Peaceful, Pastoral, Philosophical:
The American Indian as Naked Naturalist
Quick Quiz: When the North American Indian killed a buffalo he used every part of the animal.
True or False?
Well, of course, we all know the answer to this one. Yes, indeed, the Indian used all of the buffalo–hides for coats and tents, meat for food, bones for knives and tools, hooves for something, tails for something else. Have we not had this drummed into our skulls a hundred times since the first grade? Have we not read it over and over in adulthood? Indeed, as we all know, the Indian didn’t waste even an ounce of that buffalo. The answer to the above question is such a well-worn rut that it is not even worthy of a response.
Well, I must say, as a non-hunting thirty-year vegetarian in good stead, I wish that the Indians had not found the need to kill any buffalo, period, but since they did, at least it’s somewhat comforting to know that none of the great beast went to waste. Unlike the profligate white man, who slaughtered millions of buffalo for mere sadistic sport, the Indians were clearly superior to the newcomers, morally and ethically, if not vegetarianly.
Hmmmmm. . . . Alas, like many other lies our elders told us—the “Good War”, the “Greatest Generation,” “Gallant little Israel,” Jews as history’s scapegoats, etc.–the above was filled with some half-truths and some heap big fibs. Yes, indeed, in winter when food was scarce, the American Indian used every edible part of any bison he was lucky enough to kill. Funny, but hey, so did the white pioneer. In the spring, when buffalo were plentiful, the Indian could be just as wasteful as any white man ever thought of being.
One hunting tactic the Indians of the Great Plains perfected was to drive herds of bison over cliffs, or “drops,” then, like shoppers in a modern grocery store they moved among the still living mass choosing which part of the buffalo they wanted. Since the hump and the tongue were delicacies, often, after carving out these treats, the hunters would ride away, leaving the rest to rot without a second thought. Hunting buffalo for sport was also not uncommon. With the advent of the repeating rifle, the Indian also eagerly killed the supposedly sacred beast to sell the robes to white traders.
When it came to other animals the red man was equally ruthless. Without a moment’s hesitation, without a particle of concern to the overall destruction to the delicate prairie eco-system, Indians started vast fires to frighten deer, antelope and elk into convenient killing zones.
And how about all those eagle feathers, elk’s teeth and bear claws the red men used to adorn their bodies? These things did not grow on trees. They were real, living, breathing animals and yet the Indian did not hesitate to kill them for vanity’s sake.
Like so much regarding the North American Indian, the “gentle caretaker of the land” myth is just that, a myth. Unlike the white man’s advanced culture, the red man lacked the technology needed to take command of his environment. But what Stone Age methods the Indian did possess he used with ruthless efficiency.
The creation of this American Indian-as-benign-protector-of-the-land fantasy—which seems to have gained steam back in the 1970’s with that hokey, but effective, anti-littering TV ad which featured the famous Italian-American cum Indian, “Iron Eyes Cody” (above) crying as unthinking whites tossed tons of garbage out their car windows—this fantasy of the red man as the deeply religious guardian and worshipper of all creation is, of course, yet another way of hammering home white guilt. After all, compared to this now mostly accepted lie of the Indian as 19th-century flower child totally in tune with nature and communing with all god’s creation–worshipping animals, trees, rocks, mountains, weeds, dirt, whatever—compared to these peaceful eco-friendly nature gods, the land-grubbing and destructive white race looks like a plague of locusts swarming over the earth and stripping it bare to the bone.
Did the white man savage the land. Yes, of course, he did. One of my greatest regrets was how thoroughly my ancestors plowed over the beautiful prairies and how eagerly they dammed our wild rivers and hacked down our forests. But our people who settled in the West were not wealthy aristocrats–they were hand-to-mouth pioneers and they did what they had to do to survive, nature be damned. Did the native savage also savage the land? Yes, of course he did, and he did it to the best of his Stone Age abilities. Indians simply lacked the technology necessary to ruthlessly rape nature as the white man did. And yet, what he possessed he used with merciless efficiency.
In the opening scene of the Last of the Mohicans remake, we have the two lead Indians running down an elk and killing it. Then, as the red men look wistfully upon the once beautiful beast, a prayer. “I am sorry my brother, for killing you, but we must eat. The Great Spirit will insure your long after-life with him”–or words to that effect. Nice. Very touching. And, taking the religious shtick to ridiculous, almost Christ-like, heights, how very Jewish. And yet, I am confident that most popcorn-eating whites who saw such glug eagerly grubbed it up.
BTW–Sorry, Hollywood, but no one gets my respect who first kills his “brother” then eats him.
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Thomas Goodrich is a professional writer living in Florida. Tom’s Scalp Dance:Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865–1879 was a main selection of the History Book Club as well as a featured choice of the Doubleday Book Club. Scalp Dance is available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon.com, or through Tom himself via PayPal at [email protected], $25–postage included.