There’s an argument to be made that Native American’s were passive “cultivators” of their tribal territories; essentially managing their land to encourage the growth of beneficial plants, trees and game habitat. The returns on such a method of land cultivation are arguably less in the short term but more sustainable; potentially over dozens of generations. Here is a section from Wikipedia on 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
The myth that Indians were not active in transforming the land is untrue. Most Indians shaped their environment with fire. Fire was used to burn shrubs and trees, opening an area to sunlight, thereby benefitting plants that need sun, while inhibiting others. Burning encourages abundance of certain animals, while discouraging others. The 20th century environmental historian William Cronon explained that “people accustomed to keeping domesticated animals [Europeans] lacked the conceptual tools to recognize that the Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own.” Indians domesticated fewer animals and cultivated plant life differently than their European counterparts.
A few examples of this show themselves today; examples that show that Natives were more of a part of the ecological system rather than at odds with it. One is that of sea otter in Southeast Alaska. Left unhunted, local sea otter populations can boom and threaten salmon runs. Thus, the tribes of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest hunt sea otter. These days, the federal government interferes with traditional sea otter hunting and fur trading. This threatens our sovereignty in two ways:
- It is direct interference in our economic activities; economic activities we have practiced for centuries.
- It destabilizes our managed ecosystems, effecting our resources (in this case, salmon.)
Taos Pueblo is another example I’ve written about. There are many other examples. On a micro level a tribe, clan or even family will control and manage a natural resource. The level at which the control is exerted will depend on the scale of the resources. A small lake and accompanying stream may fall under the control of a small extended family unit. A larger creek might fall under a sub-clan. A river may be managed by a clan. A water shed might be managed by a tribe; such as Taos Pueblo’s management of the Rio de Taos watershed or the management of the mighty rivers of Southeast Alaska by place-based clans and sub-clans in geographically oriented clan alliances known as kwaans.
The above picture is a traditional map of Tlingit Aani as it existed in the 1800’s or so. A kwaan is essentially a place where multiple clans (independent, sovereign entities in this case) lived; largely at peace and in cooperation with one another. After all, peace and mutually acknowledged rights is more prosperous over the long run than war. It should be acknowledged that war broke out from time to time and such periods were certainly horrific and difficult to live through. Still, there’s no reason that this same system couldn’t be replicated and peace maintained. For comparison, modern nation states certainly don’t have a great record of maintaining peace. Estimates of “death by government” are somewhere in the hundreds of millions for the 20th century.
The historical record and modern day examples show us that this system of tribal sovereignty and place based bioregionalism works. It has worked for centuries, in fact. Given current trends, we shouldn’t expect the United States as we know it to last too much longer. Those of our tribal institutions tied to the Federal Government and the global economy shouldn’t expect to last too much longer unless they make serious changes (but who expects bureaucracies to change?) So what is left of our tribes, then? Answer: the same thing that has always sustained our territorial sovereignty, managed our natural resources and taken care of our people: our traditional clans, bands and tribes and their ancient customs and practices.