"Political correctness portrays untamed America before European invasion as a natural paradise, where Indians maintained an exquisite ecological balance, living in a harmonious, idyllic relationship to the natural world. According to conventional wisdom, this pre-Columbian Eden flourished for peaceful millenia until brutal disuprtion by thoughtless, menacing and mercenary white colonists. Stewart Udall, one-time Arizona Congressman and later Secretary of the Interior for President Kennedy, became an early advocate of this point of view in his influential 1973 article, “Indians: First Americans, First Ecologists,” urging modern citizens to follow the native example of treating the landscape with love and respect.
The truth is that native peoples, like all other aboriginal societies on the planet, did anything and everything to their surroundings that might help them to survive. "There is now a very considerable body of research," Robert Whelan writes, "which demonstrates conclusively that the Indians made a massive impact on their environment before the arrival of the white man, and that much of this impact was damaging and showed no conception of a conservation ethic."
In fact, in their pursuit of succulent suppers, Indians did a great deal of collateral damage, even driving some species extinct. In 1998, our family accepted an invitation to spend a few days at an historic Wyoming ranch where the couple that owned it took us on an unforgettable tour of their property. They brought us to a red-earth outcropping that rose like a wedge from the surrounding terrain. "This was an Indian Buffalo Run," they explained. The local tribes developed a means to frighten huge herds of buffalo and to direct their stampede —right off the edge of the cliff into a heap of meat more than a hundred feet below. There, awaiting tribesmen could collect as much of the carcasses as they could eat and preserve. They left the rest to rot, creating a mountain of bones still visible (and formidable) below us."
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Michael Medved: First Americans, First Ecologists?
(Town Hall 6/18)