Ecological Indian

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The "ecological Indian" constitutes one of the many faces of the "White man's Indian", a set of images that ostensibly represents Native Americans but that actually derives at least as much from White imaginings as from actual Native cultures and peoples. In this case, the images revolve around the idea that Native Americans existed "in harmony" with their environments prior to European colonization and that contemporary Native Americans are thus more ecologically-minded than descendants of the colonizers. As with other manifestations of the White man's Indian, the ecological Indian has important political and social consequences for Native peoples, in part because the discussion that surrounds the ecological Indian has sometimes shown a tendency to devolve into "wholesale categorization of [Native Americans] as being either conservationists or savages."[1]

The White man's environmental Indian

It is well known that when Christopher Columbus referred to the people he encountered in the Americas as "Indians", he was geographically many thousands of miles off his mark. His geographic error was corrected, but the name stuck and more than 500 years later, the indigenous peoples of the Americas are still often called "Indians". Many of those people now refer to themselves as Indians and have sought to imbue the term with a positive value that has frequently been lacking. Other scholars and activists like Robert Berkhofer have argued that "Native Americans were and are real, but the Indian was a White invention and still remains largely a White image, if not stereotype."[2]

Berkhofer's argument arises from the fact that there did not exist any universally shared ethnic or political identity among the diverse peoples who called the American continents home at the time of European contact. Quite the opposite was true: some groups expressed relationships between themselves and certain other groups but none of them would have even been aware of the existence of more than a small percentage of the other groups that would later be called "Indians". Thus, some scholars have made an effort to use terms like "Native American" or "First Nations" or "indigenous" to discuss actual people while they reserve the term "Indian" for representations of Native Americans that derive more from the collective white imagination and white stereotypes than from actual Native American cultures and peoples. The ecological Indian, some scholars argue, is a version of "the white man's Indian" that is ultimately based on European ideas, some of which predate Columbus's voyages.

In her book exploring ethnic politics in Brazil, Alcida Rita Ramos develops a list of "keywords for prejudice", one of which is "savage". She explains, "Well before Europeans ever saw an inhabitant of the Americas, the European mind had centuries of elaborating on the theme of the savage and savagery."[3] Savagery, etymologically derived from the Latin word for "forest", was associated with wildness and stood in opposition to civilization. Transported to the Americas through European exploration and colonization, the notion of savagery was an important aspect of what Ramos calls the Edenic discourse, which "exalted the Indians as children of Paradise" and "emphasize[d] the purity of Indians in communion with nature."[4]

This discourse endured and is evident in the theories of many prominent thinkers. Among others, the Edenic discourse informed the formulation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's concept of natural man, Lewis Henry Morgan's stages of human development, and Frederick Jackson Turner's influential frontier thesis. Each equated Indians with savages and viewed them, in one way or another, as constituent parts of the natural environment of the New World. Tellingly, the exhibition of a live Inuit family at the end of the 19th century in New York, overseen by the "father of American anthropology" Franz Boas, took place at the American Museum of Natural History and Native American cultural artifacts continue to be displayed in many natural history museums today. An essay presented in 1893 at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition by Turner demonstrates the identification of Indians with the environment:

The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.[5]

Native Americans and the environment

Intimate connections between Native Americans and their environments are not wholly invented, however. In different ways, many indigenous people in the Americas express complex relationships with the animals, plants, and geography that define their natural environments. This occurs at a spiritual level that is evident in creation stories and other elements of religious expression. It also occurs at an empirical level that builds on the accumulated knowledge that Native peoples have acquired through centuries or even millennia of habitation of the land.

Research conducted over the course of recent decades suggests that before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Native Americans actively managed much of the American environment. Many groups seem to have managed their environments to such an extent that the journalist Charles C. Mann has described large portions of pre-Columbian America as gardens on a massive scale.[6] In fact, some of the staggeringly large animal populations encountered by the first European explorers and natural chroniclers of the Americas were likely the result of almost uncontrolled population explosion after Native managers were killed by epidemics of European diseases that swept through the continents ahead of European expansion.

Neither are the concepts of modern ecology, conservation, or sustainable development foreign to Native peoples. In fact, indigenous communities throughout the Americas have rallied around environmental causes. Their actions have ranged from political opposition to environmental degradation to legal actions concerning the regulation of chemical and nuclear waste to cooperation with government agencies to control exotic species. What is more, development agencies like UNESCO have begun to make efforts to incorporate indigenous knowledge of the environment into their projects.

Consequences and manifestations

Anthropologist Shepard Krech published a book in 1999 titled, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History that explores the foundations of the image of ecological Indians. His central conclusion, according to another piece reflecting on his book, is that "the rhetoric implicit in the image of the Ecological Indian masks complex and differing realities."[7] Krech claims that Indians are not really any different than any other group, that some have acted as conservationists while others have destroyed their natural environments and that Native American environmentalism in the modern sense of the word "did not emerge as a force until the late twentieth century."[8]

Expanding on Krech's argument regarding the rise of modern environmentalism in the Native community, Michael Alvard argues "that many of the misconceptions concerning the apparent conservation proclivities of traditional peoples are a result of an imprecise understanding of what constitutes conservation."[9] He suggests that these misconceptions arise out of a confusion and conflation of activities that are intended to preserve the environment and those that are simply designed to make maximum use of the resources that the land provides. Harkin and Lewis deal with this confusion by identifying three different ways of conceptualizing "ecological."

  • Ecological1 is the sense in which all cultures are ecological: "they have recurring, structured relations with the natural world."
  • Ecological2 refers to "gross-level sustainability -- the ability to persist in the same environment over millennia," but not necessarily the long term sustainability championed by environmentalists.
  • Ecological3 is the "political support for sustainability, conservation, and a host of issues specific to industrial society, such as global warming, pollution controls, recycling, alternative fuels." [10]

The confusion discussed by Alvard results from a conflation of Ecological2 and Ecological3: gross-level sustainability is confused with sustainability qua conservation.

Frequently based on the perception of indigenous people's deep seated knowledge of their environments, contemporary manifestations of the ecological Indian are generally positive in nature but they can have damaging political and social consequences for Native peoples. "Taken to the extreme," write the editors of a volume exploring the ecological Indian, "equating Indians with nature has the potential to deny Indians their history, their humanity, and even their modernity."[11]

Examples from the United States and Brazil illustrate a few of the multiple ways that images of the ecological Indian arise in modern politics.

The Crying Indian

The "Keep America Beautiful" media campaign was launched in the U.S. for Earth Day in 1971. The campaign featured Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian America who was known for playing Native Americans on the screen, dressed in buckskin and feathers, and engaged in stereotypical Indian activities.

The best known of the campaign's television ads opens with Cody canoeing down a creek, seemingly surrounded by pristine forest. The camera cuts to a shot of trash floating in the water and then pulls back to show the canoeist again, now with an industrial city for a backdrop. As he pulls his canoe onto a trash-ridden shore, the announcer says, "Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't. People start pollution. People can stop it." The spot closes with a close-up of Cody's face: a single tear runs down his cheek as trash is thrown at his feet from a passing car. A second television ad, which features Cody riding a horse, begins with the announcer saying, "The first American people loved the land. They held it in simple reverence and in some Americans today, that spirit is reborn."

The ads play on a perspective that Mann traces back to Henry David Thoreau, namely that Native peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans existed in nature but did not change it.[12] It evokes nostalgia for natural beauty that was apparently destroyed by the pollution of modern society. The environmental morality that is attached to the figure of the Indian is placed in opposition to the polluting behavior of the modern nation. A poster associated with the campaign that showed a close-up of a tear running down Cody's face urged people to adopt the Indian's perspective: "Get involved. Pollution hurts all of us."

The Kayapo

"Beginning in the late 1960s," reports Terence Turner, "the Kayapo [of Brazil] have been confronted with virtually every major form of environmental destruction and land depredation found elsewhere in the [Amazonian] region."[13] This included pressure from ranchers, timber cutting, mining, oil drilling and hydroelectric dams. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Kayapo found allies among environmental groups in Brazil and abroad and regained control of large tracts of Amazonian rainforest from the Brazilian government.

Environmentalist groups hailed these actions as an important step forward in the protection of the forest with the expectation that "the formidable Kayapo would defend their territory against invasion by agents of deforestation such as ranchers, settlers, miners and loggers."[14] Images of the Kayapo, especially the leader Raoni and his nephew Payakan became the faces for a massive campaign to save the rainforest. Most notably, Payakan found his way onto the cover of Parade magazine and Raoni toured for some time with the musician Sting. These images emphasized the perceived "savage" qualities of the Indians by featuring them undressed and adorned with feathers or paint but unsmiling.

There are, however, Kayapo leaders who have actually initiated new resource extraction projects either by themselves or in conjunction with outside interests.[15][16] Reports of these activities have predictably rankled environmental activist groups, "many of whom had naively imagined the Kayapo as primitive ecologists, living in pristine harmony with their environment in principled conformity with their ancient culture"[17] and have used the image of the Kayapo as a symbol of their efforts.

The Goshute

The Skull Valley Goshute of Utah, like other Native American groups, made extensive use of the plants an animals that inhabited their territory prior to European contact and expressed spiritual connections to "mythical animal beings who created the world and instructed humans in proper behavior."[18] The land in Skull Valley, as its name might suggest, was not very fertile to begin with and it has been polluted by chemical and biological weapons testing, hazardous waste disposal, and industrial chemical production. While the image of the ecological Indian predicts that the Goshutes would be ardent environmental activists, the Skull Valley band was one of more than twenty tribes that responded to a search by the Department of Energy for a location to store nuclear waste.

Though Leon Bear, tribal chairman of the Skull Valley band of Goshutes, sees himself and the Goshutes as a part of the land, economic considerations were foremost in his decision to pursue the establishment of a nuclear waste storage facility on Goshute lands.[19] As he sees it, the project is a way that "we can make money and so that we can prosper and build infrastructure on our reservation. That's the whole purpose of this whole thing. And also, to keep our traditions and our cultural resources intact at the same time."[20] In essence, the decision was objective.


  1. Ernest S. Burch Jr. 2007. Rationality and Resource Use among Hunters. In Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis, eds. Pp. 123-152. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 147.
  2. Robert Berkhofer. 1978. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. Knopf: New York. Pp. 3.
  3. Alcida Rita Ramos. 1998. Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison. p. 47.
  4. Ramos p. 62.
  5. Frederick Jackson Turner. 1893. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Available online at Project Gutemberg.
  6. Carles C. Mann. 2005. 1491: New Revelations if the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books.
  7. Shepard Kreck III. 2007. In Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis, eds. Pp. 3-31. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 3.
  8. Krech 2007, p. 19
  9. Michael S. Alvard. 1993. "Testing the "Ecologically Noble Savage" Hypothesis: Interspecific Prey Choice by Piro Hunters of Amazonian Peru." Human Ecology 21(4): 355-387. p. 356
  10. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis. 2007. Introduction. In Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis, eds. Pp. xix-xxxiv. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. xx
  11. Harkin and Lewis, p. xxii.
  12. Mann 2005, p. 14.
  13. Terence Turner. 1993. "The Role of Indigenous Peoples in the Environmental Crisis: The Example of the Kayapo of the Brazilian Amazon." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 36(3): 526-545.)
  14. Terence Turner. 1995. "An Indigenous People's Struggle for Socially Equitable and Ecologically Sustainable Production: The Kayapo Revolt against Extractivism" Journal of Latin American Anthropology 1(1): 98-121 p. 103-104.
  15. T. Turner. 1995
  16. Beth A. Conklin and Laura R. Graham. 1995. "The Shifting Middle Ground: Amazonian Indians and Eco-Politic." American Anthropologist 97(4): 695-710.
  17. T. Turner 1995. p. 104
  18. David Rich Lewis. 2007. Skull Valley Goshutes and the Politics of Nuclear Waste. In Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis, eds. Pp. 304-342. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 312.
  19. Lewis 2007.
  20. quoted in Lewis 2007, p. 321.