Hollywood images and romantic environmentalism would have us see American Indians as so in harmony with nature they left no mark on it. A Sierra Club book about forestry claims, "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." According to former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, "The Indians were, in truth, the pioneer ecologists of this country." Calling for an environmental ethic patterned after that of Native Americans, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) quoted words allegedly spoken by 19th-century Indian Chief Seattle: "Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand of it."
This image of a Native American environmental ethic, however appealing, is more myth than reality. The actual history of Native American resource use does not always mesh with the spiritual environmental ethos attributed to them. By focusing on myth instead of reality, environmentalists patronize American Indians and neglect the lessons of their rich institutional heritage encouraging resource conservation.
The impression that American Indians were guided by a unique environmental ethic often can be traced to the speech widely attributed to Chief Seattle in 1854. But Chief Seattle never said those oft-quoted words. They were written by Ted Perry, a scriptwriter, who acknowledged paraphrasing a translation of the speech for a movie about pollution. According to historian Paul Wilson, Perry's version added "a good deal more, particularly modern ecological imagery." For example, Perry, not Chief Seattle, wrote that "every part of the Earth is sacred to my people." (Perry, by the way, has tried unsuccessfully to get the truth out.)
The speech reflects what many environmentalists want to hear, not what Chief Seattle said. The poignant and romantic image created 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 almost always a rational response to abundance or scarcity.
For example, where land was abundant, it made sense to farm extensively and move on. Indians would commonly clear land for farming by cutting and burning forests. After clearing, they would farm the fields extensively until they depleted soil fertility; then the Indians would clear new lands and start the process again. From New England to the Southwest, 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 13th century may have been due to their having depleted the wood supplies they used for fuel.
Similarly, where game was plentiful, Indians used only the choicest cuts and left the rest. When the buffalo hunting tribes on the Great Plains herded hundreds of animals over cliffs in the 18th and early 19th centuries, tons of meat were left to rot or to be eaten by scavengers--hardly a result consistent with the environmental ethic attributed to Indians. Samuel Hearne, a fur trader near Hudson's Bay, recorded in his journal in the 1770s that the Chipewayan Indians would slaughter large numbers of caribou and musk ox, eat only a few tongues, and leave the rest to rot.
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, it's possible that fewer "old growth" forests existed in the Pacific Northwest when the first Europeans arrived than exist today. In some cases, however, the improvements sought by burning were short term, because anthropogenic fire altered the succession of forests. In the Southeast, for example, oak and hickory forests with a higher carrying capacity for deer were displaced by fire-resistant longleaf pine that support only limited wildlife. Biologist Charles Kay concludes that "Native Americans were the ultimate keystone species, and their removal has completely altered ecosystems, not only in the Intermountain West but throughout North America."
Generally the demand for meat, hides, and furs by relatively small, dispersed populations of Indians put little pressure on wildlife. But in some cases game populations were overharvested or even driven to extinction. Anthropologist Paul Martin believes that the extinction of the mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, and the saber-toothed cat directly or indirectly resulted from the "prehistoric overkill" by exceptionally competent hunters.
Historian Louis S. Warren drives the final nail in the coffin of the "living in harmony with nature" myth: "[T]o 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."
Of course, shaping doesn't have to mean despoiling. Whether this shaping encouraged conservation depended, for Indians as for humans everywhere, on the incentives created by the extant system of property rights. The historical American Indians did not practice a sort of environmental communism in tune with the Earth; yesterday, as today, they recognized property rights.
Today we refer to "Indian nations," but this term mostly reflects the U.S. government's desire to have another government with which to negotiate. In fact, Indian tribes were mainly language groups made up of relatively independent bands with little centralized control except at specific times when they might gather for ceremonies, hunts, or wars. And after the horse allowed small bands to efficiently hunt buffalo, even that level of centralization diminished.
Just because Indians lacked modern concepts of government doesn't mean they lacked rules. American Indian tribes produced and sustained abundant wealth because they had clear property rights to land, fishing and hunting territories, and personal property. Pre-Columbian Indian history is replete with examples of property rights conditioning humans' relations with the natural environment.
Where land was scarce and making it productive required investments, private ownership by family units was common. Families among the Mahican Indians in the Northeast possessed hereditary rights to use well-defined tracts of garden land along the rivers. Europeans recognized this ownership, and deeds of white settlers indicate that they usually approached lineage leaders to purchase this land. Before European contact, other Indian tribes recognized Mahican ownership of these lands by not trespassing.
In the Southeast and the Southwest, private ownership of land was also common. "The Creek town is typical of the economic and social life of the populous tribes of the Southeast," writes historian Angie Debo. "[E]ach family gathered the produce of its own plot and placed it in its own storehouse. Each also contributed voluntarily to a public store which was kept in a large building in the field and was used under the direction of the town chief for public needs." The Havasupai and Hopi also recognized private ownership of farmland as long as it remained in use. Clans identified their fields with boundary stones at each corner with their symbols painted on them.
Fruit and nut trees that required long-term investment and care were privately owned and even inherited. In one case a Northern Paiute Indian reflected that his father "paid a horse for a certain pinon-nut range," suggesting that the property rights were valuable and could be traded. Among Indians in California, families owned piñon, mesquite, screw-bean trees, and a few wild-seed patches, with ownership marked by lines of rocks along the boundaries. Though owners would sometimes allow others to gather food during times of abundance, trespass was not tolerated. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, even reports that the owner of a piñon tree killed a white man for felling his tree.