Sins of Omission

Indian as Ecologist

Most of us learned in grammar school, if not before, that the American Indian had a special reverence for nature.  He was a kind of proto-ecologist who conserved natural resources, be they trees or beasts, with a religious devotion.  I cannot recall the number of times I heard someone repeat, mantra-like, that “The Indian used every part of the buffalo.”  Teachers said it.  Students said it.  An aunt of mine said it.  Before I could begin saying it, my older brother introduced me to books about mountain men.  Along with the Hardy Boys, those were the books—because they launched me on great adventures—that got me to read.  What could be better than to ascend the Missouri and, clad in buckskin and carrying a Hawken rifle, trap the beaver streams of the West with Tom Fitzpatrick, Jed Smith, and Joe Walker?

I went on a hundred such expeditions and got to know dozens of mountain men.  I also got to know the Indians who lived across the wide Missouri.  Some were allies of the mountain men.  Others were enemies.  Friend or foe, none of them was any kind of ecologist, particularly when it came to the buffalo.  This was abundantly clear in the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the mountain men and of fur-company employees.  It was also abundantly clear in manuscript material left behind by government explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and foreign travelers. ...

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