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The Ecological Indian: Myth and History Hardcover – August 1, 1999

3.5 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The image is gripping: a handsome American Indian with a sad, tear-filled eye offers the simple message, "Pollution: It's a Crying Shame." This 1970s anti-pollution advertisement, which reached millions of people, helped entrench the notion that Indians treated the land kindly and white invaders spoiled it. Not so, says anthropologist Krech, in this compelling, if somewhat incomplete, examination of the historical truths and romantic myths about Native Americans and their relationship with nature. Acknowledging that Indians clearly possessed vast knowledge of their environment, Krech contends that this knowledge was often merged with a religious cosmogony that left little room for conservation as it is understood today. Indians may have treated the individual animals upon which they preyed with great respect in order to avoid offending their spirits, but this view did not prevent occasional overhunting or depletion of resources, according to Krech. If the New World seemed like a rich Eden to European immigrants, Krech contends it was because the populations of Native Americans were too small to have made much of a difference in their environments before they were overtaken by the newcomers' resource-based economy. To prove his points, Krech closely examines the role Native Americans played in a variety of environmental histories, from Pleistocene extinctions to the demise of the buffalo. Yet he overlooks what was one of the greatest single animal-based economies of precontact times, the vast subsistence salmon fisheries of western North America. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

A popular question of debate has centered on the Native American relationship to the environment. Were they the first environmentalists, conservationists who neither wasted nor altered their natural resources? Krech (anthropology, Brown Univ.) addresses this cherished American myth by reviewing archaeological, oral, and written records and applying them to a few specific cases. The Native Americans, like all peoples, altered their environments, responded to climatic changes, adjusted to times of feast and famine, and adapted to the new economic forces introduced by Europeans. They were not Noble Savages, nor was North America the Eden that Europeans recorded. Europeans saw what they wanted to see, neglecting the native histories, cultures, and religions that would have helped them gain an accurate representation of this "new land." Krech asks questions to spark new debate on the image of the "ecological Indian." A thought-provoking book; recommended for all libraries.APatricia Ann Owens, Wabash Valley Coll., Mt. Carmel, IL
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 318 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; 1 edition (August 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393047555
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393047554
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #987,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this book, Krech sets out to contradict popular perceptions of Native Americans as perfect beings living in harmony with their environments. This doesn't sound like a very nice thing to do at first, but the author clearly states that he feels such images are not only inaccurate generalizations based on biased, outdated European stereotypes, but are dehumanizing in their suggestion that native people are "natural" animals rather than "cultural" humans. He goes on to present a number of case studies showing situations in which Native Americans were indeed cultural humans not living in perfect ecological balance with their surroundings. His treatment of the archaeological evidence is pretty thorough and unbiased. His historical case studies, while relying a bit heavily on potentially biased historic records by White settlers, remain fairly convincing examples of situations in which Native Americans were not perfect conservationists. Unfortunately, after this array of case studies it can be easy to forget that Krech's stated reasons for examining them were to present Native Americans as active human beings rather than passive stereotypes. Instead, readers can end up with a negative feeling about Native American land use practices in general or about Krech in particular, as the reviews below point out. In spite of these flaws, however, the book does raise interesting questions about how perceptions of Native Americans are constructed (both by native people themselves and by others) and about how we should approach environmental issues (including our definition of a "natural" environment) we grapple with today. His writing is clear and issues are presented in a fairly understandable way for a general audience, not just dusty academic types.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Earlier customer reviews have tended to comment on bias. Most of the book is actually very fair, particularly the first few chapters; the treatment of Paul Martin's "Pleistocene overkill" hypothesis is exemplary. But the last couple of chapters are indeed rather biased, and read perhaps more "anti-Indian" than Dr. Krech intended. For example, Dr. Krech makes it sound as if the buffalo jump was a common, regular thing--the Indians drove a few million buffalo over a cliff every time they wanted a light lunch. Actually, archaeology and common sense both suggest that a big jump episode was rare. Try herding buffalo on foot and you'll understand. And Krech takes an extreme position in re the Indians' tendency to kill beaver; most authorities agree that beaver were more or less conserved until the white trappers got into the act. Certainly, there were lots of beaver, and not just in eastern Canada (the area he considers). Over a million beaver were trapped out of the southwestern US in the 1830s and 1840s, in spite of very dense Indian settlement then and earlier. The first 5 or 6 chapters would provoke little reasonable disagreement, but the last 2 or 3 would provoke (or are provoking) increasingly acrimonious debate among the learned. Suffice it to say that if you got the message that the Native Americans were not always models of selflessness, but were ordinary (if sensible) human beings, you're right, and this is probably what Dr. Krech intended. If you got the message that the Native Americans were bloodthirsty savages who killed wantonly, you're wrong. I hope and trust Dr. Krech did not mean that, but he does quote-at length and with apparent favor--a lot of racist 19th-century writers who did mean that.
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Format: Paperback
There is no doubt that Shepard Krech offers a much-needed volume on the subject of American Indian ecological impact, and by the end of the powerful introduction he has convinced the reader that this may well be the definitive volume on the subject. The intro is a strong and compelling case for the re-evaluation of a popular stereotype, and should itself be included in the syllabi of courses on anthropology and ecology alike. The thesis presented in The Ecological Indian is a simple one (though by no means without controversy): the traditional image of the Indian living in non-invasive harmony with the land is not only false, but in fact does a disservice to those of aboriginal heritage by perpetuating the falsehood of the primitive noble savage.

Krech's writing shines when he wears the hat of an environmental philosopher and an anthropologist, and so it is with great disappointment that I made the transition to the actual substance of the book's thesis. In some areas (particularly those more recent historically documented cases), Krech strongly underlines his case. In others, however, he falls unbelievably short where the data is almost more compelling. Most striking was the first chapter on the Pleistocene extinctions, which oddly begins the book with arguments against the human overkill hypothesis even in the face of very compelling evidence. He focuses too strongly on the mid-80's publications of Dr. Paul S. Martin, when much more recent work has come out regarding human hunting that was completely overlooked. This poor treatment weakend the impact of the powerful introduction, and was a lost opportunity for strong evidence about early human land impact.
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