Jerry Sullivan in Field & Street errs by trying to replace one national myth with another [October 9]. Certainly the dogma of manifest destiny needs to be relegated to historical belief. But replacing it with a myth of Native Americans as overly peaceful, naturally nondestructive “beautiful people” is equally invalid. The myth of primitive cultures as somehow at peace with each other and nature is just not supported by the evidence. Also characterizing the historical party line on Native Americans as some sort of mud-covered Swiftian Yahoos is not only egregiously overstating the case, but certainly doesn’t jibe with my recollections of what I was taught in my all-white middle-class school.
Actual ecological anthropology reveals that primitive communities are no less destructive to their environments than more technologically advanced ones. Because they support much smaller populations, the nature of that destruction tends to be much milder and easily recoverable when the price of that destruction is that human populations crash. These cultures show no awareness of the truly larger picture of ecological equilibrium.
How are native cultures living “in harmony” with nature when they alter the natural pace of ecological cycles by accelerating them? Overselecting for game animals by frequent burning is not living in harmony with those species that are harmed by the decrease in habitat caused by too-frequent burning. How is selecting for oak trees in California living “in harmony” when pine forests would naturally occur? Some theorize that the extinction of certain large mammals tens of thousands of years ago was contributed to or even caused by natives living “in harmony” with nature.
The truth is that people everywhere tend to have the same mix of vices and virtues, and that a true test of ecological destructiveness is measured by technological ability and population. People all over the world pillage natural resources to the greatest level of their ability. Spiritual reverence for nature is no proof against man’s inherent destructive tendencies. Native cultures had just as profound an effect on their environment in proportion to their numbers as more technologically advanced ones. Don’t confuse environmental management with environmental harmony. The environment manages itself just fine.
The slander of Native Americans in the past and present is not offset by painting them as man in a perfect natural state. Archaeological evidence shows that Native American cultures engaged in the same level of warfare, selfishness, and ecological destructiveness as Europeans. The Mayans were well into decline before the conquistadors showed up. Closer to home, the mound-builder cultures were unable to sustain their civilization. These declines came about as a result of the same issues that caused the decline of European and Asian and African cultures.
Certainly give native cultures all the credit they are due, but don’t confuse a Stone Age level of technology with inherently “good” or “peaceful” or “more spiritually advanced” cultures. It’s a myth not sustainable by the facts.
The Europeans colonizing the Americas was just the last act of a long history of western migration. If you stood at the Danube in 1000 BC and watched all the various groups migrating out of Asia into Europe over the next 2,500 years, you wouldn’t be surprised to see them heading across the Atlantic over the last 500 years. Manifest destiny? No. Inevitable? You bet.
In examining these events, we need to eliminate qualitative judgments from analysis. The Trail of Tears was a historical event just as the massacres of Attila the Hun were. But just because my ancestors were slaughtered by Attila, and not by Andrew Jackson, doesn’t mean that my ancestors were better or worse than someone else’s.
Let’s get rid of mythologizing on both sides of the debate.
Jerry Sullivan replies:
The point I was trying to make was that humans were having a major effect on the landscape of North America prior to the arrival of Europeans. As far as we can tell, the outcome of their actions was to sustain biodiversity, whereas ours has been to destroy it.