The Book!

Friday, June 03, 2016

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump as Ecological Examplar



Pocahontas. 1910 film.

Disney's animated musical romance Pocahontas is of course not academically sound history. Everybody knows that, right? On the other hand, it is no doubt an accurate measure of what the average modern Canadian actually believes, or is supposed to believe, about Indian culture. If they did not believe it before, having all seen Pocahontas, they probably believe it now. That is what propaganda is for.

It worked so well it was all done again, in blueface, as “Avatar,” and again broke the box office.

Pocahontas the movie sets the scene at its opening by firmly contrasting European and Indian cultural values. The English seamen, boarding their ship at the London docks, all sing of discovering gold in the New World—life success is material wealth. They place this concern above trivialities like ethics or brotherly love.

“I'm gonna get a pile of gold, build me a big house... 
and if any Indian tries to stop me, I'll blast him.”



As soon as they land at Virginia, and before they attend to such trifling matters as building shelter or planting crops, they bring out the spades and start tearing apart the landscape.

Does this make sense? Aren't the Europeans acting like fools?

“Why, of course,” explains the villainous Governor Ratcliffe. “Let's not forget what the Spanish found when they came to the New World. Gold! Mountains of it! Why, for years they've been ravaging the New World of its most precious resources… But now it's our turn!”

Not subtle. But after all, they are cartoons.

The film then cuts away to Pocahontas's Powhatan tribe, living their peaceful daily lives in the as-yet-undiscovered Virginia countryside. They sing in chorus:

“Seasons go and seasons come. 
Bring the corn and bear the fruit. 
By the waters sweet and clean 
Where the mighty sturgeon lives. 
Plant the squash and reap the bean. 
All the Earth our mother gives. 
Oh, great spirit, hear our song! 
Help us keep the ancient ways. 
Keep the sacred fire strong; 
Walk in balance all our days.”



Indian culture, unlike European, clearly believes in valuing the environment. The Earth is our mother; we do not dig up thre landscape. Our water is clean, and full of unmolested fish, and this is important to us. Why else would we have no factories? We keep to the balance of nature. Nature, of course, having a balance, rather like the scales of Justice. But Europeans, the blackguards, in stark contrast, an Indian shaman says at the council fire--or rather the fire itself shows it, to demonstrate its objective truth-- Europeans all “prowl the Earth like ravenous wolves… consuming everything in their path.” Not the good guys then--or The Three Little Pigs was only a damnable lie.

Later, Pocahontas accuses John Smith in song of believing, like all Europeans, that “The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim.”

Which, of course, it is. Gaea hypothesis to the contrary. But not hard to tell whose side you ought to be on, kids. Dead things are yucky.

And not at all a racist thing to say about Europeans, of course, because an Indian says it. Free pass.

Pocahontas, in contrast, being Indian, is friend to all the little forest creatures. Her buddies and boon companions are a raccoon and a hummingbird. She keeps regular council with a willow tree. It seems terrribly unlikely she would ever, for example, kill a living being.

And even the rocks and river are alive.

Hard to say what she eats.

Yes, we all know of the Indian love for nature and the land; it is what being Indian is all about. In popular culture it is a given. It is indeed the very basis on which we see Indians as having a continuing interest, rather like perpetual ownership, in the land, despite having legally quit their ''aboriginal claim” for due compensation one or several centuries ago. After all, they understand themselves to have a fiduciary responsibility to nature. To any Indian, the land is sacred. You cannot change that. Open a new mine within ninety kilometers of Attawapiskat, and, morally at least, you owe them compensation. As well as compensation to Fort Albany and Kaschewan First Nations, somewhat farther away.

Not, of course, that Indians care about money.

The Indian respect for nature is, of course, also a longstanding thing. It is the ancient tradition, as old as the sun and the stars, with us from the beginning of time. It comes with being “aboriginal.” After all, otherwise, why would being “aboriginal” be important? It means you belong to the land, and, by subtle corollary, it to you.

So, to make his ecological point, in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, the celebrated Nobel laureate Al Gore quotes the speech of Squamish chief Seattle to US government representatives back in 1854. Aboriginal people are the established and known authorities on stewardship of natural resources. The same speech has also been quoted, to the same purpose, in Environment Canada's 1990 “Green Plan.” It was read publicly at the original Earth Day.

Chief Seattle, conservationist

Here is the common abridged version. It is helpful to remember the standard First Nations view.

"The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

[So there you have it—any sale of Indian land is only nominal. They still own it. Forever. And it is all Indian land.]

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
[Prescient of him. He calls already, back in 1854, for national parks.]

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
[Say—I guess this should be taught in schools.]

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
[Always a lot of buffalo then around Seattle, on the Pacific Coast. The first transcontinental telegraph line was strung in 1861, seven years after Seattle spoke. He must have seen the plans.]

When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.
One thing we know - there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We are all brothers after all."
A stirring instance, surely, of the legendary Indian skill in oratory. It puts a human face on nature. And that human face is Indian.

One can also see here where the Indian world shown in Disney's Pocahontas came from—almost all in the words of this one brief passage. Even fairly incidental imagery. “Every humming insect”? Okay, that doesn't work. Little girls might find bugs creepy. But “humming”? Let's make it a hummingbird. “We know the sap that courses through the trees like we know the blood that flows through our veins”? Okay, have her talk to a willow tree as it if is her grandmother. It worked for Dorothy. The wind received our grandfather's last sigh? So, have Pocahontas's father say her mother's voice is always in the wind. “The bear, the deer, the eagle, are our brothers”? That almost sings. We're doing a musical. There has to be a song in that.

Awesome historical research.

There is much more evidence, in popular culture, of the Indian concern for nature and the land. In 1971, when the charity organization “Keep America Beautiful” wanted to put a human face on the value of picking up after yourself, they turned to “Iron Eyes Cody,” frequently Hollywood's go-to Indian actor, to shed tears on camera over littered paper. It became one of the best-known public service ads of all time.



The message was clear: every time you thoughtlessly litter, you make an Indian cry.

Nobody wants to make an Indian cry.

Did someone say something about guardian angels?

Well, every trope has to start somewhere, doesn't it?

And then there was the celebrated early Canadian conservationist, Grey Owl. Grey Owl, as he himself eloquently advertised to the world, was an Indian, or rather, in our modern classification system, Métis, who took up the cause of preservation of the threatened beaver. He became internationally famous for it. He later expanded his concerns to include nature preservation generally, and took up free residence in Prince Albert National Park. As if he were himself a bit of nature. Back in the early 1930s, he called for people to remember, very much in the spirit of Chief Seattle, that “you belong to nature, and not it to you.”

Somebody is stealing somebody's material.

Archie Belaney and meal ticket

Perhaps you have heard of Grey Owl. And perhaps you have realized the problem with all of these examples of Indian environmental advocacy: none of them came from actual Indians.

Grey Owl was not Métis, though he always publicly pretended to be. He was an Englishman, born Archie Belaney, who ran away to Canada in his youth, like Robert W. Service, for romance and adventure. He was much more influenced by the English romantic poets than by anything found in Indian culture. He begins his first book, The Men of the Last Frontier, the one that made him famous, with a passage of Byronic poetry in praise of nature. His prose is lush in the romantic style. He commonly uses even the very term “romantic,” to describe the Canadian wilderness:

This then is the Canada that lies back of your civilization, the wild, fierce land ... where Romance holds sway as it did when Canada was one vast hunting ground. This is the last stronghold of the Red Gods, the heritage of the born adventurer. ... it can become a land of wild, romantic beauty and adventure.
Up beyond the wavering line of the Last Frontier lies ... a rich treasure-house, ... transformed by the cosmic sorcery of the infinite into a land of magic glades and spirit-haunted lakes, of undiscovered fortunes, and sunset dreams come true.
This is the face of Nature, unchanged since it left the hands of its Maker, a soundless, endless river, flowing forever onward in the perpetual cycle which is the immutable law of the universe” (Men of the Last Frontier, pp. 43-44).

Disney's Pocahontas, clearly, would feel right at home.

As would most children.

We all retain, whatever our age, a bit of the small wondering child within us. This wild romantic Canada must all have sounded terribly good to that little boy growing up in settled, prim, utterly proper England. Almost like a childhood dream that could come true. He almost says as much as that.

It would, of course, and did, have the same appeal to those who were still children on that day of publication, or those unlucky children who had inadvertently grown to adulthood in Montreal, or London, or Toronto, or New York.

To Indians, born there? Maybe not so much. To them, perhaps, just another bloody day at the office.

Belaney was also either clever, or lucky, to hit upon the beaver as his original mascot. He said it was a sacred animals to the Indians. It was not. But it was sacred to Canadians, the national symbol. Kill a beaver, and you are by sympathetic magic killing Canada.

Good marketing.




As for “Iron-Eyes Cody,” the much-beloved Indian icon who shed tears over dropped paper-- in 1996, his sister revealed that he had been born Espera Oscar de Corti in Louisiana, son of Sicilian immigrants.

Perhaps, at least, they came from the untamed west of Sicily. Or maybe lived near a cigar store.

There are one or two morals to be taken here, before we move on. Obviously, there is no overall discrimination or prejudice against Indians. Quite the opposite: a number of con men have found it profitable to pretend to be Indians; to put themselves in Indian paint. The rest of us are prone, it seems, to always give Indians the benefit of the doubt, to assume the pure-heartedness of their motives and the sincerity of their speech.

Ask the Kickapoo Medicine Company. Having assumed the challenge of selling actual snake oil, they hit upon the idea of declaring themselves Indian, and hiring Indian pitchmen. They became the dominant patent medicine firm in nineteenth century America. Until they were wiped out in the early twentieth century by the advent of food and drug laws.

Would Indian speak with forked tongue?

If they haven't already, somebody should try this with used cars.


It is all apparently a bit of a burden to real Indians. Kimberly Tallbear, who actually is Indian, unlike, say, Ward Churchill or Elizabeth Warren, writes:

“Too often non-Indians have been disappointed by my contemporary manner of dress and my inability to spout mystical-sounding ecological wisdom” (Kimberly Tallbear, “Shepard Krech's The Ecological Indian: One Indian's Perspective”).

It is impossible in real life to measure up to the Hollywood preconception.

Who knew? It turns out Pocahontas is a cartoon.


Then there is the mighty Chief Seattle. Chief Seattle, at least, was a real Indian, and possibly even a real chief. Though perhaps not a reliable spokesman for traditional Indian spiritual values, having been himself a Catholic. Which makes his reported assertion that “our God and your God are the same” a bit trivial and self-evident.

But then, Seattle never spoke those words. The speech was composed by a Texas scriptwriter named Ted Perry, for a 1972 television film funded by the Southern Baptists. It was made to advocate current Southern Baptist views, not traditional Indian views, on the environment.

Were they similar? God knows. The God we apparently share with the Southern Baptists.

Good thing we have written sources we can go back to and check. If all we had were oral traditions, like those of the Indians, we would all firmly believe Chief Seattle actually said these things, and nobody would ever know differently. We would probably all accept that they are a fair precis of the ancient Indian faith. Even Indians commonly think so. I found it reproduced in total on a native web site.

As to the real Chief Seattle's real concerns on the point of negotiating a treaty with the US government, it seems he was all for it. His main motive seems to have been getting the US Army there to protect him and his people from enemy tribes to the north.

More in the spirit of Thomas Hobbes than of Albert Gore.


Gery Owl's original ecological cause, noted just now, was the fate of the beaver, as it existed outside the Canadian coinage. In its service, he tells the romantic and moving history of the fur trade. Indeed, he calls it “one of the most romantic phases in the development of the North American Continent” (Men of the Last Frontier, p. 144). Romantic: high praise indeed, coming from Grey Owl.

“Attracted by the rich spoils of the trade, other companies [other, that is, than the HBC] sprang up. Jealousies ensued, and pitched battles between the trappers of rival factions were a common occurrence. Men fought, murdered, starved and froze to death, took perilous trips into unknown wildernesses, and braved the horrors of Indian warfare, lured on by the rich returns of the beaver trade.
“Men foreswore one another, cheated, murdered, robbed, and lied to gain possession of bales of these pelts, which could not have been more ardently fought for had each hair on them been composed of gold.
“The Indians, meanwhile, incensed at the wholesale slaughter of their sacred animal, inflamed by the sight of large bands of men fighting for something that belonged to none of them, took pay from either side, and swooped down on outgoing caravans, annihilating them utterly, and burning peltries valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often, glad of a chance to strike a blow at the beaver man, the common enemy, they showed a proper regard for symmetry by also destroying the other party that had hired them, thus restoring the balance of Nature” (pp. 144-145).
Ah, the balance of nature! And Belaney's—sorry, Grey Owl's—avaricious Europeans sound marvellously similar to Disney's cartoon Governor Ratcliffe. The Indians, meantime, were nobly concerned with the preservation of the Earth, their mother, and the proverbial, if entirely mythical, “balance of nature.” "Walk in balance all our days"-- that's the ticket!

In the real world, however, the Europeans employed by the fur trading companies did not trap any beaver. The Europeans were primarily the fur traders. They bought the pelts with European manufactured goods.

Apparently, someone else was doing the trapping. Someone who must have had a burning desire for European manufactured goods. And saw them as worth more than a few beaver.

The two great trading companies, it is true, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, sometimes came to blows over the trade. It is just possible to make out in Grey Owl's narrative traces of the Pemmican War. It lasted, all told, nine years; twenty-two people got killed at the Battle of Seven Oaks. The conflict, however, was not between rival European trappers, and not over beaver pelts. It was between fur traders and farmers, over access to pemmican. The fur traders were mostly Métis, not European. Métis—or Indian, as Grey Owl would have put it. Just as Grey Owl represented himself to be.

Battle of Seven Oaks

The two companies then amalgamated, in 1821, ending the strife. A bit before Grey Owl's time.

And while there was some conflict for a time between the Métis of the North West Company and the Scottish settlers sponsored by Lord Selkirk's Hudson's Bay, it was dwarfed by earlier apocalyptic wars between Indian groups over the castor canadensis trade. We have mentioned before the Beaver Wars, which raged across most of America east of the Mississippi, and in which a fair number of Indian “nations” were thoroughly ethnically cleansed from the landscape. Fought over trapping grounds and trade routes for the commerce in beaver pelts. With the Europeans mostly innocent bystanders.

In the real, physical, non-cartoon world that the bulk of us inhabit, it has generally been Europeans like Belaney who have spent troubled hours on beaver conservation, or conservation of any other kind. Already in 1635, disturbed by the devastations to the beaver population from the skin trade, Father LeJeune of the Jesuits at Quebec proposes a solution. The French government should offer some incentive to encourage the Indians to settle down to farming. Then, among other benefits, LeJeune says, “Beavers will greatly multiply. These animals are more prolific than our sheep in France, the females bearing as many as five or six every year; but, when the Savages find a lodge of them, they kill all, great and small, male and female. There is danger that they will finally exterminate the species in this Region, as has happened among the Hurons, who have not a single Beaver” (Relations 8, p. 55).

To Europeans, a simple, sensible conservation measure, and conservation makes simple sense: a government regulation requiring the trapping only of adult males.

Energetic hunting of the beaver by the Mohawks had already led by 1640 to the virtual disappearance of the lovable rodent in their traditional lands, the Hudson and Mohawk Valley. Fortunately for the Mohawk, if unfortunately for the beaver, that tribe found itself the closest Indian group to the Dutch trading posts. As a direct consequence, the Mohawks with their new Dutch firearms turned to conquering all of their neighbours who still had beaver to trap. The Cree, spreading from their original lands adjacent to the first Hudson's Bay Company posts, waged a similar war across the Northwest.

All this fuss about ME?

The beaver population has since been restored. Thanks to intervention by Canadian governments, largely as Father LeJeune suggested.

Had they wanted to, the Indians themselves would have been unable to save the beaver. Government intervention would not have been possible. They had no effective government.

We see here a perfect model of “the tragedy of the commons.” When nobody owns a thing, it is in nobody's interest to conserve it. Even if every Indian in Canada individually wanted the beaver preserved, reducing their own take of this resource probably only meant handing it to their enemies. The more so since diverse Indian groups commonly hunted through the same lands. And were at constant, total war.

If real Indians ever really did share the conservationist views of Archie Belaney, Espera de Corti, Ted Perry, and Al Gore, they have good reason to celebrate the arrival of the Europeans.


Of course, it could be argued that, without a ready market for beaver furs among European haberdashers, the original pressure on the beaver population would never have occurred. Okay, fair enough. I guess by the same token, we are now thoughtlessly exploiting China by buying their cheap manufactured goods. Not to mention Germany or Japan, by buying their cars. But why is it that, by exchanging tools for furs, the Europeans were exploiting Indians, but by exchanging furs for tools, the Indians were not exploiting Europeans?

It works, actually, only if you assume that Indians have no free will. But then, it follows, it stands to reason, if they are a part of nature. Do elk or moose or beaver have free will?

Perhaps, actually, the common view of Indians as “one with nature” or “close to nature” is not all that flattering. Darned good justification for colonialism and government paternalism, though.

Nor, even if Europeans can be blamed for once-low beaver populations, are beavers the only resource that could be damaged by this “tragedy of the commons.” Firstly, if the Indfians wanted Europeans manufactured goods, they were going to find something, anything, that the Europeans wanted, in order to trade for them. If it hadn't been the beaver, it would have been saskatoon berries, elk leather, or something else. Same problem. And the same problem applies, in principle, to any and all resources in the Americans, pre-contact as much as post-contact. Simply because the Indians had no government.


Giant ground sloth attempting to climb a tree.

To demonstrate, we might back up a step. Recall that, just like other Canadians, the Indians were originally from somewhere else. Up to about 12,000 years ago, by the common current estimates, there were no humans past Alaska in the Americas. In those days, the fossil record tells us, the Americas were about as rich in diverse animal life as the Calgary Zoo. The forests and plains hosted giant ground sloths, six times bigger than a man; armadillos the size of automobiles: lions, sabre-tooth tigers, and Florida cave bears; cheetahs, mammoths, mastodons, elephants, camels, giant water rats, even large buzzard-like birds with four metre wing spans. But, within a thousand years of man's arrival, all had disappeared.

Rush hour, Don Valley Parkway, Monday morning, 12000 BC

Most probably, they were hunted out. A bit too visible and a bit too visibly tasty. Almost every large mammal over two continents.

Conservation? What is this conservation of which you speak?

Meantime, at Portage and Main...

Of course, the buffalo did survive. Granted, there used to be a larger cousin; he was hunted out. But, when the white man first came to the Great Plains, he witnessed vast herds of buffalo (aka, for no very good reason but to show your supposed great learning, “bison”) easily a million strong, blackening the landscape for as far as the eye could see.

Horace Greeley writes, in 1859, on return from his trip west, “What strikes the stranger with most amazement is their immense numbers. I know a million is a great many, but I am confident we saw that number yesterday. Certainly, all we saw could not have stood on ten square miles of ground. Often, the country for miles on either hand seemed quite black with them” (An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, 1860).

Within a few decades, they were almost gone. At the lowest point, around 1900, perhaps 500 survived.

Caitlin, "After the Buffalo Chase"

And this is usually blamed on the white men.

However, although the toll taken by white hunters was terrible, it was, in the words of one researcher, only the “coup de grace.” Fur traders, white and Indian, shipped 1,278,359 hides east annually at the peak of the industry, in 1872. There were an estimated 30 million buffalo, and undisturbed, a buffalo herd grows 20% per year (Andrew Isenberg, “Introduction,” in E. Douglas Branch, The Hunting of the Buffalo, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1962, p. xiii). This could not by itself have been the crucial factor.

Without European involvement in the hunt, the final buffalo would have given up the ghost in about 1920 (“Historians Revisit Slaughter on the Plains,” By JIM ROBBINS, NY Times, November 16, 1999). Instead, because Europeans became involved, we still have buffalo. Or bison, for that matter. In growing numbers.

As to their decline, we cannot be certain what the critical factor was. Quite possibly it had to do with the coming of the pony and the gun; newfangled Western technology, but mostly in Indian hands. It may also have had to do with the typical boom and bust cycle of always unbalanced nature. Charles Mann notes that, when De Soto toured the American Southeast in the early sixteenth century, he saw no buffalo (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Knopf, 2005). Later visitors saw them there in large numbers. It might be that, in the centuries between Columbus and the settlement of Columbus Ohio, there was a buffalo population boom, due perhaps to unusually good weather, perhaps to global warming, perhaps to a sudden decline in predator numbers—i.e., the Indians, decimated by the smallpox epidemics. The subsquent decline of the buffalo may have been, at least in part, a return to the usual norm. Rapid expansion of the herds lured many Indian groups west for easy living. Most of the tribes of the Plains, the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, and Plains Cree, seem to be newcomers. As always happens, the predators overshot the mark, and prey numbers declined swiftly.

Behold the balance of nature. Dizzy yet?

"The Last of the Canadian Buffalo," 1900

Whatever really happened to the buffalo in the latter nineteenth century, the traditional Indian bison hunt does not stand as a model of conservationist principles. As any tourist knows who has visited Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, the preferred technique was to stampede an entire herd over a cliff. Necessarily, inevitably, the Indians being nomadic and unable to store much food, there was great wastage. Reputedly, in some cases, faced with such abundance, some Indian groups did not clean their plates. They would at times cut out only the tongues, buffalo tongue being a special delicacy, and leave the rest of the carcasses to simply rot.

Early European visitors often commented on the wastefulness of the native practice. It offended their conservationist sensibilities.

“Many European observers were struck by gourmandizing as well as by what struck them as subsequent 'profligacy' or 'indolence.' At times, Indians used everything. But on occasions they did not, and the observers remarked upon 'putrified carcasses,' animals left untouched, or Indians who took only 'the best parts of the meat.'“ (Shepard Krech, “Buffalo Tales: The Near-Extermination of the American Bison,” National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntecoindian/essays/buffalo.htm).

Lewis and Clark report such a buffalo hunt, from the days before the Plains nations had firearms at their disposal. Blame the two explorers for the creative spelling and grammar. Americans are like that.

“Today we passed on the Stard. [starboard] side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases they created a most horrid stench. In this manner the Indians of the Missouri distroy vast herds of buffaloe at a stroke; …” (Lewis and Clark, May 29, 1805).

Actually, they don't "jump" so much as fall like a sack of wet bricks.

And then there are the trees. The embraceable trees. Grandmother Willow and the gang.

Real Indians apparently would be less likely to talk to them, or to hug them, than to burn them down to cinders.

“Many people believe that the first English to settle North America,” the trade publication Fire Management Today, who are the sort of people who ought to know, summarizes, “found an ancient, impenetrable wilderness stretching uninterrupted from the shores of the Atlantic to the banks of the Mississippi. The popular view of a pristine wilderness inhabited by American Indians who left no trace on the land is rooted in the Romantic notion of 'the forest primeval' promoted by such poets as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Romantic view entered the early conservation movement through the writings of Henry David Thoreau and others (Williams 1999). ... [T]here is '... some truth to one researcher’s claim that most of the forests seen by the first settlers in America were in their first generation after one or another kind of major disturbance' (Raup 1967).” (60:3, Summer, 2000. sidebar; unattributed).
Indians commonly set woods on fire, if it suited them. This was a convenient, if wasteful, hunting technique. Any wildlife would flee the flames, and could be easily picked off by waiting hunters. “Indians burned large areas,” Fire Management Today explains, “to force deer, elk, and bison into small unburned areas for easier hunting. Fire was also used to drive game over cliffs or into impoundments, narrow chutes, and rivers or lakes where the animals could be easily killed.” Flames were used to drive the buffalo off the cliffs. “Some tribes used a surround or circle fire to force rabbits and other game into small areas “ (Gerald W. Williams, “Introduction to Aboriginal Fire Use in North America,” Fire Management Today, 60:3, Summer, 2000).

Remington. Indians setting fire. Maybe just to get the light right  for a painting.

Burning down the forest might also make it easier to gather wild berries or other edibles. So why not? For the most part, you can't eat a tree. “[T]hey burned patches where flame could help them extract some resource— camas, deer, huckleberries, maize” ( Stephen J. Pyne, “Where Have All the Fires Gone?” Fire Management Today, 60:3, Summer, 2000).

Burning down the trees might also deprive an enemy of their hunting grounds. All's fair in the Indian code of war.

Pyne summarizes: “much burning resulted from malice, play, war, accident, escapes, and sheer fire littering. The land was peppered with human-inspired embers” (Stephen J. Pyne, “Where Have All the Fires Gone?” Fire Management Today, 60:3, Summer, 2000).

Once again, it all met with a certain European disapproval. Alexander Ross, a Scottish settler and retired fur trader at Red River in the first half of the nineteenth century, complains in print of the wasteful use of natural resources by his Métis neighbours. They will, he says, occupy any unused land, log it out, and, once the timber is gone, simply move on to the next plot. “Thus,” Ross laments, “the upper and best wooded part of the settlement has been entirely ruined, and rendered treeless” (Ross, The Red River Settlement, London, 1856, p. 199).

Further west, “White settlers, according to Langston, 'hated the fires that swept through the mountains, and usually saw the Indian burning practices as threatening the open pine [pinus ponderosa] forests they loved.' “ (Gerald W. Williams, “Reintroducing Indian-Type Fires: Implications for Land Management,” Fire Management Today, 60:3, Summer, 2000, p. 40).

“Wherever Europeans went,” says Williams, “they generally stopped the Indians from burning, ... Ironically, more forest exists today in some parts of North America than when the Europeans first arrived. As Pyne (1982) observed, 'The Great American Forest may be more a product of [European] settlement than a victim of it'” (ibid.).

As with trees, buffalo, and beaver, so with any other resource. When the Jesuits arrived at Huronia in the early seventeenth century, they reported it stripped of all game. The Huron diet was accordingly almost all vegetarian, augmented by what fish they might catch or buy dried from the Algonquins.

As to Pocahontas's animal friends, the Indians generally did keep dogs, if not raccoons and hummingbirds, as pets. But again, their treatment of them often seemed inhumane to the Europeans.

Fr. Biard describes a Mi'kmaq funeral ceremony, held, as was common, with the subject still alive. “The farewell and the mourning are finished by the slaughter of dogs, that the dying man may have forerunners in the other world.” (Jesuit Relations 2, p. 15). The French Jesuit demanded that this stop. “... I told him that … the slaughter of the dogs, ... displeased me very much” (p. 17).

French poodles, even then, probably had a better life.


All this unfortunately paints the Indians as very far from proper ecologists or environmentalists, by modern Canadian standards. Indeed they were, but let's be fair. Even if they held fine conservationist sentiments, and even aside from the aforementioned tragedy of the commons, it is best to remember that ecology, contrary to popular belief, is an indulgence attractive and even available only to materially highly developed societies.

Icon of Sixties icon Buckminster Fuller

Long ago, as an undergraduate at Queen's, I attended a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. Being an actual Sixties icon, like most actual Sixties icons, he had no truck nor trade with the Sixties mentality. He explained to the audience that technological development is by itself and by definition the best conservation. To improve your technology is to accomplish more with fewer resources. As civilization develops, we take out some of this advantage in greater population; some of it in greater material comfort; and some of it as an investment in the future, by reducing our use of some natural resource. Not a lot of whale oil in the streetlamps these days. Settle down to farm instead of hunt, and, like a charm, the same land that once could support one person can now support one hundred. Or, one percent of it can support one person, and ninety-nine percent of it be returned to verdant wilderness, if that is what we prefer.

Living at subsistence level concentrates one's mind mightily on the present day and on only the most essential needs. One is not putting anything in the environmental bank. One is less inclined to the luxury of holding a given landscape intact and apart, as Ted Perry would say, for purely aesthetic purposes. Nature indeed; can one eat nature? Can one wear it against the cold? Such finer concerns come only with growing wealth. Get rich, and you can maybe afford to keep a deer park just for walking through.

Then again, in expecting Indians to worship “nature,” are we not projecting an entirely European pseudophilosophical concept? Is it likely to have meant much of anything to them without having read the Romantic and Transcendentalist poets? Indeed, does it really mean much of anything anyway? Have any other cultures anywhere really ever had a similar concept? I recall a Japanese friend in graduate school who regularly equated the English word “nature” with the supposed English cognate “chaos.”

Not quite the politically correct view.

Nokomis, the Earth Goddess, descending from the full moon. Nice, but not Indian. Victorian.

Peter Coates, trying to nail down a consistent meaning of the English word “nature,” cites five rather different senses, commonly confused:

1 – nature as a particular set of physical places, notably those parts of the world more or less unmodified by people.
This is the meaning used in the phrase “unspoiled nature.” It is what Parks Canada tends to like. It involves, of course, the notion that people, by their presence, “spoil” things. Hard to say whether this idea might spontaneously occur to another culture, or why, or why it would be entertained with favour. If you create a new wilderness national park, and ban all people from it, and then a tree falls, does it make a sound?
2 – nature as all physical places and things, including those touched and untouched by people.

Nature in this sense more or less equates with the word “environment”; albeit only if properly used, which it usually is not. It is what is meant by the older term for science, “natural philosophy.” This does not mean pondering virgin forests, but the postulated world, whatever it may be, perceived through the five senses.
3 – nature as force or entity with almost religious qualities. This meaning is captured in the phrase ‘mother nature’ or the ‘laws of nature’ which cause certain things to happen.

I'd delete that “almost.” This is where the supposed “balance of nature,” for example, comes in. Not to mention the modern ecological movement more or less as a whole. In other words, “nature” is “supernatural,” nature includes or is whatever is not natural. 

By now, surely it gets hard to see any underlying coherence.
4 – nature as an essence, for example in the phrase “human nature” to explain certain behaviours.

Here “nature” is whatever is not touched by reason and, more importantly, free will; whatever is not, in other words, voluntary. Kind of like homosexuality, in the current PC dogma. 
5 – nature as the opposite of culture, so that it is everything that has nothing to do with humans.

Sort of like Scarborough, Ontario. 

(definitions from Peter Coates, Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998, pp 3–10.)

The beauties of nature.

Is that too confusing? Too confusing, surely, to expect the same rather arbitrary congeries of concepts to occur independently, and be widely embraced, by pre-contact Indians.

Let's try again. Mortimer J. Adler makes his own stab at defining the concept “nature” in his book The Great Ideas. Adler has no known ideological axe to grind here. He is trying to accomplish something like a dictionary of ideas, an accurate and clear presentation of how the term has actually been used by The Great Thinkers of the Western Tradition. 

Adler, too, finds multiple, interwoven meanings. “Common to all meanings,” however, he suggests, “is the notion that the natural is that which man's doing or making has not altered or enlarged” (p. 561).

Okay; so are Indians more natural in this sense? Problem: to say so is really saying they are less human. Might sound good to a certain sort of modern European Canadian, but might not have naturally—to coin a phrase—occurred to pre-contact aboriginals. Or, if you take it another way, it simply says that Indian culture, Indian civilization, accomplished little. Indians as a group then were indolent. Not flattering, unless you happen to worship nature in Coates's third sense, as something holy and not to be touched by filthy human hands.

Adler then suggests that “nature is commonly contrasted to 'culture' or 'civilization.'” True enough; but you see what you've done there? To say that the Indians are more natural is to say that they lack culture or civilization. That too somehow does not sound flattering. I'm inclined to agree that it is a fair point; but then, anyone who praises the Indians for “respecting nature” and then objects to calling them “uncivilized” or “savages” is being inconsistent, self-contradictory, insincere, and/or just playing a game with words.

Again, not incidentally, Adler points out that to see “nature,” as the absence of man, as a significant or awfully meaningful thing automatically requires you to see man as radically different from nature: “Only on the supposition that man is by nature rational and free do those human works which are the products of reason or the consequences of free choice seem to stand in sharp contrast to all other natural existences and effects of natural causes” (p. 561). Otherwise the distinction seems trivial. If the distinction is trivial, preserving nature can hardly be of any importance.

Sioux Indians on tour in Dresden, Germany

Therefore, if the Indians from their own perspective were indeed deeply involved with nature, or worshipped it, or otherwise even thought all that much about it, that automatically means that they saw themselves as radically apart from nature. More so than Europeans.

In other words, no human being can actually be, by definition, subjectively “at one with nature,” or “in tune with nature” in any subjective sense. One can only see another human being, not oneself, as being “at one with nature,” or “in tune with nature.” And only because you see them not as a separate conscious subject, but as an object. A thing, not a person.

Somewhat insulting to a real Indian.

Again, if nature stands in distinction to reason and free will, to whatever extent Indians are more “natural” than Europeans, that means they are less rational and have less free will. Picturesque, perhaps, like an animal in the zoo, but would you want your daughter to marry one?

Yet that would at least explain why the Europeans, and not the Indians, are responsible for the decline of the beaver population.

All clear now? To call Indians children of nature or the original environmentalists is not just patently wrong; it is patently racist and insulting.

It almost makes you want to run out and burn down a tree.


But what then are we to make of Indian culture? If its basic values are not ecological, what are they? And why do we Westerners have this funny concept “nature,” with which we demean another ethnicity?

Note, with Adler, that in another common definition, “the world of nature is the system or order of the objects of sense” (Adler, op. cit., p. 562). “Nature,” he adds, “is also the realm of time, space, and causality” (p. 562). Hence, as Coates says in his definition two, “nature” is the proper object of study of the physical sciences; it is the physical world. “The natural or theoretical sciences do not extend to what Kant calls the 'supersensible' or the 'noumenal' order—the world of things lying outside the range of sense-experience” (p. 562).

Yet again, then, if the Indians are “natural,” it simply means they are objects of the senses, mere material objects, with no independent consciousness. Or at best, if you want to be really nice, if they merely “worship nature,” they are grossly materialistic.

Never mind. However insulting the concept is to Indians, that is secondary to the fact that it is simply incoherent.

If Europeans are vitally concerned with “nature,” and real Indians do not seem to be, this is probably just an indication that Indians are sensible, and Europeans, at least of a romantic, environmentalist, bent of mind, are not.

Indians being romantic and at one with nature. Bierstadt, 1862


Let us take the base meanings of the concept “nature” (not just the word; you could substitute “ecology,” or “environment,” and probably several other terms, as commonly used) as being two. That's about as simple as we can make it. Firstly, “nature” is the physical world, the world perceived by the five senses. Secondly, it is whatever is outside the command of the human will. From these two, which at first glance almost seem to be logically connected, all others, at least relevant to speaking of Indian culture as opposed to sexual orientation, are derived. There are still a few problems: don't animals have some sort of free will? Not knowing the Garden of Eden story, what's so special about free will anyway? So it is still unlikely to have occurred independently to Indians.

But never mind. Whether or not it ever occurred to Indians, it did occur to European-Canadians, some of whom may even be reading this. So perhaps we need to deal with the issue.

Given this juxtaposition of ideas, one is too easily and too commonly left with the fallacy of a false alternative: everything that exists must be either physical, or under control of the free will of the human observer.

This is obviously wrong. Many experienced things do not fit in to either category. To cite one trivial example, other sentient beings: other humans. I have great difficulty, for example, in controlling others by the sheer naked force of my will.

Okay, imagine they are all just objects. Even so, you have a problem. Are emotions, like love or anger, forms of will, or physical things? Neither, of course. You might have limited control over emotions; but then, you have limited control over the physical world too, in about the same sense. How about abstract universals: good and evil, the laws of mathematics (as opposed to number as a physical quality), the laws of science, the laws of logic. Are these things we simply willed into being, and can change? Are they things we see? What about the imagination, the shadowy world we experience in novels or in dreams?

And so forth and so on. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

If you happened to be an Indian greeting Thoreau at first contact, you might understand a great deal about recent Western thinking by keeping this basic confusion in mind. From it, one can easily deduce the modern Western philosophy of materialism: after all, all that exists is the material and free will. That simply states it. One can derive all of the social sciences: only the scientific observer is sentient, and other people have no real free will. Their behaviours are in principle predictable. One can derive the Freudian dogma of the “subconscious”--a rather self-contradictory attempt to accommodate the experience of the dream world, which uncannily does not fit into either category, material or willed. Indeed, perhaps one can derive the classic Western forms or concepts of insanity: thinking you can control things with your will that you cannot really control, as in megalomania; or thinking imaginary things are physical objects, as in schizophrenia. One can also derive much, or perhaps all, modern atheism: if you cannot see a thing, it does not exist. Therefore, there is no God, there are no angels, and no devils. If angels there are, how many can dance on the head of a pin?

Then comes the romantic turn, giving us “nature” in all its magical wonderfulness, the legitimate object of mass worship it is today. Rediscovering these things that are neither free will nor perceived with the eye, and emphatically realizing that they are real, where do you put them in your categorization of all reality?

Roantic nature: Cole, "The Savage State" 1836

Given the growing prestige of “natural philosophy,” back when the first romantics were writing, the choice seems fairly obvious. Both then and in the Sixties, of course, human free will and reason was also under a bit of a cloud in the West, given the tumult of the French Revolution, a tumult spread soon across all Europe by Napoleon, and the tumult of the nuclear threat and unending Cold War. Everything loose that could move went over to nature.

Accordingly, romantics tended and tend to invest “nature” with any and all of these unrelated qualities. To the romantics, nature includes the imagination. There is no knowing what Hansel and Gretel might come upon in those woods. Nature includes the emotions, so it is our “mother”: the Gaea hypothesis. Love is now somehow the same as sex. As nature now includes any consciousness not our own, if we have intimations of immortality, or of some greater order in the universe, nature becomes our surrogate divine. The material is the spiritual.

It is amazing with what qualities, given only a little effort, one can suffuse a graven calf.

Pity, perhaps, the Indians could not join us in this worship.

Wandering romantic tribe in state of nature.

Now, given that they were not romantics or worshippers of nature, what did Indians really believe about the trees, the beaver, the mosquitoes, and the lovely Canadian landscapes seen by the Group of Seven? What were their feelings or concerns in this regard?

The Jesuits, of course, especially strained to know; for philosophy was their stock and trade. They were here to engage the Indians in a philosophical conversation.

Father LeJeune gives us his understanding of the Indian concept of the soul:

“[T]he Savages persuade themselves that not only men and other animals, but also all other things, are endowed with souls, and that all the souls are immortal; they imagine the souls as shadows of the animate objects; never having heard of anything purely spiritual, they represent the soul of man as a dark and sombre image, or as a shadow of the man himself, attributing to it feet, hands, a mouth, a head, and all the other parts of the human body. “ (Relations 7, pp. 173-5).

So far, so Pocahontasy. Disney would agree. It does sound, at first hearing, like a sort of “worship” of “nature”: all things, not just men, and with the possible exception of straight European males, are endowed with souls.

But we may be jumping to conclusions to find this constitutes a significantly greater “respect” for nature. It could be just a matter-of-fact perception. I believe that Donald Trump has a spiritual form, is even a conscious being. Still, I do not feel personally inclined to worship him.

And would the Indians recognize all these ensouled things as some sort of coherent unity, “nature”?

To the Jesuits, of course, living before the English romantic poets, it all sounded instead rather materialistic. The poor Indians seem never to have heard of anything spiritual. Souls with feet and hands? Isn't this just a childish confusion of the spiritual with the material world? Indeed, told of the Supreme Being, the Indians would laugh and respond almost like modern atheists: how can they possibly believe in something they cannot see?

But one should notice a contradiction here. Can they see the souls of beaver, or of trees? Necessarily not, unless they have some senses we don't have. The same Jesuits report of the same Indians, “During the night, a woman who had gone out, returned, terribly frightened, crying out that she had heard the Manitou, or devil. At once all the camp was in a state of alarm, and every one, filled with fear, maintained a profound silence. I asked the cause of this fright, for I had not heard what the woman had said; eca titou, eca titou, they told me, Manitou,' Keep still, keep still, it is the devil.' " (Father LeJeune, Relations 7, p. 83).

Can you see or hear the devil? Can the Indians?

Yes and no—here is where the cultural confusion begins. And in the same sense, you can indeed see the spiritual as well as the material forms of the beaver and the tree. You can “see” any and either in the imagination—literally, the “imaging faculty.” Simply see the imagination as it truly is, a thing not under the control of our will. Therefore, the things we perceive with the imagination exist independently, since they are independent of our will. And we can see them or hear them, in our dreams. The Indians could not believe in the Christian God because they could not picture him in their minds, at least not at that early point. They believed that beaver and trees, on the other hand, had spiritual forms because they demonstrably did: you too can readily imagine a beaver or a tree. So there they are. What you see in such a case is a spiritual beaver, or a spiritual tree, not a physical one.

To understand this way of thinking, it is first utterly essential that you disabuse yourself of the arbitrary prejudice, if you have it, that “imaginary” means “not real.” It does not. That is a debatable issue. To the Indians, the imagined was real, and the physical world was not. To us, ordinarily, it is the opposite.

Spelunking Plato's Cave


If this all sounds odd or unfamiliar or even stark mad, one has simply not read Plato, the founder, most aver, of all of Western philosophy. Plato held that the only reason we can recognize a beaver as a beaver when we see one, and know that it is not a tree, is because the bucktoothed rodent corresponds to an “ideal form” of a beaver that pre-exists somewhere in our mind. That ideal of a beaver, then, to either Plato or a Mohawk, is the real beaver. The transient beaver we see is only an individual, imperfect, temporary reflection of it.

The whole thing is so obvious to Plato that, when he first refers to the idea in his dialogues, he does not bother to explain or justify it. He takes it as a given. He never argues it clearly; it is more or less intuitively so.

And this, I submit, is the position of most human cultures or societies that have ever existed: the forms in the imagination are real. The physical world, less so. It is an entirely reasonable, if not obvious, way of looking at the world. We experience mental things directly. We experience physical things only indirectly, through the intermediary of the senses. Who's to say they correspond to any underlying reality?

We would get a lot closer to understanding the traditional Indian view, then, if, instead of trying to make them into Romantic naturalists, we understood them as Platonic idealists.

So Indians did very much believe in things they could not see—see, that is, with the physical eye. In extremis, they believed only in things they saw in the imagination. They did not trust in the physical world, except as a secondary reflection, like seeing your distorted face mirrored in the ripples of a stream.

If there is one thing about traditional Indian culture that seems definite and undeniable, to which all actual witnesses attest, it is that the Indians put great stock in dreams. Champlain reports: “they believe that all their dreams are true; and, in fact, there are many who say that they have had visions and dreams about matters which actually come to pass or will do so“ (Champlain, Voyages, Vol. 2, Ch. 4). Father Brebeuf concurs: “dreams, above all, have here great credit” (Jesuit Relations 8, p. 119. Francis Parkman writes “Dreams were to the Indian a universal oracle” (The Jesuits in North America, p. 55).

Father Jouvency gives specifics: “What each boy sees in his dreams, when his reason begins to develop, is to him thereafter a deity, whether it be a dog, a bear, or a bird. They often derive their principles of life and action from dreams; as, for example, if they dream that any person ought to be killed, they do not rest until they I have caught the man by stealth and slain him” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 285).

In other words, dreams, which is to say, the world perceived by the imagination, had greater reality than the physical world. The real world was that seen in dreams, by the imagination. The physical or material world was only its reflection.

Some ideal forms. But perhaps not entirely Platonic.

In dreams, of course, souls do indeed have hands and legs. But they are not, for that, material.

The Indians explained to Brebeuf and LeJeune, "souls are not like us, they do not see at all during the day, and see very clearly at night; their day is in the darkness of the night, and their night in the light of the day" (Relations 6, p. 177). In other words, the soul wakes when the body is asleep. It is only fully awake when dreaming.

This is also no doubt why, by universal Indian custom, the traditional tales, the myths, are not to be told in summer months, but only during winter—in the dark part of the year, when the visible world is less present.

And how else make sense of the Indian creation stories, those on the lines of “how the camel got its hump,”or “how the leopard got its spots”? The Abenaki, for example, held that Glooscap, the creator and culture hero, once asked the woodchuck for the hairs on its belly, from which he wove a magical sack.

And this is why, they conclude, woodchucks have bare bellies.

This makes no sense, of course, if they are speaking of any individual woodchuck. How could what one did affect all others? But it makes perfect sense if we speak here of the imagined woodchuck, the ideal form from which we recognize every individual woodchuck; in Jungian terms, the woodchuck archetype. What is true of the archetypal woodchuck must then be true of each individual woodchuck, to the extent that they are woodchucks.

The Indians patiently explain to Father LeJeune that “all animals, of every species, have an elder brother, who is, as it were, the source and origin of all individuals, and this elder brother is wonderfully great and powerful” (Relations 6, p. 159). Parkman speaks of this animal ancestor as “its progenitor or king, who is supposed to exist somewhere, prodigious in size, though in shape and nature like his subjects” (The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, p. 42).

This amounts to a pretty clear statement of Platonic idealism. To say “ancestor,” or “elder brother,” or “king,” is the obvious way, absent some shared technical jargon, to describe an archetype. The ideal is related to the physical rather as a father is related to a child, or a king to his subjects. Having all the powers of the imagination, the archetype has all the powers you can imagine. In a dream, a beaver can be any size, can survive any wound, can and properly does live forever.

“If any one, when asleep,” reports Father LeJeune, “sees the elder or progenitor of some animals, he will have a fortunate chase; if he sees the elder of the Beavers, he will take Beavers; if he sees the elder of the Elks, he will take Elks, possessing the juniors through the favor of their senior whom he has seen in the dream. I asked them where these elder brothers were. 'We are not sure,' they answered me, 'but we think the elders of the birds are in the sky, and that the elders of the other animals are in the water.'" (p. 157).

Plato, explaining where his ideal forms reside, says something quite similar. They exist apart from us, like something in physical space, but do not exist anywhere in physical space. Air and water are obvious physical symbols of the non-physical. They offer a minimum of physical attributes, what Aquinas calls “accidents”: lacking form, lacking colour, lacking size, lacking number, lacking if air any apparent mass or weight, transparent, invisible.

The Indians, therefore, were the very farthest thing from nature worshippers. They did not even believe that nature was real. They did not worship rocks because they believed they had spirits; they worshipped spirits, and barely saw the rock.

Nor would they see much point in conservation. It is not as if the beaver or the buffalo could ever cease to be. Do dream forms or memories ever die? Ideal forms are immortal. What is more, as long as anyone ever continued to imagine beaver or bison, presumably, their physical reflections would continue to follow as well. If someone dreamt of a beaver, next day, a beaver would appear. Even if none did, it is not as if there were no more beaver. The real beaver continued forever to be.

It is and has always been the Europeans or “whites,” the inventors of the concept, who have deep faith and respect for nature. Western culture is almost the only culture that accepts the physical world as entirely real. Let alone being the only culture that believes God expresses himself through the physical creation. Making it important, if not sacred, and a worthy object of study and of conservation. Hence the West, and not the American Indians, invented science, most technology, and, perhaps less fortunately, ecology and environmentalism.

Europeans wearing beaver felt hats. Totally unreal.

Of course, if you do not believe the material world is real, you are not going to devote the greater part of your time and hard work to improving your material conditions. It would be a waste of a life. One very good reason why Indian culture was undeveloped, and why Indians have always been so materially poor.

One can also here begin to understand the unfortunate Indian craving for psychotropic substances of all sorts. If the internal, mental life, the life of the imagination, is the real life, the effects of a good acid trip would be at least as valuable as, for us European-Canadians, a quick all-expenses-paid flight to Las Vegas or Disneyland.


And speaking then again of Disney, this means that Pocahontas the movie, in its contrast between Western and native Indian values, gets everything just about reversed. The English sailors, on embarkation, indulge in obvious fantasies about the New Word: the streets are paved with gold, or at least the strand is.

“On the beaches of Virginny
There's diamonds like debris
There silver rivers flow and gold
You pick right off a tree.
With a nugget for my Winnie
And another one for me.”
That is not a description of the physical world. That is a dream image. That is a classic fantasy.

Gold is, in turn, not significant as a material resource. It is a symbol, a marker or exchange for material wealth. It is an ideal form, an archetype.

The Europeans, if so interested in gold, are interested in symbols and dreams. The Indians, on the other hand, are supposedly interested in sturgeon. In purely physical things.

Odd, then, that Cartier was able to interest them in trading for nothing more than shiny bits of broken glass. Or that Peter Stuyvesant was reputedly able to buy Manhattan for a few glass beads and trinkets.

To the materialist real Europeans, these seemed things of little real value, in comparison to real palpable land that might be farmed or built on. To the Indians, because these beads and bits of glass were rare, colourful, and seemed to shine some kind of internal light, they were delightful symbols or markers of wealth. Worth far more than a few dead acres of dirt.



Pocahonts does not get this aspect of Indian culture. Berating Captain Smith for being an ignorant European, she sings,

“You can own the Earth and still
All you'll own is earth until
You can paint
With all the colours
Of the wind”
Fair criticism. The beauty of art matters. Not a terribly coherent complaint, perhaps, if the Indians themselves prefer untrammeled nature. But never mind. Just where, pray tell, are all the great examples of Indian pre-contact painting? And what are all those odd things hanging in the Louvre, the Prado, and the Vatican Museums, over in uncultured Europe?

Precisely because the Indians lived in their imagination, they presumably saw no value in expressing the spirit in physical, material terms; in colours on a canvas. They never developed visual arts in the Western sense. Besides, Pocahontas's question assumes that art follows and represents nature, as if the Earth comes first. A very European idea. To real Indians, the vice would be versa. You don't take the Earth and paint it, or paint a picture of it. The paints or picture produce the Earth as a byproduct. Nature holds the mirror up to art.

Indiansplaining.

Perhaps most ironically, Pocahontas concludes, lecturing the foolish Englishman on proper appreciation of cultural differences:

“You think the only people who are people 
Are the people who look and think like you 
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger 
You'll learn things you never knew you never knew” 

 Yet who do you think would probably have more experience of dealing with strangers and their ways, a young girl living in a small rural village, or an experienced English seaman who has, the film has already established, “seen hundreds of new worlds”? 

And does saying this sound as though cartoon Pocahontas herself has taken the trouble to see the possible differences between her experiences and Smith's? Isn't there some rich irony here? 

 For that matter, have the screenwriters who composed these lines taken any conspicuous trouble to understand true Indian culture? 

 But never mind. There's always money to be made in ennobling savages. 

 It's almost like digging for gold.


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