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History or just story

THE ECOLOGICAL INDIAN, MYTH AND HISTORY· Shepard Krech III· W W Norton Company, USA·pp318·US $27.95

By Sharmila Chandra
Published: Tuesday 31 October 2000

-- THE book tackles the stereotypical image long ascribed to American Indians. Anthropologist Shepard Krech III takes on the unenviable task of breaking through the myths cherished by the contemporary world. Prevailing myths portray the American Indians as extremely intelligent in dealing with nature and living in perfect harmony with their environment. They have been stereotyped as either 'noble savages' or 'ignoble savages'. These images have then been juxtaposed against the corporate plundering of nature to highlight the extremes and critique white civilization. Historians and scholars too have called American Indians the first ones to respect ecological boundaries and limit human impact on nature.

Krech reassesses the important and often debated cases relating to conservation and ecology in American Indian habitats. He seeks to analyse the myriad relationship between indigenous people and their environment. In doing so, he addresses many contentious questions, such as how the Hohokam tribe, often dubbed as the 'canal builders', vanished, leaving behind the largest canal system in North America. The Hohokam built and used canals between the 6th and the 15th century. They drew water from the perennial Gila and Salt rivers. Without putting forth any decisive conclusions, the author scales over the various theories for the Hohokam's demise.

The most persistent explanation put forth is that they overirrigated their fields and delivered saline water to an already saline soil. This destroyed their crops. Others disagree, put forth other arguments and claim that the Hohokams displayed uncanny wisdom in using natural resources. One startling reason proffered is that the Hohokam abandoned their towns because they believed they lived at the centre of the world that would become unstable unless they abandoned it!

The author reasons that Hohokam's extinction is linked to their relationship with their desert habitat. The Hohokam faced four environmental problems -- drought, high water table level, salt laden waters and floods. Their extinction was caused by one of the four, the author proposes.

Another equally engaging chapter deals with the Americans Indian's use of fire. The anthropologist in Krech is in full bloom here, quoting scholars and texts. He does his own analysis as well. The American Indians used fire primarily to better hunting practices, systematically burning the forage of the animals they depended on for food and trapping them for the final hunt. They also set fire extensively to clear land and destroy plants competing with crops, deposited ash on soil to improve pasture for horse herds. As Krech says, "it is clear that when lit at favourable time of the year, fire had a positive impact on the growth of grasses and animal forage, but in their pragmatism, Indians were not always concerned with how far, fast or hot each and every fire burned." This shatters the long held myth that Indians' burning was always benign.

The book explores other interesting posers like the role of the Americans Indians in the near extinction of the deer, the beaver and the buffalo. Krech concludes that in their own way, they 'managed' resources and were not always fully understanding of the long term systemic consequences.

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