Even before the introduction of the horse, Indians had hunted bison, though not nearly as effectively. They tracked herds on foot, often setting fire to the grasslands in a massive box, surrounding a herd, except for a small opening through which the panicked animals ran--and were laughtered by the hundreds.
Frequently, though not universally, Indians destroyed entire herds, using fire or running them off cliffs. One Indian spiritual belief held that if a single animal escaped, it would warn all other animals in the region, and other Indian concepts of animals viewed the animal population as essentially infinite, supplied by the gods. Ecohistorians agree that although hunting by the Plains Indians alone did not threaten the bison with extinction, when combined with other natural factors, including fire and predators, Indian hunting may have put the buffalo on the road to extinction, regardless of the subsequent devastating impact of white hunters.
The fatal weakness of the Plains nomads regarding the buffalo was expressed by traveler John McDougall when he wrote of the Blackfeet in 1865, "Without the buffalo they would be helpless, and yet the whole nation did not own one." The crucial point is that the Indians did not herd and breed the very animal they depended on. No system of surplus accumulation existed. Since the entire source of wealth could rot and degrade, none could exist for long. Moreover, the nomadic life made it impossible to haul much baggage and therefore personal property could not be accumulated. This led fur trader Edwind Ding to conclude that this deficiency prevented Plains nomads from storing provisions and made them utterly dependent European trade goods.
A great ecomyth has appeared, however, about the Indians and their relationship with the buffalo, wherein Indians were portrayed as the first true ecologists and environmentalists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Traveler after traveler reported seeing rotting carcasses in the sun, often with only a hump or tongue gone. While the bison was, as Tom McHugh claimed, "a tribal department store" with horns used for arrows, intestines for containers, skins and hides for teepee coverings and shields, and msucle for ropes, it is misleading to suggest that Indians did not wantonly slaughter buffalo at times. Father Pierre De Smet observed that an Assinboin hunt in which two thousand to three thousand Indians surrounded an entire herd of six hundred bison and killed every one. Aside from their own deprivation--which they could only notice when it was too late to prevent--the Indians had no way of estimating or tracking the size and health of the herds, and even if they could, nomadic lifestyle "made it difficult to enforce mandates against waste."
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
The myth of the Indian environmentalist
From pages 404-405 of A Patriot's History of the United States: