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Are Natives Conservationists?
comment I received from a Seeker: "I believe folks would find _____’s book,
_____________, to be of interest. There is a very good discussion of how humans
are one of the few animals that can consciously improve the planet by
harvesting, planting and other methods. An example would be harvesting some
bow-wood from a clump of trees. The Native person would choose a less than
perfect tree to remove to improve the spacing of the ones left behind.
the same time another Seeker asked this question: "What about the ways in
which natives massively altered their own landscapes to the point of clear
cutting for firewood?"
for bringing up the topic of Native environmental ethic. It's likely going to
have us treading on sacred ground; however, that is sometimes good, as it
breaks up the crust and allows dormant seeds to burst forth.
The plain truth is that the image of the Native as a conservationist is a romantic illusion. If we could go back in time, or visit one of the few surviving Native peoples, we would likely come to the conclusion that Natives raped and plundered the Earth as a way of life. They routinely sustained themselves by such practices as stripping areas of trees and trapping/hunting to the last animal. The perception of Natives being otherwise seems to be the result of a myth being repeated so often that it begins to be accepted as truth.
How can this be? I'm sure the possibility of it being true comes as a tremendous shock to many of you, and yet if we are truly going to return to our ancestral way, we need to know it for what it is. Fortunately for us, the dominant culture's reality is not the only one. It turns out that the conservation ethic is a product of sedentary cultures, whose full-time, intensive land use and ever-growing populations permanently alter the environment. Natives practice something entirely unrelated to conservation, something intimately attuned to the ways of Balance and deeply respectful of all life -- predation.
To illustrate this, let's use the examples of some of our animal relations who live the same predatory way as Natives: Beaver will strip an area of every single tree, Caterpillar will denude and sometimes kill her favorite food plants, and Porcupine will chew nearly all the bark off of a tree, which often causes the tree's death. This is common practice in the natural realm, and Natives pattern their lives after the relations around them.
When I was
a young man, I entered a time of confusion over this issue. So many good voices
were saying we had to preserve and protect what was left, while my time with
Native people was showing me that conservationism was not an indigenous belief.
The Ojibwe of my area would hunt out all the Moose or trap out all the Martens,
and then move to another location to do the same. They would burn a section of
I took my
bewilderment to the Furred and Scaled and Feathered and here is what they told
me: "When you favor us, you cause us tremendous pain. We grow weak and we
can no longer bear young. There is nowhere for our offspring to go so that they
might find new challenge and start families of their own. This causes us to
grow stagnant and cease evolving. You honor us when you hunt us to the utmost
of your ability, because it gives us the opportunity
That may seem abstract, so let's visit the world of Beaver for a concrete example. She builds a dam, which floods a meadow, exterminating everything living there. She then proceeds to chop down every tree she can reach, with no apparent regard for age, quality, or who might be living in or under the tree.
Is this a
scene of extreme environmental destruction? On the contrary; it is a
celebration of new life -- an orgasmic explosion of plants and animals who now
have a place to be. Fish, Turtles, Ducks, Herons, Waterlilies, Dragonflies, and
a host of other life forms colonize the pond. On the hillside, where once there
was only sterile, deep-shaded Forest, Deer, Bear,
When Beaver has felled every tree and bush within dragging distance of the water, she abandons her dam and goes up or down stream to find another forested treed site to start a new pond. The old unattended dam soon breaks, leaving a barren mud flat, broken only by the rotting hulks of drowned trees -- a stark scene of devastation.
Or is it?
Within days, seeds send roots down into the nutrient-rich silt and create a
fresh, tender carpet of green. The next year, what was once an acid lowland
dominated by Sawgrass, has become a lush meadow dripping with succulent greens.
The hillside is dotted with vigorous saplings, which have rooted in the cool,
damp humus of rotting stumps. Soon a grove of healthy
Every 30 years or so this cycle repeats itself. In any particular spot along the stream, the plant and animal composition is continually changing, in order to stay in balance with the changing environment. From greater perspective, they are actually moving up and down the valley along with Beaver. They are all nomads.
This is the
way of Natives, whether they be Two-legged, Four-legged, Winged, or Rooted.
Perhaps you can now imagine how conservation-minded Humans might interfere with
this natural cycle if they selected and protected. You may also see how
conservation creates a level of stagnation and sterility, whereas predation
stimulates lushness and virility. Cyclical, heavy predation is one of the cornerstones
of the nomadic lifeway. Natives, by following the total-destruction example of
Beaver, are actually insightful and caring stewards, who from greater
perspective are giving ultimate honor and respect to the Hoop of Life.
If we could become our Relations and see through their eyes, as our ancestors once did, we would see that nearly everyone alters the environment to suit themselves. Squirrel plants nuts, which proliferates nut-bearing trees, Walnut trees poison the soil around them to discourage competition, and so on, ad infinitum. Even the seemingly simple, mindless act of grazing, encourages new plant growth for future grazing.
Is this "improv(ing)
the planet?" From an egocentric point of view, perhaps. Beaver might agree
that her pond is an improvement; the plants and animals she has drowned, might
not. The charred Trees would likely raise a strong argument to any claim that
the Ojibwe practice of burning down a
We Humans have used the "improvement" justification to overhaul virtually our entire planet. The effect? No matter what one's point of view, it cannot be argued that we--under the guise of improving the environment for our species--have exterminated over 99% of our species.
It is argued that, because we are a conscious species, we have the ability to improve conscientiously; i.e. the conservation ethic. In practice--and supported by 10,000 years of historical evidence--we have proven the direct opposite: our "improvements" have largely been destructive. At the same time, the improvements of the "lesser beings"--the ones we say lack consciousness--have made continual improvements ultimately benefiting virtually all of life.
In the final analysis, does what we believe about ourselves, and about the rest of life, really matter? Is not what I profess as truth, merely my own illusion, evaporating as soon as it leaves my mouth? Is not rather what I do, my statement of truth: what I will be judged by and what I will leave as my legacy? In the final analysis, am I then any different than Beaver? And if I can accept that, might I then be able to deflate my illusion of grandeur, my delusion of separateness, and return to living as consciously as Beaver?
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