“The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A guest post from Philip Conway, a PhD candidate in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled “The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.” He blogs at Circling Squares and micro-blogs @PhilipRConway.

Cosmological questioning

‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority.

Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.

The project investigates how this everyday expression – ‘environment’ – came to be taken for granted and, more to the point, what this tells us about the ways in which we think (or don’t think) about ourselves, the world around us and, in short, how our conceptions contrive to carve things up (and stitch them back together).

The ‘we’ and ‘us’ here, of course, come with a caveat. Plural pronouns do not designate a straightforwardly pre-existing collective but rather actively distinguish between those they encompass and those they do not. Any such act of distinction therefore requires care and open-endedness. Accordingly, the expression ‘environment,’ and the convocation of concepts that comes with it, can in no way be taken as universal (and this is why its history can be written). However, it is, nevertheless, an expansive and, for much of the world, almost omnipresent part of the semantic and symbolic fabric of our contemporary political condition. It must, therefore, be understood in both its expansiveness and its specificity.

The short version is that environment became a discursive commonplace through association, first, with Newtonian physics and, then, evolutionary biology. The project therefore concentrates to a large degree on the history of the sciences, how natural philosophical ideas were translated into the vocabulary of sociology and social realist literature, and, finally, how they became the stuff of parliamentarians and other governmental and technocratic commentators.

The geocultural reference point for this project is, consequently, the ‘Euro-American.’ However, there are at least three ways in which this history cannot be reduced to the laboratories, salons and parliaments of Europe and its colonies.

First of all, the development of environmental and climatic thinking is closely bound to that of the racial sciences. Up until the nineteenth century, were you to pick up a treatise on ‘climate,’ chances are it’d have more to do with the habits of peoples (those of the Mediterranean are passionate; those in the north drink too much, etc.) and the causes of dark skin (the sun burns it) than climatology as we’d understand this term today.[1]

Second, the development of what we might, anachronistically and all too vaguely, call ‘ecological awareness’ with respect to economic and governmental practices was, quite fundamentally, a colonial history. That is, the relations between deforestation, desiccation and soil erosion were first systematically understood (by colonial administrators at least; those they colonised often knew full well) on the small islands dotted around the oceans that were the first to suffer the full consequences of colonial capitalist rapacity.[2]

Third, and expanding on that point, there are questions around just how ‘European’ the ideas that later became known as ‘environmental’ can be assumed to have been. As colonists, traders and associated savants sailed the seven seas in search of ‘undiscovered’ lands and bodies, did they listen (and how did they listen) to the people who lugged their luggage and guided their ‘path-breaking’ wanderings?[3]

These are serious questions deserving of more extensive exposition. However, instead of following these threads through, in the remainder of this essay I want to concentrate on the complications that potentially arise when involving cosmologies beyond, besides and despite those of Euro-American naturalisms (and spiritualisms) in such a project.

In order to explain this point further, I will take the example of a text that made waves in these sorts of waters in the past. Namely, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History by the anthropologist Shepard Krech III.

Coloniality and co-option

When it was published in 1999, this book caused something of a scandal – and it is this controversy that I want to get to. However, I think the argument of this book is perhaps best introduced as Krech himself introduces it: with the famous ‘crying Indian’ advert broadcast by Keep America Beautiful, Inc. in 1971.

As you may know, the gentleman we see here is Iron Eyes Cody or, as he was from birth, Espera Oscar de Corti (1904-1999) – his father being from Italy and his mother from Sicily. He worked as an actor, playing Native American roles for sixty years, from 1927 to 1987, and claimed various Indigenous ancestries – none of which, it seems, were genuine.

However, it is not this that Shepard Krech is interested in but rather the iconic image of the so-called ‘ecological Indian’ himself. Krech’s book sets out to critique assumptions that Native Americans (he writes of ‘Indians’) are somehow naturally or essentially ‘ecological,’ ‘environmental’ or ‘closer to nature’ than Euro-Americans. In other words, he connects the ‘crying Indian’ to the much older trope of the ‘noble savage’ and seeks to question both.

Krech makes this argument in seven chapters. First, he considers the mass extinctions of Pleistocene megafauna that are often taken to coincide with the arrival of human beings on the continent. Second, he examines the literature on the Hohokam culture that existed in what is today Arizona for around a thousand years, disappearing in the mid-fifteenth century. Third, he reads settler accounts of the state of the landscape in the early stages of colonisation. Fourth, he looks at native use of fire in agriculture. And then the final three chapters examine the fates of buffalo, deer and beaver populations, respectively, in relation to Native economies.

It is not therefore, for the most part, Native cosmologies or experiences that Krech analyses but, rather, their behaviour considered from a distance. While it may have political motivations and connotations, and the author is not unaware of these, it is not, principally, a political critique but rather a self-consciously scientific one.

Krech concluded that although Native peoples most definitely “understood relationships among living things in the environment” and, in this respect, possessed knowledge that was “ecological,” neither their actions nor their belief systems corresponded to what would be considered “rational according to the premises of Western ecological conservation.”[4] The Hohokam had, the balance of evidence would suggest, disappeared due to the gradual salinisation of the land that their irrigation infrastructure produced. Likewise, belief in animal reincarnation must have promoted not a careful natural balancing act but rather an enjoyment of limitless plenitude.

The ‘ecological Indian,’ in other words, was a false projection.

The scandal that resulted from the book’s publication was, I think it is fair to say, not pre-determined by its contents. However, Krech’s argument did lend itself to a number of constituencies that he did not anticipate: radio shows, anti-government groups, and free-enterprise advocates took the debunking of the image of the ecological Indian to be a debunking of indigenous claims to being wise and rightful managers of the land altogether. However, it was by no means exclusively on the political right that such connections were made.

To take just one example, Douglas Fisher (1919-2009), the Canadian journalist and former politician, reviewed the book in his column in the Toronto Sun newspaper in January 2000. For Fisher, The Ecological Indian proved that:

“Canadian Indians should not be accorded the superior sanction of high-minded environmentalism in negotiations of land settlements […]. It should also mean much more balance in responding to native demands and needs simply because discussion of them no longer should be burdened with the guilt piled on the whites for devastating a noble people whose societies once lived – and might do so again – in perfect harmony with nature. Indians are neither more noble nor ignoble than other people – in their blood, or in their history.”

Such thinly veiled contempt is, of course, entirely typical of settler colonialism. As a member of the centre-left New Democratic Party, Fisher was Member of Parliament for Thunder Bay, Ontario, from 1957 to 1965. Well-known for his macho style of commentary, he was also overtly hostile to issues of Québécois autonomy. By the time he wrote this review, he was in his early 80s (and, like so many chauvinists who are left-wing in their youth, he may have drifted to the right with age).[5] However, in any case, the important point with regard to the reception of this book is that rebutting the aura of Native environmentalism, after the fashion of ‘Iron Eyes Cody’ and Earth Day 1970, was widely taken to entail a delegitimation of indigenous sovereignty.

This is not, in fairness to Krech, an argument that he made in any way – quite the opposite, in fact. However, this is a misappropriation to which his argument was evidently vulnerable. And so, this gets us back to the reasons for my own interest in this book – that is, to the complications its case demonstrates concerning the connection and comparison of Western naturalism with other modes of existence.

Mediums and mountains

The history of environment, as I am telling it, starts with Isaac Newton and his use of the word ‘Medium.’ He used this word in a number of senses; however, it was the cosmological medium, the subtle, omnipresent æther underlying forces of gravity (and thus solving the problem of so-called ‘action at a distance’) that made this a central term of physical science in the eighteenth century. Through Newton’s translators and popularisers in France, such as Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire, the medium became ‘milieu.’

The term was adapted to biology by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, purveyor of the theory of evolution by the inheritance of ‘acquired characteristics.’ However, the first (what I would call) totalisation of the concept of milieu – in other words, the first explicit definition of it as denoting all the surrounding conditions of a thing, without typological differentiation – came from the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte. In his sociologie (a term he coined) the concept of milieu was taken as part of a scientific programme of rationalisation and stabilisation, designed to quell disorder and revolution.

The English ‘environment’ was popularised from the 1850s onwards by the Lamarckian, laissez faire social evolutionist Herbert Spencer as a translation of the milieu of Comte. Charles Darwin, for his part, did not use ‘environment’ in On the Origin of Species of 1859 as, via Spencer, this term was strongly associated with Lamarck, from whose theories Darwin sought to distance himself. Instead, he wrote of ‘circumstances’ and ‘surroundings.’ The term ‘environment’ passed into popular usage only gradually but became much more common in the late 1890s as debates between Darwinian and Lamarckian varieties of evolutionary theory became pervasive throughout science, literature and politics.

Although obviously abridged and simplified, this is the basic tale of how ‘environment’ became a commonplace of Euro-American discourse – as a crucial conceptual element of what, at least retrospectively, can be understood as the two most honoured and elevated examples of Western scientific reason: physical dynamics and evolutionary biology.

Of course, it should be emphasised that environment circa 1910 is not the same concept as that which we inherit from the years around 1970 – that ‘outside’ to be cared for and conserved. The environments of the previous century were, by contrast, not something to be concerned for but something oppositional, impositional and formative. The environment of 1970 required your interest; that of 1870 was interested in you.

Nevertheless, these earlier developments that enabled the subsequent articulation of what we today understand as the conceptual apparatus of environmental politics are consequential in their own right. First of all, the fact that environment developed from what is often supposed to be the anti-ecological science par excellence – Newtonian physics – and that this has largely been forgotten should instil a certain degree of uncertainty as regards what precisely ‘environmental’ thought should be understood as in its own terms.

Moreover, the ahistorical projection of such a concept raises questions of translation not only between languages but over time – and, hence, between cosmologies. For instance, despite noting the historical contingency of ‘ecology,’ ‘conservation’ and ‘environmentalism,’[6] Krech, in practice, largely takes these terms for granted as regards their historical applicability to Whites. While the possibility of a truly ‘ecological’ Indian was accorded forensic scrutiny, a lesser order of evidence was asked of nineteenth century European fur traders, whose genuinely conservationist concerns could be more or less assumed.[7] The specificity of historically rather than culturally or nationally differentiated actors was, therefore, not part of the problem.

The above historicisation of environment tells only a small (and as yet incomplete) part of the story that would be required to understand the range of conceptual possibilities available to the respective parties in the situations that Krech’s work concerns. The relative validity of ascribing to any of them the adjectives ‘ecological’ or ‘environmental’ must therefore, as far as this essay is concerned, remain undetermined.

However, it is hopefully evident that ‘environment’ continues to constitute a crucial part of the contemporary intellectual and political landscape. There are other concepts, for example territory or property, that have perhaps more direct legal and political importance with regard to decolonial struggles, in North America in particular.[8] However, if part of the complex power of coloniality is to set the terms by which resistance to itself can be legitimately undertaken then environment surely has a part to play.

I will give just one example of this, taken from Marisol de la Cadena’s recent book Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds (2015). In August 2006 in Cuzco, a city in south-eastern Peru, protests were brewing. A mining corporation had been prospecting what, as far as they were concerned, was no more than a mountain – a tectonic outcrop; a hunk of rock and minerals; a mass of unexploited resources; capital-in-waiting. However, for Quechua-speaking natives, runakuna, such great looming entities are tirakuna. Although often rendered, altogether inadequately, as ‘gods’ or ‘spirits,’ de la Cadena translates this term, formed by a compound of the Spanish tierra and the Quechua kuna,  as ‘earth-beings.’

These entities are more complex than I can summarise here. However, the salient point is that since it is only by the combination and cohabitation of runakuna and tirakuna that collective existence in ayllu, in community, is possible, destruction of the ‘mountain’ would, therefore, be destruction of the world itself.

To be sure, earth-beings had been crisscrossed with mining tunnels in the past but, this being the twenty-first century, technology had moved on. Mining techniques now swallow mountains whole. A coalition of environmentalists, Catholics (who celebrate the mountain as an icon), and indigenous activists came together to coordinate their activities. However, problems of persuasion presented the strategists with issues of translation:

“At the insistence of a local NGO, the decision was to subordinate the defense of the earth-beings to the defense of the environment [medio ambiente, in Peruvian Spanish]; this cause the state could recognize, perhaps even accept as righteous.”

As it turned out, the activists prevailed and the corporation failed. However, as the price of victory, the earth-being disappeared, dispatched to the background of belief and superstition. Collective existence in ayllu was, therefore, saved only at the cost of its strategic suspension in the face of colonial standards of acceptable forms of dissent. As de la Cadena puts it: “The mountain won.”[9]

From disappearance to alliance

This, then, is the risk taken in forming alliances under conditions of coloniality. And this brings us back to the case of The Ecological Indian. In response to this book, Darren Ranco, an anthropologist and member of the Penobscot Nation, criticises Krech for treating Native Americans as “hapless fools,” duped into adopting the ‘ecological’ image as regards their own self-presentation:

“Merely ‘mediating’ or ‘translating’ knowledge is not enough in these situations […]. The fact that Indians have to use a stereotype rooted in colonial desires for this type of recognition is tragic, not only because these stereotypes are ‘misleading’ but because they potentially fulfill the colonial fantasies of disappearance. In this logic, if you stop acting like ‘real Indians,’ your political authority (and your land) might just disappear, even though the settler state has tried to assimilate you.”[10]

In other words, criticising essentialised ideas and images is inadequate and even dangerous if it is undertaken without close attention to the concrete roles such entities play in actual and ongoing political and legal processes.

Other indigenous commentators were a little more sympathetic to Krech’s work.[11] However, the important point that follows from Ranco’s critique, I think, is this: It is not enough for me to say that ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ are the products of European histories and that these expressions overlay and obscure other modes of being – although I have no doubt that this is the case.

And so, this ultimately brings me to the question that have been attempting to articulate: How might the historical particularisation and localisation of environmental concepts in their (predominantly though by no means entirely) Euro-American derivation help to open cosmopolitical space for other modes of existence, without doing violence to those who must align themselves with such expressions through their own ongoing decolonial agendas, wheresoever such struggles are occurring?

Quite simply, I think that the answer to this question is, as Ranco puts it, “engagement, not judgement”[12] – that is, collaboration, coordination and cooperation rather than aloof analysis from afar. This is an open-ended answer – but, of course, that is really the point.

Issues of cosmology and indigeneity have become academically in vogue of late – and rightly so. However, the aims and purposes of such undertakings remain, all too often, underspecified. Inclusivity in terms of curricula, research agendas and conceptual vocabularies is a noble objective. However, it is also insufficient.[13]

As useful as I have found the case of The Ecological Indian to be in thinking through these issues, I have not yet arrived at an articulation of the problem that would allow me to seriously move from the work of historicising, localising and specifying the Euro-American history of ‘environment’ towards the question of engaging with other modes of existence beyond those to which such conceptual, cosmological and linguistic lexica can legitimately claim an established relationship. However, as per the above, such an articulation is unlikely to come from being buried in books, shrouded in fog, somewhere on the west coast of Wales (as I am).

And so, with that in mind, I’ve written this essay in hope of offering some loose ends to those who might like to pull at them.


[1] E.g. David N. Livingstone’s The moral discourse of climate: historical considerations on race, place and virtue (1991).

[2] A by-now classic text on this topic is Richard H. Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (1995).

[3] E.g. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992).

[4] p.212.

[5] The English conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper reported in their obituary to Fisher that his last words were concerning the imminent election of the UK Conservative Party: “That’s good.”

[6] pp.23-24.

[7] As Harvey A. Feit argues in “Myths of the Ecological Whitemen: Histories, Science, and Rights in North American–Native American Relations” in Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian, pp.61-63.

[8] For an excellent analysis of territory and property in this regard, see e.g. Brian Thom, The paradox of boundaries in Coast Salish territories (2009).

[9] pp.273-275.

[10] “The Ecological Indian and the Politics of Representation: Critiquing The Ecological Indian in the Age of Ecocide” in Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian, p.32, p.45.

[11] On the sympathetic side, see Kimberley Tallbear, Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian: One Indian’s Perspective (2000).

[12] p.35.

[13] For a short but eloquent critical comment on this point, see James Esson et al. The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? (2017). As regards those who are moving beyond inclusion and towards restitution, Robbie Shilliam’s recent works are an inspiration: e.g. The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (2015); Race and Revolution at Bwa Kayiman (2017).


6 thoughts on ““The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

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