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The Problem With The Ecological Indian Stereotype

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Iron Eyes Cody, born the Sicilian Actor TK, provides a convenient example of the Ecological Indian stereotype.
Iron Eyes Cody, a Sicilian-American actor born as Espero Oscar de Corti, provides a convenient example of the Ecological Indian stereotype.

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

We’ve all heard it a million times: Native Americans are the original environmentalists. Not that it’s not flattering. In a country whose history is built and maintained on the erasure of the “inferior” indigenous population, as a Native person I can say it’s nice to get credit for something once in awhile. Nor is it entirely a falsehood. It’s true that indigenous peoples in the U.S. (and around the world) tend to have relationships with the land and the environment that are qualitatively different than populations built on imperialism and heavy industrialization.

But to apply to them the blanket statement that they are “original environmentalists” is to overlook the meaning of the concept of environmentalism on the one hand, and on the other to mischaracterize Native peoples’ actual relationship to land. It creates an impossibly high standard to live up to, exposing Native peoples to dangerous policy objectives when they fail to meet those standards.

Euphemistically called the “ecological Indian” stereotype,[1] it has its roots in the earliest portrayals of Indians by European settlers. Back then, though, they were not the celebratory representations they are today. They hark back to a time when Native peoples were generally understood as so inferior that they were not even fully human. Consider the words of George Washington: “Indians and wolves are both beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.” To Washington, Indians were clearly no different than animals, indistinguishable from any other form of wildlife. They lurked about in the wilds of the “untamed” landscape, attacking without cause. Naturally, this informed Washington’s policies toward them (which were largely war and displacement), earning him the Iroquois moniker “Town Destroyer.”

In the settler imagination Native people had to be constructed as less than human in order to justify settlers’ relentless and often illegal incursions into Indian lands. By the nineteenth century, with the rise of anthropology, emergent theories classified humans by different races in what we know today as scientific racism. The theories that constituted scientific racism contributed to the narrative of the “vanishing Indian” who was doomed to perish by virtue of his inherent inferiority, and these narratives were plainly visible in popular cultural representations.

Indians were common subjects of the earliest Hollywood films, which invariably lamented the tragedy of their vanishing at a time when they were outnumbered and militarily defeated. These cinematic representations capitalized on what by then were firmly established tropes of the noble savage in American literature. The noble savage was a recuperated version of the ignoble savage, the wild beasts of the forest who needed to be excised from the environment because they were obstacles to “progress.”

Now safely disappearing, the noble savage could be enshrined into America’s romanticized narratives in which settlers as the rightful inheritors of the land were destined to replace the primitive indigenes. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, however, Indians reliably appeared in cinema and other popular culture texts as the ignoble savage. What would those old spaghetti westerns and Louis L’Amour novels be, after all, without bloodthirsty, marauding Indians?

The civil rights movements of the 1960s ushered in a new era of Indian cultural representations. Native peoples were rising up, fighting for the protection of their treaty rights in places like the Pacific Northwest and Alcatraz Island. This is when Indians became cool, even if they were portrayed predominantly by non-Natives. Think Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack; Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse; Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man. 1971 saw the official birth of the environmental Indian stereotype with the launch of an anti-littering campaign that featured the famous “crying Indian.” Dressed in full buckskin regalia and feather headdress — an invocation of the disappeared noble savage — the “Indian” is shown among intermingled images of pristine nature and man-made pollution. Never mind that the Indian is no Indian at all, but the long-ago-outed 100 percent Sicilian fraud Espero Oscar de Corti.   

Chief Seattle's fake speech excerpt
A popular excerpt from a speech attributed to the Suwamish Chief Sealth, but actually written by a Texas screenwriter in 1971. 

The ecological Indian is thus a mixed bag of beguiling messages. He is part of a larger phenomenon in the American cultural landscape, one that is a reflection of the country’s ambivalent relationship with indigenous peoples. As the noted Native scholar Philip Deloria argued in his now-classic book Playing Indian, this ambivalence spans centuries, embodied in federal policies that vacillated between extermination on the one hand, and assimilation on the other. It explains American’s bizarre obsession with appropriating all things Indian, from the theatrical Indian impersonations of the Boston Tea Party to the Indian hobbyist organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, and even the pervasive use of non-Native actors to play Native roles.  

Native American appropriation is enmeshed with — really, a product of — the American imperative to claim ownership of that which is not one’s own, beginning with land, and inevitably identity. By the 1960s, when disaffected American youth began waking up to their spiritually and morally bankrupt society, they looked to indigenous peoples for answers. The counterculture movement was born, and back to the land the hippies went, bedecked in beads, feathers, and buckskins. There they lived in pseudo tribal communities (which invariably involved tipis), and flocked to Indian reservations to learn Native wisdom. They learned that Indians had a different, more harmonious relationship to the land.  The intensely romanticized savage Indian was redeemed. But he became the symbol of renewed hope for America, the possibility to return to a simpler and more honorable past. At its core, however, the trope of the ecological Indian symbolizes an idealized — and largely fictitious — appeal to a perceived lost purity, and in the words of Noel Sturgeon, is “the founding moment of conservationist or preservationist environmentalism.”[2]

Preservation and conservation was the language of the earliest environmentalists, beginning in the early twentieth century with the creation of the National Parks Service. Both imagined a “pure” environment, either free of human interference, or in need of a highly regulated human presence. Either way, the environment was seen for its utilitarian value relative to humans. In other words, humans were viewed as as separate from, and even a threat to, a pristine natural environment. Yet indigenous peoples hadn’t just lived sustainably in virtually all of the landscapes on the continent for thousands of years; many Native nations are also known to have had complex land management practices. That these facts were and are systematically ignored was part of larger patterns of erasure, genocide, and dispossession.

The modern environmental movement, generally recognized as having its origins in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, built upon preservation and conservationist principles, and continued the legacy of indigenous erasure. So when Native people asserted their treaty-guaranteed rights to particular cultural practices, they were often met with fierce opposition from environmentalists. For example, when the Makah nation of the Pacific Northwest set out to revive subsistence whaling practices in 1999, they endured a barrage of hate mail, harassment, and death threats. Similarly, the Timbisha Shoshone’s efforts to resume traditional land management practices in Death Valley were opposed by some non-Native environmental groups in the mid-1990s after the return of several thousand acres of land. In effect, the opposition questioned the right of the tribe to sovereignty on its own land, based on incorrect understandings of the tribe’s management practices. Those misunderstandings were firmly rooted in tropes of wilderness purity and Native peoples as inactive agents within their environments.

Many more examples could be named that illustrate how historically the environmental movement has alienated Indian country. They point to the ways distorted understandings about Native peoples erect obstacles to alliance-building. A more entrenched problem, however, is that many of the conflicts between environmentalists and indigenous peoples pit the environment against indigenous treaty-based rights to self-determination and government in false dichotomies that construct humans as separate from nature. The examples of the Makah and Timbisha Shoshone makes this plainly evident.

Fortunately, in recent years the ideological gaps between Native peoples and environmentalists have been closing as a result of greater dialogue between the groups. Education about how stereotypes harm Native peoples, and about laws that protect tribal sovereignty also contribute to the healing of these rifts. Environmentalists have discovered that in the big picture they have more in common with Native peoples than not, and that working together they build strong alliances that can accomplish their mutual goals. Campaigns like Summer Heat in 2013 brought together with Idle No More to collectively say “no” to the fossil fuel industry. The #NoDapl movement at Standing Rock was a stunning display of coalition building between diverse groups to protect the water of millions of people in North Dakota. And in Southern California, a victory against the building of a toll road in San Clemente, and more recently, the protection of open space in Newport Beach from a mega-development happened because of smart alliances between environmentalists and Native nations.

[1] Noel Sturgeon, Environmentalism in Popular Culture, University of Arizona Press, 2009.

[2] Sturgeon, pg. 58.


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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