Native American Views of Nature  

TOPIC: Native American views of nature

== 1 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 8:15 am


Part of the ENTS mission is to explore myths and legends about the origin if tree species as a way of acknowledging/honoring the beliefs of all cultures. There are plenty of Native American myths and legends that give us insight into the Native’s widow to the natural world and beyond – perhaps what we really seek. Many legends myths and explain natural land features and the origins of species. Large landforms are guaranteed to be included within the list. For example, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Lakota, Shoshone, etc. all have myths about the origin of Devils Tower in Wyoming.

As colorful as are origin accounts of land features, what I find of greatest interest is what they say about the underlying belief system about the power of nature. Of course, this line of inquiry quickly invokes thoughts (or fears for some) of polytheism. To be sure that Native people have a concept of spirit in nature and how that spirit works that elevates the importance of non-human life forms including trees. This is especially true when comparing Native beliefs to those of modern Christianity. Without exploring details, I make a simple observation. The broader Native concept of spirit leaves room for a kind of respect that typifies Native beliefs toward animal and plant species. A popular notion based in liberal quarters of modern European-American society is that the Native concept of spirit predisposes Native peoples to be good environmentalists. There is an element of truth in this view. The subject is complex, but in actual practice, people are people.

One distinguishing feature of indigenous cultures, especially before the advent of modern Europeans on the North American continent, is that the Natives were supremely utilitarian in their outlook toward nature and individual species. Typically, in Native American religions, each species was given an original assignment by the creator. Consequently, there is a role to be played by each species in supporting all life. Where Native cultures have held to this kind of belief system, some anthropologists believe there is a kind of check and balance created against over-exploitation of species. However, a belief in Native adherence to natural balance is far from being universally held within the societies of anthropology, archeology, ethnology, etc. Societies such as the southwestern Anasazi are believed to have exhausted their natural resources and Native civilizations such as the lordly Mayans of Central America were first class resource exploiters. So were the Aztecs and a
ny Native civilization that moved toward a division of labor. But, as one moves farther north from the Mexican border, with the possible exceptions of the Mississippian and Ohioan cultures, exploitation seems to have occurred on a far more modest scale. One needed deerskin for clothing and venison for food, but the deer and its contribution to human survival were highly respected. Traditional Native belief systems did never reduced the deer to the status of modern day cattle or a chicken on a chicken farm – animals to be exploited without the slightest thought for the spirit of the species, or even if such a thing exists. To Natives, wild animal have spirit and innate dignity. Large, ferocious animals were respected and feared, and as a consequence, often made the basis for clan identification. As an example, in the West, Native Americans both feared and revered the grizzly bear. Bear medicine was extremely potent. A warrior who killed a bear could inherit the bear’s strength.

Where trees are concerned, I have encountered fewer Native origin legends, although I don’t doubt they exist. A lot of ENTS research will be required to compile what is known of Native myths and legends on the origin of tree species. I suspect that will do best concentrating on species that had high utility value, such as white birch, American chestnut, and lodge pole pine. Species used for canoe and dugout building, are excellent candidates for legends of origin. The last time I talked to a Canadian Algonquin canoe builder near Maniwaki, CA, he was having trouble finding white birch large enough to serve for his customized canoe building. Forest exploitation in that part of Quebec had decimated the number of large white birch. I could see the clear sense of frustration on his face. He saw the unmistakable mark of modern white society on the Canadian forests. He complained that exploitation, mass conversion of forests, monocultures, etc. all represent the dominant socie
tal view that trees are just a raw resource. It wasn’t clear what he felt his people should be doing since timber exploitation occurs at the hands of Natives on their lands as well as non-Natives in the region as a whole.

As I find the time, I will begin researching the Jani Leverett library in earnest for examples of to Native views of forests as well as species origin legends/myths. However, this will be a labor-intensive task. Results will come slowly. I’m not yet up to the task. All in good time. However, an exploration of Native views about the roles of specific tree species is a companion subject. I will likely hop back and forth among the spiritual, the legend, and the utilitarian. I welcome participation by others.

== 2 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 11:33 am
From: Carolyn Summers

For an in-depth account of pre-agricultural sustainable extraction and
stewardship of natural resources (including certain species of trees) by the
native Americans of California, I can recommend “Tending the Wild” by M. Kat
Anderson, U. Cal. Press.
Carolyn Summers

== 3 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 12:06 pm


Thanks for the suggestion - one more book to put on the stack. The subject of Indian connections to the land is one of endlessly possibilities and a subject of considerable interest to Ents, I would think. The simplistic views of Native American culture as spawned by European-American stereotypes at both ends of the spectrum of opinion (and not helped by Hollywood and grade B actors like Ronald Reagan) has left a gulf in our understanding and appreciation of actual Native connections to trees. Unfortunately, disproportionate attention has been given to the warlike nations of Indians, east and west. The Irroquois, Huron, and Mohican in the Northeast, the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole in the Southeast, the Commanche, Apache, and Lakota in the West are some examples.

Extensive knowledge of nature possessed by the more peaceful, agrarian tribes is still under-appreciated. The lack of a written language by Indian nations has made it far more difficult to peace together the role of Indian understanding of nature here in the lower Connecticut River Valley. It is usually assumed that Natives made good use of the American chestnut and white oak as food sources. The role of hickories is less clear. The role of the white birch has always been well established in canoe making. The inner bark of the white pine was a food source, at least in hard times. sap from sugar maple, red maple, and black birch served Natives well. Black ash was a prime resource for basket making. But these few species aren't even the tip of the iceberg.


== 4 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 12:58 pm

Another book for you, "The Walk" by William DuBuys...a prof turned rancher in northern New Mexico relates the natural history of the property that he 'stewards', and provides some interesting accounts of native American uses for ponderosa pine cambium.

== 5 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 2:03 pm


Could you give us a preview of some of those uses?


== 6 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 4:06 pm

Sure! I will excerpt and ellipse a section (p.33 to p.37) from "The Walk", by William DuBuys, Trinity University Press San Antonio 2007, as follows:

"By the late 1980s I had walked the walk for a dozen years. I knew every twist of trail. I knew the stumps and deadfalls as well as I knew the living trees. I knew where to cross the river when it swelled with snowmelt. I knew where to check for tracks of elk or turkey, to see if they were present and how they were behaving. I knew the old trails the first settlers had used and the vanishing tracks of the wagon roads of horse-drawn days. I knew where the first spring flowers bloomed and which ravines the bears would rumble down to forage for acorns in the fall. I felt that the land was mine because I knew it and that I belonged to the land because it had told me so much of its story.A retired forester called me up. Fred Swetnam had been a ranger on almost every district in norther New Mexico:Jemez, Cnjilon, El Rito, Espnola , and Penasco, which is now called Camino Real and includes the forests surrounding my farm. Years earlier I had interviewed Fred for a book I was writing. He had since retired to Espanola. We stayed in touch. He said he would like to visit, have a look at the woods, and discuss the condition of the forest. I said, come on.
We spent a day walking old timber sales and bouncing down logging roads in Fred's truck. He spoke proudly of his sons, one of whom had distinguished himself as an ecologist and a leader in the field of dendrochronology, the study of tree rings. "Tom is even using tree rings to figure out the dates for peeled trees. Do you know what they are?" I had to confess I didn't. The Indians, probably Apaches, would peel off the outer bark of the ponderosas to get at the cambium. They always peeled it more or less the same way, and they didn't girdle the tree, so it kept living-but with a visible scar. You can't miss seeing them"
We drove to a stand of ponderosas where Fred strode up to a large tree that bore the telltale scar. The peel was about four feet long and less than a foot wide, stretching from three feet off the ground to almost seven feet up the trunk, a comfortable height for a person of average build to work on the tree. It was very much at eye level. Hard to miss. But I had never noticed such a scar before.
Whoever removed the bark had effectively killed the area of the peel, which had rmained a bare patch of weathered yellow wood for at least a centruy, possible two. The vigor of the tree had not been affected...He pointed to another tree with another peel...and another. We were in a patch of forest only a few score yards from a trail I used frequently. An abandoned wagon road passed through the grove, and I had ridden along it at least a half dozen times, but I had never noticed the peels...ten in the immediate area. Fred explained the inner bark...furnished a kind of food: the juices of the tree were rich in sugars. Trouble was, they were also rich in resins. Cutting the peel, so the story goes, was considered women's work; hence the old and unpleasant term squaw tree, which peeled tree has replaced. According to Fred, the detaiils of how the bark was prepared to make it edible remained unclear. "They leached out the nasty stuff," he said, "or they only used it at a time of year when it wasnn't so nasty. Either that or they had the digestive system of porcupines."
In time I learned more about peeled treees. I read a tale collected by the anthropologist Morris Opler in which Tanager teaches the Jicarilla Apache the use of various tree barks, including cottonwood and pine. He tells them to use a hard pointed stub of oak or mountain mahogany to scrape away the outer bark and get to the edible flesh. Tanager tells them to do this in June when the inner barkd is best to eat.
I also discovered the memoir of a forest ranger who served in the Pecos area in the 1920s and who heard the old-timers of his day explain how Apaches dried the pine cambium they collected and then ground it in a metae, making a kind of pine bark flour that they mixed with other kinds of flour before eating. I got to know Fred Swetnam's son Tom, who for many years has headed the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the Univeristy of Arizona in Tucson and whose analysis of succesive fire scars on long-lived ponderosas and other tree species has done much to reconstruct the native fire frequency of southwestern forest. Using the techiques, Tom has also dated peeled trees, determing the exact year when a give tree was peeled. In some locations he has found dozens of trees peeled in the same year - a phenomenon suggesting that pine bark might have served as a starvation food when nothing else was available. In other places, however the dates of the peels are scattered over decades, poossible indicating that the food was used regularly but not intensively when people returned to an area."

DuBuys goes on to describe how many aread he once thought he was familiar with, that now revealed dozens and dozens of these centuries old 'peel scars'.

This excerpt pretty much covers 'trees', but the book is a good read for those 'contemplative in nature'...I enjoyed it!

== 7 of 7 ==
Date: Fri, Jan 25 2008 5:46 pm


It is probably impossible to ever get a decent account of how important
American chestnut was to the native people of the pre settlement Appalachians and
New England. But it could prove interesting to see what historic references
people out in ENTS land have accumulated over the years.


TOPIC: Native American views of nature

== 1 of 2 ==
Date: Sat, Jan 26 2008 8:39 am
From: Gary Smith


This is an interesting subject indeed, and I await future
installments, though it might require a little more focus and deeper
thinking than I normally have on hand. :-)

Bob, when you mention Mississippian cultures, I'm assuming this is an
Southeastern tribe. Right? (could be way off, I know practically
nothing about the native Indian culture, but am interested in

I wonder where the known usage of fire by Indians in the Southeast
fits in the overall view of what you are discussing.

Does anyone here know much about arrowheads, scrapers, birdpoints,
etc? I have a small collection I have found over the years in the
South and would love to learn more about them and the peoples that
made them.


== 2 of 2 ==
Date: Sat, Jan 26 2008 10:05 am


The Mississippian culture was a rich, diverse period of indigenous cultural development in the Southeast and South-central U.S. that included mound building and numerous agricultural advancements on the part of tribes we now refer to as Caddo, Choctaw, Osage, Sac and Fox, Natchez, etc. No doubt fire played an important part in each culture, but a different one based on the longitude as we move from wet to dry regions.

In terms of people who know about arrowheads, spear points, birdpoints, scrappers, knives, etc., my son is an expert. He lectures and gives classes on stone tool making. He has made replicas for museums and expertly crafts Folsom, Clovis, Hopewell, Adena points, and many other styles. His mother, Jani Leverett was a Choctaw-Cherokee, a Trail of Tears Native American. She later became the Director of the American Indian Moverment (AIM) here in Massachusetts. She once spoke at the United Nations. Rob bears the blood line and the knowledge. If you send him digital images, he can help interpret.