Krech "may play into the hands of reactionary and racist interests"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Apr 13 13:50:25 MDT 2001

Published by H-AMINDIAN at (April, 2001)

Sheppard Krech III.  _The Ecological Indian. Myth and History_.  New York:
Norton, 1999. vi + 318 pp. Notes, index. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-393-04755-5.

Reviewed for H-AMINDIAN by Adrian Tanner <atanner at>, Department of
Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Indian History and Environmental Myth.

Recently a student told me he thought he was of aboriginal descent. I asked
what group he was from, but he said he did not know, since none of his
relatives identified themselves as aboriginal. However, he said he had
always felt particularly close to nature, and so concluded he must be
Native. As it happens, he could well have been since, starting about a
century ago, some Newfoundland Mi'kmaq hid their ethnicity, even from their
own children, to avoid discrimination. But what of his idea that being
'close to nature' is a mark of being of Native descent?

Sheppard Krech III's book _The Ecological Indian_ sets out to probe the
basis and historical validity of the idea that people of native descent
are, and always have been, caring towards the environment, a characteristic
commonly claimed by or attributed to them. With a series of empirical case
studies he investigates whether their ideas and actions were always those
of ecologists and conservationists. He finds that the Ecological Indian
proposition is of doubtful validity, concluding that, for example, Indians
needlessly killed many buffalo, set fires that got out of control, and
over-exploited deer and beaver for their skins.

This book is handsomely produced, and well-written by a respected scholar
who draws on an enormous quantity of interdisciplinary sources and diverse
lines of thought. While, as will become clear below, I am sceptical about
its thesis, the work covers many important issues and I, at least, found it
instructive to trace the author's endeavour, despite the shortcomings, on
which my review will concentrate.

In his Introduction, Krech examines the beginnings and development of the
notion that Indians are by nature 'ecological'. Most of these sources are
not aboriginal people, but the likes of Baron de Lahontan, James Fenimore
Cooper and Ernest Thomas Seton, all drawing upon the 'Noble Savage' ideal.
In fact only two aboriginal people are cited in this section -- the
nineteenth century Dakota Sioux author Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa)  and the
Lakota holy man Black Elk (along with a cursory footnote allusion to Chief
Seattle). Not until the book's Epilogue does the author turn his attention
to self-attributions of the image by several native authors, most appearing
after 1970, and often in the context of political disputes.

The bulk of the book consists of seven self-contained test cases, each of
which deals with different groups, three of them involving prehistoric
situations, and the other four historical ones. Each of these cases is well
known to specialists, having been the subject of much scholarly
controversy. Krech provides a detailed and generally even-handed review of
these debates, along with additional data and his own conclusions.

In the first chapter Krech asks if over-hunting by Paleo-Indians was
responsible for the extinctions of various large mammals during the
Pleistocene era. He presents the position of Paul Martin, who concludes
Paleo-Indian hunters caused these extinctions, along with that of his
critics. However, both arguments seem to me based on a great deal of
unwarranted speculation. While Krech is unconvinced by Martin's position,
he is not sure that Paleo-Indians were entirely free of any responsibility.
But, given the very distant lineage that may connect Paleo-Indians with
modern aboriginal people, one wonders about the relevance of this case to
the issue being addressed in this book.

The next case also seems to me to be of questionable relevance. Krech asks
if the prehistoric Hohokam's irrigation practices caused salination of
their fields, leading to their disappearance. He offers the contrasting
views of two authors, Bernard Powel and Emil Haury. The issue between them
is whether the Hohokam should be condemned for the ecological problems
arising from their system of irrigation agriculture, or admired for its
achievements, which are compared to the negative effects of more recent
settlement by non-natives of this region of southern Arizona. Krech delves
into the considerable complexities of the case, but does not resolve this
unanswerable question, acknowledging that it is not known what finally
happened to the Hohokam.

One aspect of _The Ecological Indian_ is based on the notion that North
American aboriginal people looked after their environment, so the first
Europeans found the continent in an unspoiled condition. Krech's next
chapter questions this. He notes that several authors have revised upward
earlier prehistoric population estimates and, as a consequence, have
increased their assessment of the post-contact population decline. Krech
suggests that, apart from along the East Coast, many initial European
reports of a pristine environment came after the aboriginal population had
declined, so that the newcomers would have arrived in an environment that
was no longer supporting its previous larger population. The land would
have thus by then returned to the more natural state that the newcomers
described. (In the next chapter he further discredits the idea of a
'pristine' proto-contact environment, suggesting that Europeans were
predisposed to find the wilderness they described, regardless of evidence
to the contrary.) But in the end his convoluted argument fails to offer any
real indication of a pre-contact environment that was other than the
pristine one the newcomers described.

In the next chapter, Krech asks whether the Indians were acting with
environmental responsibility in their deliberate setting of forest and
brush fires. The extensive literature on this topic shows that Indians in
all parts of the continent used fire to modify their environment, serving a
wide variety of purposes.  While in some instances this was done to improve
hunting, he shows that fires were also set during wars against trespassing
groups, both whites and other Indians, and for communication with other
Indians. Many authors believe they did so with sufficient skill that fire
generally benefited the environment.  But Krech refers to several settlers'
anecdotes about Indian-set fires that got out of control. However, it does
not seem to matter to Krech if such mistakes were by Indians in unfamiliar
territory, due to post-contact dislocation.

In the last three chapters the author examines whether Indians over-hunted,
respectively, the buffalo, the white-tailed deer and the beaver. All these
species were used aboriginally for subsistence, and after contact they
continued to be sources of subsistence food at the same time as they
provided market commodities. Krech thinks the commercialisation of deer and
beaver hides lead to their overexploitation, but he also believes Indians
were wasting buffalo even when the species was being hunted only for

For me, this chapter provides the book's most serious challenge to _The
Ecological Indian_. While Indians had uses for every part of the buffalo,
their practice of slaughtering whole herds, at a buffalo jump or in an
enclosure, sometimes produced more carcasses than a group could possibly
use. As a result, waste occurred. He documents instances of Indians leaving
animals to rot, utilising only the cows, or taking only the tongues and the
humps. However, the overkilling did not cause the extermination of the
species, which only came after non-Indians and Metis hunted them
commercially for fresh meat, pemmican and hides.

Krech proposes two 'religious' reasons for the earlier over-killing. It was
believed (by the Piegan and Cree) that any buffalo that escaped while being
rounded up in the hunt would warn other buffalo, who would then avoid
hunters, so that it was necessary to chase and kill these escapees, whether
they were needed or not. Other Indians (specifically the Cheyenne and
Arapaho) believed that when hunters were unable to find buffalo it was
because the animals had retreated to a land underneath a large lake, from
which they would eventually reappear in endless numbers. Krech concludes
that, given these beliefs, the Indians did not see overhunting as a cause
of any shortage of animals or the need to conserve.

The next chapter concerns the white-tailed deer. Between about 1670 and
1800 the skins of these animals, previously the major subsistence species
for Indians in the Southern and Eastern United States, became their main
item of trade with Europeans.  Deer were hunted in increasing numbers, in
part, according to Krech, to satisfy the Indian's craving for alcohol. By
the end of the period deer were scarce or locally absent, which Krech
concludes was due to overhunting by Indians. The population did not recover
until many years later.

While Krech acknowledges the trade in deer skins occurred during a period
of intense disruption, he does not see that dislocation and warfare
resulting from European settlement may have rendered the Indian's
conservationist practices ineffective. Instead, as with the buffalo
example, he explains the willingness to overkill deer by reference to the
pre-Christian spiritual beliefs of the tribes of the region. He notes, for
instance, that the Cherokee believed in the reincarnation of deer, some of
them believing this could recur four or seven times. From this he concludes
that conservation would have made no sense to them.

The final substantive chapter is about the beaver, an important subsistence
food source for prehistoric northern Indians, and later a mainstay of the
fur trade. Their sedentary existence made the species especially vulnerable
to overhunting, particularly with the introduction of steel traps. Beaver
eventually did become extinct in some regions such as New England, although
generally in areas where they were never particularly numerous. For the
subarctic Indian Krech blames overhunting for causing reported declines in
beaver populations.

However, there were other factors Krech does not sufficiently take into
account, like incursions by foreign Indians and cutthroat competition, that
would have undermined local conservation efforts. Also, since beaver meat
was eaten, they were harvested more intensely if other game were at the low
end of their cycles of abundance, something neither Indians nor traders
could control. Beavers were also subject to epidemic disease.

Krech explanation of the overhunting focuses on ideology, saying Northern
Algonquians (i.e. forest Cree, Ojibway and Innu)  only showed interest in
"today's conservation ethics and practices"  in the nineteenth century (p.
206). He notes that in this recent period Indians used family hunting
territory to conserve beaver, while traders' tried to influence their ideas
of conservation.  However, Krech does not take adequate account of the
evidence that Indians made their own strategic decisions.

Krech thinks Indian spiritual ideas account for their purported failure at
beaver conservation. He says Algonquians believed the bones of animals were
set aside to be reincarnated, so that they could not be over-hunted.
Algonquian non-Christian religious ideas "apparently had nothing to do with
waste and conservation of animal populations until recently" (p. 204). I,
however, contend that Algonquian religious ideas support conservation
strategies, by providing a moral basis for human-animal relations, beyond
the pragmatic one. But these strategies also depend on their ability to
control their lands.

Initially, the target for Krech's book seems to be the use by Madison
Avenue and Hollywood of the Ecological Indian image. But in the Epilogue he
sets his sights on modern Indians, both those who attribute to themselves
ecological sensitivity, mainly in the context of political fights over
resource issues, and those who in his view engage in environmentally
questionable activities, despite the image. He sees a disjunction between
the Indian's environmentalist image and their historical practices. "Their
actions, while perfectly reasonable in light of their own beliefs and
larger goals, were not necessarily rational according to the premises of
Western ecological conservation." (p. 212).

In his analysis Krech privileges Indian religious ideologies over their
environmental knowledge. Virtually any game shortage is used to challenge
the Ecological Indian, as if, for the image to be genuine, they would have
had to avoid all environmental uncertainty. Anthropologically, Krech's view
of Indians seems curiously old-fashioned, presenting them as poorly
adapted, without practical knowledge of sustainable production, motivated
instead by irrational beliefs. By contrast, most ethnographic field studies
of non-western peoples by scientifically trained participant-observers
conversant in the local language reveal adaptations that involve rigorously
empirical knowledge of the environment, however nonrational their other
beliefs may appear.

There is unintended irony in the author's evaluation of Indian actions
against "the premises of Western ecological conservation". As Krech himself
notes, the modern rhetoric of aboriginal environmentalism involves a
critique of North American society over environmental issues. From the
start the image of the Ecological Indian entailed a (sometimes-implicit)
comparison and criticism of non-Indians. From the Noble Savage to the
Ecological Indian, these are indictments of non-native society,
particularly its treatment of the environment. In the societies where the
premises of ecological conservation originated and where they are paid lip
service, the record of successfully following them is less than inspiring.
If Indians lacked these ideological principles, it is questionable if they
fared any the worse without them. Given the comparative aspect implicit in
the Ecological Indian image, I wonder why Krech did not frame the image's
empirical tests by means of comparisons with the equivalent impact on the
environment by the activities of the newcomers? Then he would not have just
asked whether Indians were environmentally sensitive, but whether they were
more or less environmentally sensitive than non-Indians.

Whether or not Indian groups historically acted with environmental
responsibility, the contemporary claim that they are, by their nature and
heritage, 'ecological' is also part of their counter-hegemonic political
ideology. Another study that has looked for the origins of 'Mother Earth',
a concept related to that of the Ecological Indian, concludes it first
appeared in the context of nineteenth century aboriginal political
discourses with whites (Gill 1987). Krech's data seem to concur with those
of Gill that it was relatively recently and by comparison to whites that
they began to explicitly attribute 'closeness to nature' to themselves.

Krech questions the Ecological Indian as a particular interpretation of the
past. A more useful approach would show it to entail an essentializing of a
socially constructed primordial identity. As such, it is an assertion of
the group's collective self-identity based on a common past, real or
imagined (or both), and serves to unite and unify. These are all features
characteristic of ethnic group nationalist movements in general, found
today in innumerable and multiplying discourses around sub-state ethnic
identity (see, e.g. Wilmsen and McAllister 1996).

Krech gives this perspective passing recognition and acknowledges it is an
illusion to privilege any one version of history as objective. Yet despite
these admissions he thinks it more important to discredit the claim,
asserting that "it seems unwise to assume uncritically that the image of
the Ecological Indian faithfully reflects North American Indian behaviour
at any time in the past." One of the reasons he gives for challenging the
image is that it denies variations between Indian groups (p. 26). However,
throughout his book he accepts at face value the idea of the homogenised
pan-Indian as the subject of the image that he wants to test. Otherwise, he
would have limited the results of each of the seven case studies to only
the modern descendants of the respective tribal groups.

The test cases each draw on prehistoric or historic data from times when
North American aboriginal people's most important identities were diverse
among themselves and tribal. However, the image of the Ecological Indian is
part of a more recently constructed unified pan-Indian identity. Today
pan-Indian unity exists alongside tribal diversity, the one emphasising
commonality while the other continues to recognize difference. Krech's test
cases only take account of one side of this complex reality, and ultimately
hardly seem relevant to the issue of invalidating a pan-tribal conception.

The kinds of claims made about ethnic identity are not appropriately
treated as hypotheses put forward as historically verifiable, which is how
Krech deals with the Ecological Indian. Whatever their self-conception,
simply by being non-industrial Indians were comparatively 'ecological', at
least if left to their own devices. However, this study missed the chance
to contribute to an understanding of the image, for instance, by showing
that if the Ecological Indian is a social construction, it was constructed
partly by, and by reference to, the colonizers, as part of an ongoing
political dialogue. The image of the Ecological Indian also asserts moral
superiority, an understandable response of a relatively powerless group in
the political context of struggles over land and resources. Unfortunately,
Krech's failure to adequately take account of the political context of
Indian environmental discourse means his book may play into the hands of
reactionary and racist interests and prejudices opposed to aboriginal rights.


Gill, Sam D. 1987, _Mother Earth. An American Story_. Chicago, The
University of Chicago Press.

Wilmsen, Edwin N. and Patrick McAllister, 1996, _The Politics of
Difference_. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

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Louis Proyect
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