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Book Reviews

The ecological Indian: myth and history by Shepard Krech III. WW Norton & Co Ltd, 1999.
ISBN hardback 0393047555, pp 317. Recommended price: Hardback: £21.00

Reviewed by Dr Helen Dennis, Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies University of Warwick

The Ecological Indian

 

Towards the end of The Ecological Indian, Krech comments: "The scene does not yield readily to generalizations." (217) This is the basis of his argument and his methodology throughout. As a cultural anthropologist this is exemplary: his method adheres to Claude Levi-Strauss's principle that it is impossible to arrive at a general theory until one has accumulated and weighed all the evidence. Krech doesn't quite fulfil this impossible task, but he does provide an extremely detailed history of the "ecological Indian." He achieves this through a series of case studies, ranging from the Pleistocene era to the present day. His scholarship is impressively wide-ranging, and his footnotes alone attest to the thoroughness and depth of this study. This is an important, if controversial, contribution to our knowledge and our understanding of Native Americans. In the States, reactions to this book have been strong and in September 2001 there will be a conference in Wyoming to debate the issues raised by it. 
If Krech is restrained enough to resist generalizations, that doesn't mean that he lacks a thesis. He proposes that much of the rhetoric of the "ecological Indian" is merely rhetoric; that some of it is drawn from traditional belief systems and practices, but that much of it was developed as a result of European contact and colonization. Moreover, he dates much of it to the 1970s and links it to the political rhetoric of AIM (American Indian Movement). His argument seeks to demonstrate that: "Many native peoples themselves draw on a tradition of texts promulgating noble imagery that has generally had deeper roots in European self-criticism than in indigenous realities." (216) His case studies reveal that the history of Indians as preservationists or conservationists is far more complex and locally various than a single cultural myth would suggest. His key example is the "crying Indian" of the 1971 Keep American Beautiful campaign. Although he doesn't mention that Iron Eyes Cody was a fake Cherokee, actually the son of an Italian immigrant family on the make in Hollywood! 
Krech is equally keen to deconstruct white anthropological discourses and theories, as he is to tease out Euro-American influences on Native American rhetoric. For example, in his second chapter on the Hohokam he asks: "Why did the Hohokam disappear?" (45). He then proceeds to examine a succession of theories, tracing their inherent subjectivity and thus undermining their credibility and validity. He doesn't arrive at his own conclusion as to why this south-western tribe disappeared, but he does indicate the folly of espousing single cause explanations for complex geo-physiological, demographic, historical and cultural interactions.
This is a model he follows through his series of case studies. These include a history of land management, a study of tribal people's uses of fire, and eco-histories of three prey species of major importance to Native American patterns of trade and commodification; namely buffalo, deer and beaver. What emerges is a far more complex historical account than a single synthetic myth permits. It can be summed up however as a demonstrating that Native Americans are just human beings, like the rest of us. 
One has to admit the rational strength of Kresh's painstaking scholarship and acknowledge his methodological rigor. Yet, I can't help suspecting an un-interrogated because unconscious assumption that the norm for "a human being" is that of western, European or Euro-American man (sic); and that a central premise of Krech's argument is that Native Americans are far more like us whitemen (sic) than we have previously wanted to believe, because we whitemen (sic) have needed to idealize them. Perhaps the truth is even more complicated than even Krech's version of it.

Posted 13 February 2003

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