Appealing as this image of a Native American environmental ethic is, it is not accurate. The spiritual connection attributed to Native Americans frequently does not mesh with the history of Indian resource use. By missing this history of Indian institutions — by which I mean the traditions, rules, laws, and habits that guided Indian societies — many environmentalists' interpretations deprive Indians and non-Indians alike of a full understanding of how we can conserve our natural heritage.
The romantic image evoked by the speech obscures the fact, fully acknowledged by historians, that American Indians transformed the North American landscape. Sometimes these changes were beneficial, at other times harmful. But they were a rational response to abundance or scarcity in the context of institutions that governed resource use. br />
Like people everywhere, American Indians responded to incentives. For example, where land was abundant, it made sense to farm extensively and move on. br />
Similarly, where wild game was plentiful, Indians used only the choicest cuts and left the rest. When buffalo were herded over cliffs, tons of meat were left to rot or to be eaten by scavengers.
- It was common for Indians such as the Choctaw, Iroquois, and Pawnee to clear land for farming by cutting and burning forests. Once cleared, fields were farmed extensively until soil fertility was depleted; then they cleared new lands and started the process again.
- Wherever Indian populations were dense and farming was intense, deforestation was common. Indeed, the mysterious departure of the Anasazi from the canyons of southeastern Utah in the thirteenth century may have been due to depletion of wood supplies used for fuel.
Indians also manipulated the land to improve hunting. Upland wooded areas from east to west were burned to remove the undergrowth and increase forage for deer, elk, and bison. Indeed, because of this burning, there may have been fewer "old growth" forests in the Pacific Northwest when the first Europeans arrived than there are today.
The demand for meat, hides, and furs by relatively small, dispersed populations of Indians put little pressure on wildlife. But in some cases, game depletion resulted in the "tragedy of the commons." This term, coined by biologist Garrett Hardin, describes what happens when no one has ownership of a resource and anyone has access to it.
Wild animals represented a "commons." They belonged to no one until they were killed. If anyone left an animal, in the hope that it would be there later, someone else was likely to kill it. Without ownership, no one had an incentive to protect the animals. Anthropologist Paul Martin believes that the extinction of the mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, and saber-toothed cat were directly or indirectly due to "prehistoric overkill" by exceptionally competent hunters.
Getting the Incentives Right
While there were exceptions that led to the "tragedy of the commons," most American Indians understood the importance of getting the incentives right. Personal ethics and spiritual values were important, but those ethics and values worked along with private and communal property rights. These rights strictly defined who could use resources and rewarded good stewardship.
It is sometimes difficult to fit the pre-Columbian Indian institutions into the modern context of law, government, and property rights. The lack of familiar modern institutions, however, by no means implies that Indians lacked rules, customary or formal. Pre- and post-Columbian Indian history is replete with examples of how property rights conditioned the human interface with the natural environment. Consider the following:
Land and Water Rights: Some Communal, Some Private
Indian land tenure systems varied considerably, "ranging from completely or almost completely communal systems to systems hardly less individualistic than our own with its core of fee simple tenure," according to one historian. The degree of private ownership reflected the scarcity of land and the difficulty or ease of defining and enforcing rights. Julian H. Steward concludes that "Truly communal property was scant" among American Indians.
In sum, faced with the reality of scarcity, Indians understood the importance of incentives and built their societies around institutions that encouraged good human and natural resource stewardship. Ethics and spiritual values may have inculcated a respect for nature, but an elaborate set of social institutions that today would be considered private property rights rewarded stewardship.
Non-Indians also will do well to stop promulgating myths as a solution to modern environmental problems. Especially in a multi-cultural society where worldviews vary widely, devolution of authority and responsibility offers the best hope for resource conservation. Rather than shunning property rights solutions, we should embrace them, as did our predecessors on this continent.