It is interesting how we force such extreme and simplistic stereotypes on Native Americans. When I was growing up in the ‘50s, the idea that Indians were dirty savages was dying out. But still, despite Tonto, comic books usually portrayed them as bad guys and always untrustworthy and referred to them as “Injuns” and “Redskins.” Just a decade earlier, Native Americans were often treated as badly in the North as African-Americans were in the South. Native American Marines on leave from the hell of World War II in the Pacific weren’t allowed in New York City bars and restaurants.
During the past several decades the stereotype of Native Americans has turned 180 degrees from the depraved savage to the noble lover of Mother Earth. This stereotype is best typified by the early ‘70s “Keep America Beautiful” ad showing a tear falling down Iron Eyes Cody’s face as he looks at litter. Both stereotypes are ridiculously simplistic and nonsensical.
First of all, when you write about Native Americans you have to narrow it down to a particular culture. In the many millenniums before Columbus, thousands of distinct cultures came and went. In all the thickly forested, abundant land between Canada and Argentina, thousands of distinct cultures existed at the same time. So, letting the culture of one tribe at a particular time in history and a particular place on two continents represent all Native Americans is as ridiculous as letting ISIS represent all of Western civilization.
Fred Gunter spouts the usual naive nonsense with “The American Indians were long-term visionaries who trained their young to leave the next generation with a livable planet, not an empty, toxic wasteland.” I’m sure that if you talk to one of the Creeks at the Ocmulgee National Monument (don’t get me started on how they had nothing to do with the Mississippian Mounds) they will agree 100 percent with Gunter, but they are modern Americans who have not only bought into the same fiction that Gunter has, but also have a vested interest in it.
If you were able to search all the Native American cultures that have existed over this vast landscape and time, you might even find a culture or three that did have the same reverence for the earth as Iron Eyes Cody, but the vast majority would be cultures that saw nature as something to exploit as fully as they could.
Before Asians began following the coast of the Bering Strait land bridge to the Americas and later Asians were trekking between two Canadian glaciers into the heart of North America, the two great continents of the Western hemisphere were a wonderland of mega fauna. Mammoths, mastodons, giant bisons, ground sloths, giant armadillos, camels, horses, lions, saber-toothed tigers, dire wolves, short face bears (15 feet tall on hind legs), Glyptodons (an armored mammal about the same size and weight as a Volkswagen Beetle) and many other incredible and wonderful animals walked the American continents.
Soon, just a few hundred years after North and South America were very thinly settled by Paleo-Indians, all of those animals were gone. The overkill explanation has received a lot of push back by politically correct scientists trying desperately to blame the mass destruction of American mega fauna on anything except Paleo-Indians. But every time another mammoth or mastodon is found with a Clovis point between it’s ribs and every time another site is found where hundreds of giant bison were driven over a cliff so that a tribe of 20 or so people could gorge themselves on the best cuts of a few animals while almost all the meat rotted makes the overkill theory more plausible.
Even if climate change is accepted as a major factor in the demise of the mega fauna, the Paleo-Indians’ mass slaughter of every unfortunate creature that crossed their path will still be a deciding factor. No people, arguably not even modern man, can match the species destruction of the first Native Americans.
Most Native American cultures in wooded areas who practiced farming used slash-and-burn to clear forest. Even though North America was very thinly populated by modern standards, this practice had a huge impact on the fauna and flora of the East Coast of what is now the United States. As one of my history professors at Valdosta State laughingly said over coffee in the Student Center several decades ago, “The only reason there were forests on the East Coast when Europeans got here was because the Indians didn’t have bulldozers.”
Even now, long after the romantic myth of Native Americas as noble environmentalists is the common wisdom, Native Americans often outdo Euro-Americans in their desire to destroy the environment. One example is the Wind River Reservation. Arapahoe and Shoshone Indians are now demanding the right to kill bald eagles because, with their modern all-terrain vehicles and high-powered rifles, they have wiped out every other animal big enough to shoot.
So, Mr. Gunter, you are wrong about the Native American being an example for us to follow. If we did, the Ocmulgee National Monument would be a parking lot.
Jim Sandefur is a resident of Lizella.