The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Exotic culture that never was: Part III

Is the Native American culture really protective of the environment?

The Native American Environmentalism:


Is the Native American culture really protective of the environment, or is the Native American environmentalism a (very) modern myth?

Unlike the first two examples of exotic culture that never was, my third and final example is something that is not yet widely known as false. It is commonly believed even today that, unlike the later European settlers to the American continents, Native Americans are protective of the environment. It is often said that Native Americans make every decision with the next seven generations in mind. To the chagrin of hippies and environmentalists everywhere, however, it turns out that nothing can be further from the truth.

In 1854, the governor of the Washington Territory, on behalf of President Franklin Pierce, met with Chief Seattle, leader of the Duwamish Indians, and offered to buy Chief Seattle’s land. This was Chief Seattle’s response to the offer:

How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us.... Every part of this 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.... 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 earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.

It’s a beautiful speech. The only problem is that Chief Seattle never made it. The whole speech was written by a white screenwriter and professor of film, Ted Perry, for the 1971 ABC TV drama Home. It was fiction. This is the origin of the myth of Native American respect for the environment.

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There is no contemporaneous record of what Chief Seattle actually said at the meeting with the governor in 1854, but according to one eyewitness account, made thirty years later, Chief Seattle thanked the governor for the President’s generosity. He was very eager to do business with the President and sell his land to the US government.

The myth that Native Americans are protective of the environment was further fortified by the “Keep America Beautiful” series of public service announcements in 1971, the same year Home aired, with the unforgettable image of the “crying Indian.” The Indian witnesses white people littering and polluting the environment, and quietly weeps for Mother Earth and the abuse that she must take at the hands of white people. The message of the public service announcement was that we must all be as protective of the environment as the Native Americans were.

After his death in 1999, it was revealed that Iron Eye Cody, the man who portrayed the “crying Indian” in the public service announcements in 1971 and subsequently made a career in Hollywood, portraying numerous Native American characters in movies and TV shows, was not Native American at all. He was born Espera Oscar DeCorti, a son of two Italian immigrants.

Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans were no more or no less protective of the environment than were any other groups on earth. A large majority of plant and animal species that ever existed on the American continents had been driven extinct by Native Americans long before Columbus set foot in the West Indies. Environmental protection is a luxury that became possible to Western societies only in the last several decades. Before industrialization and the current age of material abundance, all human groups had to exploit the environment to the maximum just to survive. No one could afford to be environmentally conscious, and Native Americans were no exception.

 

The point of these examples of exotic culture that never was (Margaret Mead and the Samoa, The Gentle Tasaday, and the Native American environmentalism) is to highlight the fact that all human cultures, however exotic and seemingly different on the surface, are essentially the same. There are no human cultures that are radically and completely different from any other, just like there are no human bodies that are radically and completely different from any other. Every time there appears to be a new discovery of an exotic culture that is different from all others, it turns out to be a hoax.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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