Ecology and the American Indian

Indian religious beliefs are intrinsically ecological since they regard nature as sacred. The various tribes who inhabited North America before the European invasion had been here for tens of thousands of years, where they developed economically sustainable hunting-and-gathering economies that were respectful of the environment. They did not consider themselves ruling over nature, but as part of nature. Humanity was sacred, but so were the animals and vegetation that sustained it. Even the soil, the minerals and the rest of the material world were part of a great chain of being. An assault on a single element of this living fabric was an assault on the whole. They had a radical interpretation of the old labor movement slogan, "An injury to one was an injury to all."

The Indian draws upon ritual to maintain a sustainable relationship with nature. These rituals functioned as a surrogate for ecological science. Instead of measuring soil acidity in a test-tube or attaching radio-transmitters to bears, they simply relied on empirical observation of their environment that they had mastered. For example, the Hopi Indians had identified 150 different plant types in their ecosphere and knew the role of each. There is even evidence that had learned from mistakes in their past. If overfishing or hunting had punished a tribe with famine, then it developed a myth to explain the dangers of such practices. Our modern, "scientific" society has no myths that function in this manner. We will simply exhaust all fishing stock in the oceans, because there is profit in it for some.

The Indian thought that waste of natural resources was insane, especially for profit. The Paiute of Nevada tell a story of a trapper who has caught a coyote. When the trapper was about to shoot the animal, it told him, "My friend, we as people have found it necessary to warn you against trapping us, taking from our bodies our skins, and selling them for your happiness."

In essence, the attitude Indians took toward the environment was one of restraint. The role of religion was to reinforce this behavior. When the Menominee of Wisconsin gathered wild rice, they made sure that some of the rice fell back into the water the next year so that there would be future crops. In other instances, reseeding was the subject of special prayers. For example, whenever a Seneca located medicinal herbs, he would build a small ceremonial fire. After the flames died, he would throw a pinch of tobacco on the ashes and pray, "I will not destroy you but plant your seeds that you may come again and yield fourfold more." After harvesting the plants, he would break off the seed stalks, drop the pods into a hole and cover them with leaf mold. Then he would speak these words: "The plant will come again, and I have not destroyed life but helped to increase it."

In addition to reseeding rituals of this sort, the Indian would often take less when more seemed readily available. The Cahuilla tribe had an edict that no plants should be harvested unless there was proof that they existed elsewhere. Cherokee herb gatherers had to pass up the first three plants they found, but when they encountered a fourth, it was permissible to pluck it and any others. Their wisdom told them that they should preserve three specimens for future growth. When the Navajo herbalist is out collecting "deer-plant medicine", a member of the parsnip family, he first approaches a large specimen and prays, "I have come for you, to take you from the ground..." However, at this point he takes a smaller specimen since his faith instructs him that "you never take the plant to whom you pray."

The same kind of restraint applies to animal husbandry as well. The Hopi have a custom of releasing one male and female mountain sheep when they had surrounded a pack. "So as to make more sheep for the next hunting" was the reason they gave. When a tribe failed to observe these types of environmental measures, it could actually provoke war. Iroquois legend states that they once made war against the Illinois and Miami tribes when they were killing female as well as male beavers. Sparing females is a cardinal rule of these hunters. A spirit fawn tells the Navajo, "If you are walking on an unused road and see the tracks of a doe, or if a doe catches up with you from behind, that is I. And knowing this you will not bother me."

Another key element of Indian ecological behavior was game "fallowing." Although this term originates in agriculture and refers to the practice of leaving portions of field to rest, the tribes followed a similar practice in hunting. The Cree and other Algonkian tribes worked only a portion of their hunting grounds in a given year and let the fallow areas recover. The Ojibwa of Parry Island in southeastern Ontario invoked their spirits to give legitimacy to this practice. The "shadows" of slain animals would cause living animals to grow wary in a certain area. Hence, they took care not to produce too many of these shadows and kept a natural balance between hunter and prey.

The value system absolutely excluded wanton destruction of animals. Hopis told John Bierhorst, the author of "The Way of the Earth: Native America and the Environment," that when they were children, they practiced shooting at small animals and birds. But their elders warned them not to kill any creature that they did not intend to eat. A Lushootseed man told him that he never forgot his father's disappointment when he caught him gaffing fish just 'for the fun of it.' He chastised him, "My son, you must respect them. You must not kill them for the fun of it." Nora Thompson Dean, a Delaware woman, remembers the time her brother killed a crane for sport. Their mother told them that "we don't kill things for sport" and made them eat the dark, tough flesh of the bird as a lesson.

The European invaded viewed these practices as wasteful. From the very beginning, the North American Indian innate conservationist existence was in conflict with the goals of farmers, hunters, miners and ranchers who sought to make money from the land and from animals. When they exhausted the land, they simply would move elsewhere. The only way they could carry out such predatory commercial activities was by removing the Indian. They found a rationale for the "ethnic cleansing" of the Indian from the land in a variety of European religious and philosophical literature.

In 1978, Texas gubernatorial candidate asked a question that epitomized the invader's outlook. "Is this area of Texas more productive, more fulfilling of God's purpose--are we playing our role of destiny with this broad expanse of Texas--than when there were five thousand Indians here eating insects?" Clement's racist query is deeply rooted in the American colonial past.

The Judeo-Christian religion, unlike the Indian's, was amenable to ecological despoliation. Genesis 1:28 says, "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." The notion of "subduing" nature was alien to the Indian tribes.

The colonial priests worked hard to find theological justification for the dispossession of the Indian. When Roger Williams criticized Puritan seizure of Indian land, Reverend John Cotton rejected the idea that the tribes could have title to the land since they had no concept of "improving" it. He said, "We do not conceive that it a just Title to so vast a Continent, to make no other improvements of Acres in it."

By the time of the American Revolution, the land utilization argument had become part of the conventional wisdom, according to William T. Hagan. ("Justifying Dispossession of the Indian: the Land Utilization Argument," in "American Indian Environments," edited by Christopher Vecsey and Robert W. Venables, Syracuse Univ., 1980.) In 1774, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, denounced the "avidity and restlessness" of the Indian. "They do not conceive that Government has any right to forbid their taking possession of a Vast tract of Country, either uninhabited, or which Serves only as a Shelter for few Scattered Tribes of Indians."

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the war against the Indian intensified. As the new, secular republic sought to dispossess the Indian, the politicians invoked religious arguments less frequently. Instead straightforward arguments of an "economic" nature prevailed. It was a "waste" of precious natural resources to allow a bunch of ignorant Indians to go about hunting, fishing or picking nuts and berries. Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana expressed this view in a merciless fashion, "Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population and to be the seat of civilization, of science, and of true religion."

Andrew Jackson launched the genocidal war against the Indian that came to a culmination in 1890. He was the first American President to fully understand the degree to which American capitalism was in conflict with Indian rights. In 1830, he said, "Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the condition in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms...occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people."

So what kind of country did Andrew Jackson and his successors build, once they had finished murdering the inconvenient Indian or shunted him off to reservations? Once they got rid of the Indian, they were free to launch two important revolutions on the land: the mechanization of agriculture and the adoption of high input farming.

The shortage of labor in the USA spurred the introduction of machinery. Mechanical reapers were more necessary here than in Europe in the 1860s, where labor was still plentiful. The introduction of the internal combustion engine was the breakthrough that industrial farming required. There 250,000 tractors on US farms in 1920 and 2.3 million in 1945. Other mechanical devices soon followed, from electric milkers to combine harvesters. As mechanization increased, the size of the farm increased and the number of laborers decreased. There were 7 million farms in the 1930s, while the number dropped to below 3 million in the 1980s.

Until the 19th century, farms relied on manure and composts produced by organic processes. The discovery of fertilizers changed all this. At first, the farmers used relatively harmless substances like guano, bat dung. Later industrial companies began to mine phosphates around the world, from North Africa to some Pacific Islands. But the real breakthrough occurred when chemists were able to develop artificial fertilizers in the 1840s, the superphosphates. When scientists developed nitrogenenous fertilizers in the 1920s, the tendency to regard agriculture as a business increased. "Input" and "output" were key factors, just as they were in a Ford automobile plant. The relationship between soil, water, animal and human being began to fade into the background. The soil was no longer a living organism, as the American Indian had considered it, but a platform to hold crops while a variety of chemicals were poured on them.

Since 1945 there has been more and more of an emphasis on single crop production. Larger and larger farms are devoted to corn, wheat, alfalfa, sorghum or other commercial grains, especially those that can be used as livestock feed. Monocrops are more susceptible to disease. Hence, chemical herbicides and pesticides become more important. The amount of such substances sprayed on crops in the USA since 1953 has risen fifteen- fold. The new book "Living Downstream" by Sandra Steingraber includes maps that show increased cancer rates near counties with increased use of such substances. Ms. Steingraber has a doctorate in biology and grew up in one such county in Michigan. She is also a breast cancer survivor.

Livestock production changed dramatically in the nineteenth century as well, once the "wasteful" Indians were removed from grazing land. At first, sheep and cattle were allowed free range on the grasslands where the buffalo had lived. As herds of such animals left the soil exhausted, the rancher simply moved elsewhere since he thought that land was limitless. The damage left by the sheep led John Muir, the 19th century conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, led him to describe the animals as "hoofed locusts."

In the 20th century, dwindling grazing lands forced the livestock industry to move indoors, where it raises animals in small compartments and artificial feed. Such conditions are the cause of a variety of endemic ills such as Mad Cow Disease, e-coli bacteria and the recent appearance of poultry flu in Hong Kong. Clive Ponting's "A Green History of the World" (Penguin, 1991) contains a stark picture of the conditions of livestock animals. "Chickens are kept in over-crowded battery cages, cattle in small stalls and pigs are chained to walls in sties small enough to ensure that they can not move. Animals, which are herbivores, are fed on a diet which may include a high percentage of dead animals, recycled manure, growth hormones and also antibiotics to control the diseases that would otherwise be rife in such conditions." Those of us who do not get cancer from pesticides risk infection from the livestock fed by the grain such processes require. If this is what Andrew Jackson had in mind when he spoke of 12 million "happy people," he had no idea of what the fate of such people would be.

Industrial farming eventually influenced the form in which foodstuffs came to the table. The goal was to make food available, while sacrificing the quality. Wonder Bread was a paradigm for this dubious new plenitude. Soon canning and refrigeration made it possible to supply fruit and vegetables out of their natural season. While the Indian harvested nuts and berries and hunted deer, modern society can put slices of Wonder Bread, canned green beans and beef on the table twelve months a year. Raw meat, however, must be kept away from dinner plates, however, or else one of us "happy people" risk severe illness, including bloody diarrhea, that might lead to death. A solution to bacterial meat has been proposed. Irradiation will kill all such bacteria, but care must be taken that the nuclear plants that produce such radiation do not spill their poisons into the water and soil and give us leukemia.

The ecological crisis of today is intimately linked to the genocide of the American Indian. By removing the custodian of the land who had lived here for tens of thousands of years and making it possible for capitalist ranching and farming to "subdue" the land, American society has become its own worst enemy. Resolution of the ecological crisis will force us to revisit the beliefs of the people who preceded us on this continent, whose attitude toward nature was inherently more respectful. The respect given nature was ultimately respect that humanity gave itself, since we are part of nature ourselves.

In my next post, I will review Jerry Mander's "In the Absence of the Sacred: the Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian" This book is an examination of American Indian beliefs and a critique of the insanity of our current industrial system, based as it is on private profit. Mander concludes that the problem is technology and industrialization, rather than ownership of land and factories by the business class. His co- thinker Kirkpatrick Sale agrees with him and was a supporter of Ted Kaszynski. He begins each lecture by smashing a personal computer. I will offer my own ideas on how Indian ecological and religious beliefs can be reconciled with modern society. It does not include smashing computers, otherwise I would not have a way to be communicating my ideas with you good people out there. I will propose that the First Nation, the American Indians, can also benefit from the use of such technology.