It’s hard to make it through a US history textbook without coming across the silly claim that American Indians were the original environmentalists.
First Lady Michelle Obama even repeated it at last week’s gathering of tribal youth. “Long before the United States was even an idea, your ancestors were harvesting the crops that would feed the world for centuries to come,” she said. “Today on issues like conservation and climate change we are finally beginning to embrace the wisdom of your ancestors.”
Embracing the wisdom of your ancestors? Really? Has Mrs. Obama discovered some ancient Indian text that predicted the melting of the glaciers?
Sorry: There’s little evidence that Indians had any fundamentally different understanding of the environment than any other people on earth.
Which is to say, when resources were scarce, Native Americans worked to conserve them. When they weren’t, they didn’t.
Take for instance, the oft-repeated notion that when Indians hunted, they would use every part of the dead animal — because of their concern for nature and their desire not to waste its treasures.
History doesn’t back that up. In a 2002 article called “Buffaloed: The Myth and Reality of Bison in America,” historian Larry Schweikart notes that some Indian tribes cleared large amounts of forest with “controlled burns” for hunting purposes.
They would divert game into small unburned areas in order to make it easier to hunt the animals.
As if that weren’t bad enough from an “environmental” perspective, Schweikart says they “often got out of control, and without modern firefighting equipment, flashed through forests, destroying everything in their path. Deer, beaver and birds of all sorts were already on a trajectory to extinction in some areas, because over and above the hunting done by Indians, natural predators and disasters thinned herds.”
Other hunting methods included the “buffalo jump,” where a man would drive an entire herd over a cliff. As Schweikart notes, this “led to horrible waste and inefficient use of resources.”