Book Review: The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, by Shepard Krech III, published by W.W. Norton and Company, 1999, 318 pages, $27.95 (used copies now widely available from such places as Amazon.com).
It has been described as possibly the most famous commercial that has ever been produced. In 1971, “The Crying Indian” portrayed Iron Eyes Cody, clearly an American Indian, with a tear running down his cheek and the caption, “Pollution: it’s a crying shame.” This image is the politically correct version of the American Indian: always and perfectly living out the best practices of ecological balance before the White Europeans came and destroyed the pristine “Eden” that was the North American flora and fauna.
This book lives up to its sub-title, Myth and History. In an unusually fair and balanced manner, Krech presents the known facts. America was not an Eden when the “white man” came, and the Indians were often destructive to the ecology of America, even as they tended to its protection and enhancement in many ways.
Perhaps, what struck me most about this book is the difficulty of the concept of history. Krech tries to portray all the “facts” about the history of the Indians and the flora and fauna of America. (He gives almost exclusive attention to the “fauna,” but does discuss some of the flora, as well.) “Experts” do not agree. “Experts” are as (or more so) influenced by their own biases, as historical “facts.” In fact (pardon the pun), the “facts” are not that easy about which to make conclusions. Certainly, without question, Krech presents a plethora of facts from virtually every point of view, such that some conclusions are just not possible.
Two characteristics of Krech’s book are unusual today. First, he discusses many of the Indian practices as being based upon their beliefs or religions (cosmology, first principles, etc.). For example, “Do not throw beaver or bear bones to the dogs, but place them in water or hang them in trees; for the beaver and bear will use these bones again when they are reincarnated” (page 202). If these and other taboos (which varied widely and even were complete opposites in some tribes) were followed, then the beaver and others animals would make themselves available to be hunted and killed. Sometimes, by following these taboos, certain Indians “believed they could not kill too many” animals of a kind (page 204). So, the Indian religions sometimes supported ecological practices and sometimes not.
The philosophical (religious) forces of history are often omitted today in any historical discussions today to protect the image of the “noble savage.” For example, the prevalence and extent of human sacrifice and torture are expunged from any serious discussions of the Incas, Aztecs, and other native populations. Krech tells of religious practices that did help wildlife and then discusses those that were destructive of the same.
Second, Krech deals fairly with Christianity. While these mentions are brief and infrequent, in his “Epilogue,” he states that “some look toward an alternative ‘ecological’ Christianity that would reconcile this religion with environmental care” (page 227). Indeed, Biblical Christianity should include the practice of the Creation Mandate to “husband” the flora and fauna of the earth, while not adopting the myths and false science of the extreme environmentalists and global warming crowd. Also, see Interfaith Stewardship Alliance.
The importance of this book is the destruction of the myth of the ecological Indian. While there is no doubt that Indians had many practices consistent with that image, they had many practices that were destructive. While fire was used to clear underbrush, to send signals, to allow certain plants and animals to flourish or re-populate a region, and to trap game animals, it often raged out of control and became a severely destructive force that devoured large regions and populations. Animals were maimed with the loss of their eyes, fur, and burns, from which they eventually died or were killed by predators, days or weeks later.
Buffalo were stampeded off cliffs—the numbers killed often greatly exceeding those that were needed for meat and other body parts. Again, animals were maimed, often suffering for weeks or longer before dying of their injuries, starvation, dehydration, or being killed by other animals.
All these practices preceded the “white man” by hundreds of years. Then, the Europeans came, changing the flora and fauna of the United States more than any other event. But, the Indians were complicit and culpable in virtually all destruction of animal life. Indians killed animals in numbers that ran into the millions for their skins, meat, and other body parts. The buffalo almost went extinct from original numbers that could not be counted with accuracy. Deer and beaver populations were decimated and virtually disappeared from certain regions of the country. (Krech has whole chapters on the buffalo, beaver, and deer.)
Now, many “experts” would argue that blame for this destruction still lies with the “white man,” since the Indian was only feeding their need and greed. However, this argument will not stand scrutiny. The test of a man’s or culture’s integrity is the strength of his or its beliefs in the face of challenge and temptation. Had the Indian the fortitude that is blindly credited to him by political correctness, he would not have been complicit in the destruction of animal life. But, he often slaughtered thousands of animals simply for items to trade, some of which were needed (knives, guns, etc.). However, sometimes he destroyed simply for rum and other liquors that were gone in a moment of carousing.
In the final analysis, neither the American Indian nor the Europeans were any worse that any other peoples or culture. Since Adam and Eve, man has always been involved in inhumanities to man and the destruction of the earth and its plants and animals. The story of North America is just another chapter in that history.
Krech has destroyed the myth of “the ecological Indian,” but he has done it in a way that people on all sides of the issue would have to concede that he has been fair—not perfectly, as no one is able to accomplish that end. Anyone who thinks otherwise of this book shows a partiality and bias that supersedes any practical level of being reasonable.