Environmental History: Viewpoints on Native Americans, Europeans and the New World in 1490 part 1

This post is a series of snapshots and viewpoints between the Native Americans and the coming Europeans in 1491. Please feel free to add your thoughts, concerns and views on these topics in the comment section below! :)

There are several differences between the cultures of the Native Americans and their European counterparts when it came to gift giving and trade. For the Pueblo Indians there is a clear reciprocal protocol that must be followed with gift giving. In short – a gift should be accepted with the giving of another gift making both givers the equal and not indebted to each other. If only one side had a gift to offer, then the person who accepted the gift still had a non-tangible gift to give- which was unending obedience and respect. This knowledge and acceptance of the gift giving relationship between parties was no limited to only human beings in the sense that the Indians believed that God had given them many gifts that they could not reciprocate and so they 'owed' obedience and respect to God always. Gifts were offered to animal spirits to help with the hunt and to continue the important role of gift giving and reciprocity. In the European culture, gift giving does not have the same connotations. It is considered that a gift doesn't need to be reciprocated in many instances. Therefore, it was inevitable that conflict would arise between the two communities based on this one cultural difference alone. In many cases, Europeans thought the gifts were simply 'tribute' and was the conquerors due, not a gift to be acknowledged and returned. Trade was similarly disproportionate between the two groups. Europeans would trade quick cheap materials, tools or products to the Indian for the very expensive fur. And the tools of the 'western men' made more sense to use when taken into conjunction with the success and strength of Christianity and the European marketplace.

There are a few ecological roles that animal spirits, rain chiefs and shamans play in Native American society. In the case of the Pueblo Indians, they believed that people and the natural word were connected and that all objects and animals had a spirit. So before using or killing natural resources the spirit must been appeased and respected or the spirits could work against the people. They believed that animals have emotions just as we do and they are capable of fighting back if their resources are overused and not respected. Micmac tribes believed that the world was filled with magic and power and is a world filled with magic or spiritual beings – not objects. So, for the majority of native Indians, these spirits helped focus and control their use of natural resources by giving animals a respect and reverence due them because of the fellow relationship with the tribal members and nature. Animals may have been a 'separate nation, but they were considered a nation to be carefully used, respected, and rituals followed to keep the relationship between the nations of animals and people open and healthy. For the Micmac communities, hunting was even called a 'holy occupation' and was mainly performed for need alone... In fact, the belief that over-consumption could cause retaliation in the animal world by either invalidating the hunter's way to hunt causing inability to get food or the similarly terrible calamity of the living animals/members of the over-consumed 'nation' leaving the vicinity of the tribe and their hunting grounds. The arrival and active influence of the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries to convert and change the spiritual beliefs of the Native Americans proved quite effective. These Europeans appears to control animals with a power that the leaders of native groups could not match. The 'corn mother', a sacred fertility goddess, was transmogrified by the missionaries in the Virgin Mary and other gods were pushed aside. Conversions were acquired by trickery (when I pray for you and you feel better, you will convert), ridicule of the native religion, better food production, and physical protection if needed. Even the disease that was brought by the Europeans caused spiritual harm as the ways of medicine for the tribe were unable to help these new illnesses and the 'whites' seemed to be almost immune to the problem, leading credence to the Europeans Christianity. Those native societies that fell hardest under the influence of the European cultures found woman’s right severely curtailed, many of their feminine cultural gods and ceremonies removed as demonic or sinful, and only the more masculine Gods continued to be worshiped or acknowledged after the erosion of the native culture by the Europeans- even the Christian names given to the male children helped subvert the rights of women. And by subverting the spiritual base of the relationship between man and animals, the relationship between them was more open towards more exploitation with fear of retaliation.

Native American society had quite a few gender differences that existed in their cultures before the arrival of the Europeans. The Pueblo Indians had a culture that allowed for both independence as well as interdependence of their genders, giving men and women relatively equal status in the group. Jobs were gender based as women spent much of their days preparing food, community work as well as the traditional tasks of clothing preparation, childcare, cleaning, etc... Men worked in the corn plots owned by women usually a family member, collected necessities such as firewood, performed the hunt, and were responsible for the community's relationship with the Gods. In these societies, land was mostly owned by women and women had rights to their children, labor, land and even the seeds for the growing of food. The arrival and upheaval caused by the Europeans altered the way that all native societies functioned and altered the roles of both gender changing the balance of power clearly towards the masculine gender and severally limiting the rights of the native women (and their own actually :)

The differences in belief and attitudes towards property and the environment between the Native American and the Europeans are stark. As both sides viewed the world around them in such differing way culturally, socially, and spiritually, it can come with little surprise that there was so much conflict and anger between the two groups. (While it is incorrect to lump all native peoples into one group as the Native Americans had many differences in their cultures depending on their location and groups, for this discussion I will discuss the generic beliefs of all Native American cultures versus the attitudes of the European groups.) Native Americans saw personal property as something that could be carried-such as tools, etc... land was owned by all beings including the animals and inanimate objects in nature. So, many native groups had areas were they lived and commenced their work, but no one in particular owned that land and all people used the land to keep it useful and ready for the next generations- a believe that this generation was essentially renting the land from the next generation. Their religion reminded them that they must use natural resources with respect and dignity... otherwise the spirits of nature could retaliate against them. Things that were passed on in kinship groups would pass down the matriarchal line and there was no distinction between communal or personal property in kinship groups. The Europeans with a rich history of Judea-Christian thought saw the environment very differently. One view that was held by these groups was that God had given Adam (the first man) the order to dominate nature.... and our intelligence gives humans the ability use science to learn about nature and improve and alter it which puts the human being on a dominant scale in relation to all others forms of nature and the environment. Europeans tended to see forests and densely filled land with superstitious thoughts of it being the devil's place (of filled with satanic forces) and so they saw it as they right- nay, duty to conquer and tame the land to make room for appropriate civilization. It also must be mentioned that Europeans believed in the concept of private property; that land could be owned permanently by one or more person and that land gave a person wealth and power. They believed that land could be owned by those who worked the land and this thought was one of the justifications for taking the land from the natives (as they were not working it like the Europeans.) Essentially, the Europeans saw land as a constantly marketable commodity and passed these commodities through paternal lines of kinship. The Europeans biased views allowed them to decide that Native Americans were lazy, poverty stricken because of their laziness and their duty to civilize both the natives and the environment. Native religions helped keep the overuse of the natural resources to a minimum while European religion justified European overuse and relentless usage of the natural resources.

The concept of the 'Ecological' Indian is a stereotypical 'idea' that was given to the Indians by the early environment conservation movement. This stereotype suggests that Indian culture was so pure and conservationist that it never left a mark or any harmful action onto their environment. However, like all stereotypes, there is only a little truth to the concept and while native communities did cause less negative impacts on their environment as a whole, they still did cause alterations, damage, and differing impacts on their environment. While, it can truly be said that the influence of the European and the assimilation of his culture made both the native and European population more exploitative of the land and its resources... it is true that native communities did cause a higher environmental impact on nature and their surroundings after assimilating parts of European culture and apostatizing from their own beliefs. Stereotypes also tend to make the object or community that is stereotypes simple and plain and doesn’t allow for the complexities and details of their culture to be seen or understood... and tend to make the details seem useless and unimportant. I have certainly found that any stereotype or 'label' that is used in my life to describe something or someone rarely is able to do more but merely scratch the surface of the beauty, complexity, and true understanding of the person, culture, etc....

There were a few reasons that European monarchs were looking for a new route to the 'East', but only one real focus. The aristocracy and monarchy of the European countries had been able to grow wealthy from trade with the east and were also able to enjoy luxuries that they were not able to easily or cheaply make themselves such as silk, spices, gold and jewels. However with only one route to the east and one way to trade and make money, trade and wealth for the monarchs of Europe was always contingent on control of the way to the East. When the 'silk road' was blocked by the Turks around 1490 and trade was on the decline, monarchs such as Queen Isabela of Spain were desperate to find a new way to get to India to continue trade. It didn't hurt that the Europeans themselves had already exploited so much of their natural resources that times were a little difficult- land was scarce and overworked, peasants worked land that belonged to wealthy people or institutions, and overcrowding was the norm. So this is the time that Kings and Queens sent out explorers to find new lands or ways to the East to find more resources.

Before the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, Europe is described by the documentary (America before Columbus) in stark and harsh terms. In 1491, Europe is crowded, the wealth of the rich and noble is at risk due to restricted ability to trade, the land is overworked, scarce, and overrun, the borders of countries are torn and damaged by wars, thirst for power, religious fervor. Europe is crowded with 100 million people, all natural resources have already been exploited, most people work for others as peasants, the main diet of the majority is fairly simple and unchanging (mostly grain products like bread and porridge). Water and wind are harnessed for power to increase yields on land that is small and overworked. The population of Europe is so large and the domesticated animals help by providing meat and dairy, fur hides and clothing, physical labor, and leather. Between the large number of people and the domesticated animals controlled by human owners, Europe is to crowded and cannot continue to really survive... let alone thrive without finding more resources to use. (or exploit). Even the seas and rivers have been exploited as a form of cheap protein and have been so over-fished (as well as the damage/ pollution caused by over farming the lands and the runoff and sediment), that the yields of fish diminish. The rivers also had diminished fish yields not only because of pollution but also the damming of the waterways to produce power and to help with irrigation which disrupted spawning and fish growth. Due to wars, need for fuel, buildings etc... the forest in Europe have been depleted. Wood is used for fuel as there is not much coal and while many buildings like cathedrals are made of stone... a lot of wood is used for roofs, pillars, foundation, ceilings, etc... Wood is also used for tools (for both wood tools such as ax handles, but also for the smelting fires to make the metals into weapons and tools) and furniture as well as transportation such as cart wheels. And forests take up badly needed land for food production. Wood in many ways is scarce and what is left is owned by the powerful. Venice itself is literally floating on wood and seriously depleted all the lands around it for the wood. Europe is simply in a desperate state and needs to find more resources or collapse whether through war, famine, etc... There is little to lose in exploration and much potential to gain.

One interesting civilization of note was the civilization of the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The reason that this civilization is important to study and acknowledge is that even though this group of people used resources as correctly as they could, their civilization still declined until extinction and assimilation to another place. In 1491, this land looks much like it does today- barren, little vegetation, no water and few animals. Before this time the land was full of forests and vegetation and was the home of the Anasazi. From 700 AD on, these people built huge buildings- the largest and highest in North America at that time. The Anasazi have left no written records to tell us about their civilization and so to discover what happened to this civilization of around 100 people, environmental historians can study the trees, rate nests, and other environmental factors to help us learn what happened to them. Archeology will give some clues but studying the environment will tell us that the world was like around the people we are studying. I think this story is important to study and understand because we can see clearly through the study of the Anasazi and Chaco Canyon that the environment can not only be changed by us, but it can control us and even change us in dramatic ways. While there is some debate about whether the Anasazi harvested too much wood causing the loss of forests or if the loss is due to drought... or both, in the end we know that the forest receded causing erosion and more difficulty in growing crops. We know that the population was too large and not enough agriculture could be grown during the drought to feed the people... so they had to leave. (This seems to me to be a great metaphor for Europe in 1491 and the desperation of the population to find a another place to move to and more resources to use.)

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