Saturday, February 21, 2009

Noble Savage?

This week, the book I've been trudging my way through (not a comment on the author, just a long week) is "The Ecological Indian" by Shepard Krech III. Krech's thesis, which he spends over 200 pages drawing out, is that the predominant view of the Native American as the ultimate environmental stewards and ecological experts who affected no negative outcome on the natural world around them is, well, a farce. 

And, in spite of my love for Pocahontas and the colors of the wind, it seems as though he probably doesn't need 200+ pages to convince me he is right. I mean, after all, almost all of our generalizing stereotypes are false, so just because this one is currently considered a positive one doesn't make it necessarily truthful. In the end, I think, humans are humans and no matter how lightly we tread, we use up natural resources, alter eco-systems, etc and somehow impact the environment. 

What Krech did need 200 pages to do, was flesh out all the reasons why the image that prevails today of the Native American as a Noble Savage, is pretty ridiculous. In actuality, Krech does the greatest service to Native Americans by humanizing them, (service we are historically negligent in providing). For better or for worse, Krech paints a picture of the indigenous people that inhabited the Americas prior to the onslaught of religiously oppressed Europeans as just that, actual people. Not wild animals or colorful tribal savages that make strange guttural noises with their hand flailing over their mouths (typical child's depiction of an "Indian") but actual people that worked the land and created civilizations and social organizations and lived and died just like any other population of humans. 

Novel in its almost obvious simplicity, Krech's chapter-by-chapter demonstration of all the collected research on the indigenous peoples of North America portrays a vast group of different cultures who all treated the environment in different ways, for better or for worse. Some cultures, like the Hohokam, were obliterated, perhaps for their lack of understanding of the environment they lived in, while others live on today. 

I guess a lot of what Krech is getting at, as well as other authors, is that our constant nostalgia for past ways of doing things is actually getting us nowhere in the quest to preserve and conserve the natural world. Often we hold as ecological ideals, people and practices that were far from ideal and only look rose-colored thanks to the haze that history provides. The main challenge here is not to confuse fact with folklore, and to use our past to inform but not dictate our future. 

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