Myth and History

By Shepard Krech III

Norton. 318 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Jennifer Veech

In The Ecological Indian, anthropologist Shepard Krech sets off into the dangerous but compelling territory of Native American identity. As the title suggests, Krech is intent on examining the commonly and often dearly held belief in the Indian as ecologist par excellence. He takes on this stereotype in seven chapters that address many of the touchstones of the debate.

The book opens with the familiar image of Iron Eyes Cody's portrayal of the Crying Indian. This well-known TV commercial, albeit now almost 30 years out of date, still crystalizes for many, both Europeans and Native Americans, the image of the Native American as the preserver of the American landscape. But, Krech argues, preservation and conservation are decidedly Western concepts, foreign in fundamental ways to a Native American world view. Quoting the historian Richard White, Krech explains that "the idea that Indians left no traces of themselves on the land demeans Indians. It makes them seem simply like an animal species, and thus deprives them of culture." The image of the Ecological Indian, he argues, is a two-edged sword, one that many Native Americans embrace and others reject as a confining caricature.

Following his introduction, Krech takes his theory on the road, so to speak, and travels through a series of seven historical periods and geographical regions. Perhaps, in part, because these chapters cover such a great swath of time and geography they do not build on each other but instead function more as discrete elements, generating a sort of anthology of vignettes on Native Americans and the environment.

Krech begins his survey with the earlier period of human habitation in the Americas, the Pleistocene, which was witness to the extinction of myriad animal species. The debate surrounding the Native American responsibility for this loss was launched in the 1960s by the scholar Paul Martin, who argued that "man and man alone, was responsible." Krech offers no simple conclusions, though even to raise the questions is to attack a 500-year-old icon. The image of "indigenous nobility," he writes, "is a rich tradition whereby the Noble Indian . . . is a foil for the critiques of European American society." Refusing to either endorse or destroy this icon, Krech instead asks that we take the Indian off his pedestal and see him as human, living in real rather than mythic time.

From the Pleistocene the book jumps centuries into the future, first to the Hohokam of Arizona and the mystery of their disappearance and then further still to look at the impact of European disease on native populations. In casting his eye toward the impact of epidemic illness, Krech regards the Indian not as actor but as acted-upon, and asks to what degree the seeming absence of Native Americans predisposed many newly arrived Europeans to view the Americas as an untouched wilderness.

The book's final chapters are devoted to perhaps more familiar territory, the massive trade in animal skins and meat that developed in the wake of the European arrival. The hunts for buffalo in the West, white-tailed deer in the South, and beaver in the Northeast were enormous enterprises. Millions of animals were slaughtered and, in the case of the buffalo and beaver, driven to the brink of extinction in North America. It is difficult to reconcile these facts with our understanding of the very intimate relationship that Native Americans had with the creatures around them, relationships like that of the Cherokee, who believed "that if they failed to ask forgiveness for the deer that they had killed, then the deer would cause rheumatism" in the hunter. The discordance arises in part from trying to hold a pre-industrial society to the standards of 20th-century science. Many Native Americans did and do live in concert with the physical world; however, it is not a relationship founded on modern theories of ecology. Why stop killing buffalo if you believe they can be infinitely replaced, as long as the hunter demonstrates the proper respect?

This exhaustively re-searched volume is awash in historical information, to which its 86 pages of endnotes well attest. It serves as a good introduction to the question about Native American environmental responsibility, synopsizing the key points of the debate. What I was left wanting, however, was a closer look at the European origins of the myth itself, at the Europeans and European Americans responsible for this image of the Ecological Indian.

Krech leaves us with no easy generalizations. Instead he offers us a more complex portrait of Native American peoples, one that rejects mythologies, even those that both European and Native Americans might wish to embrace.

Jennifer Veech is a Washington poet and reviewer.