Rational Natives


The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, by Shepard Krech III, New York: W.W. Norton, 318 pages, $27.95

One of my favorite places in Montana is Madison Buffalo Jump State Park near the Three Forks of the Missouri River. Standing in front of this cliff over which Indians drove buffalo for hundreds of years, I imagine the sound and sight of a thundering herd of the half-ton animals plunging over the cliff. Many would die from the fall, others would be crippled and have to be killed by Indians below, and some would crawl off to die. Signs at the park describe how the buffalo jumps were organized and depict how each part of the animal from the meat to the hoof to the hide was used. Framed by Montana's famous Big Sky and the Tobacco Root Mountains, the site can't help but conjure up a romantic image of American Indian life.

Shepard Krech's The Ecological Indian paints a very different picture–one far less romantic but more realistic. The Blackfoot word for such a place is piskun, and its literal meaning, "deep blood kettle," accurately describes the scene. Imagine 30, 60, 100–or even 1,000–dead and maimed beasts piled at the bottom of the cliff, blood flowing, hooves kicking, carcasses rotting in the hot sun. This is what you actually would have seen at a typical buffalo jump 250 years ago. Imagine the difficulty of butchering and preserving the meat–Krech estimates that if 600 died, the total could be as high as 240,000 pounds.

He vividly describes the likely scene at Olsen-Chubbuck, the most studied jump in Colorado, eight millennia ago: "As people butchered the animals, they ate the tongues, scattering the bones throughout the site. When it was over they had completely butchered the buffaloes on top, but they cut the ones beneath them less thoroughly, and hardly (if at all) touched the ones on the bottom, especially in the deepest parts of the arroyo." To complete the picture of camp life near a piskun, Krech, a Brown University anthropologist, reminds us that 200 to 300 people would be living near the stench of all that rotting meat without toilet facilities. Not surprisingly, diseases, especially dysentery, were common. Water was polluted, firewood would quickly be depleted, and grass would be overgrazed by horses.

Throughout The Ecological Indian, Krech systematically debunks popular myths–many of them promoted by politically motivated greens pushing draconian environmental measures–and instead brings reality to the history of American Indians. Krech provides us not simply with a better, more accurate understanding of how Native Americans related to nature. More generally, he provides us with a sense of how human beings have long interacted with nature. He also builds a foundation upon which we might build more workable ways of allocating and conserving scarce resources.

As can be gleaned from his description of buffalo jumps, Krech's well-researched and documented descriptions of Indians' use of fire, land, and hunting stand in stark contrast to the romantic view of Native Americans living in harmony with nature, taking only what they needed out of some proto-environmentalist ethic of voluntary simplicity. He reproduces the 1971 Keep American Beautiful poster showing Iron Eyes Cody as the Crying Indian with the caption, "Pollution: it's a crying shame." Following on the heels of the first Earth Day in 1970, he notes, this picture became an icon of the environmental movement, one that helped cement in the popular imagination the idea that there were "fundamental differences between the way Americans of European descent and Indians think about and relate to land and resources." Krech is plainly skeptical of such ideas. Thus, he documents that Chief Seattle's widely reprinted speech about differences between Indian and white attitudes toward the environment "was written in 1970 by a freelance speechwriter." He also examines issues such as the possible role of Indians in Pleistocene extinctions of large mammals, their burning of ancient forests, and their decimation of deer populations.

In each case, Krech relies on data instead of romance and draws his conclusions carefully. For instance, in referring to widespread accounts that Indians used every part of the buffalo, Krech states, "These accounts might not be wrong–in some instances people did indeed use thoroughly the animals they killed–only ungeneralizable." Use depended on relative availability. When buffalo were scarce, Indians conserved; when the animals were plentiful, Indians used only the choicest cuts of meat and left the rest for scavengers. Such a view of Indian behavior re-creates Native Americans simply as rational human beings–hardly a bad thing, but one far removed from the Noble Savage mythos.

Krech is particularly strong on this point. Consider his description of the Indian use of fire, one greatly at odds with the idea that they were somehow more in sync with nature than Europeans. Indians burned trees regularly so they could cultivate the land and more easily hunt. Hence the old growth forests so revered by today's environmentalists were not even common when Europeans first arrived. Krech concludes: "Despite European images of an untouched Eden, this nature was cultural not virgin, anthropogenic not primeval, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Indian use of fire."

The Ecological Indian is what good science should be. It puts forth hypotheses, tests them with data, and draws conclusions only when they are supported by those data. If there's a fault with Krech's work, it's that he almost completely ignores the role of institutions in discussing how Indians interfaced with nature. In the case of beaver, he does note in passing that some tribes, such as the Cree, "restricted hunting in one another's areas as far back as the mid-eighteenth century" and that this encouraged conservation and responsible stewardship in response to the demand for pelts by Europeans. Unfortunately, he fails to carry this theme consistently through the book. That's a shame, since many of the problems faced by and solutions arrived at by Indians speak directly to contemporary conservation issues.

For instance, my own research shows that Southeastern and Southwestern Indians had property rights in land that encouraged agricultural productivity, and that California Indians had property rights to piñon forests that encouraged good stewardship. Similar research by law professor Bruce Johnsen of George Mason University shows that clan fishing rights to salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest led to selective harvesting that, in turn, allowed larger fish to pass upstream to spawn–a property rights system that explains why some streams in the Pacific Northwest have larger salmon to this day.

Of course, this research into institutional incentives developed by Indians doesn't undercut Krech's work. Rather, it complements it. Conservation depends on whether the institutions get the incentives right. Thanks to The Ecological Indian, we have a clearer, more realistic picture of the first Americans. By linking Krech's discussion of ecological and nonecological behavior to the institutional history of Indians, we gain even more: a better understanding of how we might use property rights to ensure good resource stewardship.