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The Conservationist Native

Are Natives Conservationists?

Here's a 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. Similarly, naturalizing Jerusalem artichokes along a regularly traveled path so they would be available for winter consumption would be of value."

At around 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?"
Following is my reply.

Migwetch 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.
Of course we want to believe Natives were conservationists -- that as hunters they took only the surplus, and as gatherers they employed the gardening ethic of selective harvesting to improve the stand. This image is commonly held, and it is spread not only by fiction writers and Hollywood, but by academics as well. Because we have lost our way, we seem to desperately need this idyllic vision of the native, and we yearn for Native guidance to personally manifest the vision.

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 Forest to open it for berry growth. My study of
Native cultures around the World showed such intense predation to be a near-universal practice.

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
to feed, clothe, and shelter you to the utmost of our ability. We know that we must give in this way, in order that we might receive what we need the rigid trial, and then the space, to become vigorous and change along with a changing world."

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,
and Rabbit come to feast and raise their young among the wildflowers, berries, and untold variety of herbs.

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
young trees will have reclaimed the land of their ancestors.

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.

Let's further explore a statement contained within the comment opening this chapter: that "humans are one of the few animals that can consciously improve the planet by harvesting, planting and other methods." This is an example of the Human-centered view of existence that has caused such a rift between us and the rest of life. Who are we to say that Human alterations are conscious and Beaver alterations are not?

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 Forest to encourage berry growth, is an improvement.

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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