe l'oeil landscape artists. Krech devotes his book to showing that the Indians' low-impact stewardship of natural resources was really a case of accident rather than design because of their low population numbers. He accuses modern Indians, who justify such ancestral practices as burning to regenerate forests and forage, of opportunistic fudging to fit the latest ecological fashions. Krech's subtext is far more insidious: It seeks to absolve Europeans of blame and ultimately can be used to help fuel a backlash of anti-Native sentiment in this country. (Witness the outcry, for example, when the Makah Indians of Washington wanted to hunt a whale and the Humane Society International and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sought to stop them; or when the National Wildlife Federation and others blocked relocation of the Black Mesa Dine to an area of great natural beauty along the Utah border.)
Krech also plays up disagreements between natives, implying that they aren't likely to agree on effective environmental or social protections. Of course there are Indians who want to make quick money off waste dumps, strip mining, industry and gambling, as well as those who don't, and this causes strife. But Krech ignores the growing indigenous movement founded on the vision and hope that we can learn from our past and seed change. LaDuke is a founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, one of approximately 200 Native American community initiatives to clean up the environment and get control of local resources. These groups belong, in turn, to national organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network. Victories range from a moratorium on mining in the Black Hills of Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Crow territory, to the prevention of a mega-dam at James Bay, Quebec, on Cree, Inuit and Innu ancestral lands.
LaDuke quotes from the Indigenous Environmental Statement of Principles, which states, essentially, that ecology is economy and that we can't continue to grow on a dwindling resource base. This means "curbing the rights of corporations and special interests, transforming the legal institutions of the United States back toward the preservation of the commons, and preserving everyone's rights, not just those of the economically privileged," she says.
The Native American eco-activist point of view is less compromising than that of the mainstream environmental groups, who by now are used to trade-offs--this tract of forest for that, this set of emissions standards for another. "The broader environmental movement often misses the depth of the Native environmental struggle," LaDuke contends, noting that "when the Anishinaabeg discuss land return, as with other Native people, lines are often drawn between those environmentalists who can support indigenous rights to self-determination and those who fundamentally cannot." For example, LaDuke's nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project has found itself at loggerheads with the Nature Conservancy, which in 1983 purchased 400 acres on the White Earth Reservation and rejects Anishinaabeg offers to work collaboratively to preserve the ecosystem. In the age of corporate globalism, which promises a steady diet of bioengineered food, hormone-laced beef and Baywatch, it's amazing and hopeful to see alternative, local economies developing, from White Earth to the solar power systems of the Dine.
While some environmentalists misappropriate their image and put them on a pedestal (off which others try to knock them), Native Americans, Grinde and Johansen assert, are interested neither in being victims nor in demonizing whites. Leslie Marmon Silko's chilling fiction "Call That Story Back" recognizes the ugliness in all of us. In a pre-European "contest in dark things," witches from all the tribes try to outdo one another with stewpots full of "disgusting objects," dead babies and severed body parts. But one witch outdoes them all, summoning white people, setting them in motion, the winds blowing them across the ocean. The witch narrates the whole history of genocide, the raping of the land. This scares the other witches, who tell her OK, you win, call that story back, but the witch replies, "It's already turned loose. It's already coming. It can't be called back."
If they indeed brought white people here, Indians have learned from their mistake. Indigenous Americans are taking responsibility for their past and their future.