The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

The Pristine Myth

  1. What is the pristine myth?
  2. Aside from fire, what other examples of indigenous Americans shaping their environment does Denevan cite?  Follow one of the links in the relevant portion of this passage and explain one of these techniques or accomplishment in greater detail.
  3. Why did so many Europeans and their descendants fail to recognize the ways that Native Americans purposefully shaped the land? 
  4. How did Native Americans use fire?
  5. How did Europeans achieve the same or similar goals using different techniques?
  6. Could any of these Native American techniques be applied today?
“There were not really very many of these redmen … the land seemed empty to invaders who came from settled Europe . . . that ancient, primeval, undisturbed wilderness . . . the streams simply boiled with fish … so much game . . . that one hunter counted a thousand animals near a single salt lick … the virgin wilderness of Kentucky … the forested glory of primitive America.” –  John Bakeless, The Eyes of Discovery, 1950.

In fact, Bakeless’s portrayal of Native Americans as passive in their environment – as little more than wild animals inhabiting a niche in an ecosystem – couldn’t be more wrong.  Various groups of Native Americans shaped North and South America for millennia before modern Americans started paving the forests to put up parking lots.

Historical ecologist William M. Denevan was one of the first scholars to recognize and describe the ways in which Native Americans, just like Europeans, shaped the environments in which they found themselves.  In a seminal book, he called the idea that Native Americans had not significantly impacted the landscape of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans “the pristine myth.”  To support his case, Denevan cited the many mounds, causeways, roads, terraces, and cultivated forests in both North and South America – as well as ample evidence that Native Americans used fire as a versatile tool to control and shape their environment.

Purposefully set fires helped promote valuable resources and habitats that sustained indigenous cultures, economies, traditions, and livelihoods. The cumulative ecological impacts of Native American fire use over time has resulted in a mosaic of grasslands and forests across North America that was once widely perceived by early European explorers, trappers, and settlers as untouched, pristine wilderness.

It is now recognized that the original American landscape was already humanized at the time that the first Europeans arrived.

The Indian’s Vespers by Asher Brown Durand was painted in 1847.  As part of the so-called Hudson River School of romantic painters, Durand often portrayed the American wilderness as a primeval state of nature, untouched by the hands of man.  Here, in keeping with the idea that Native American lived in harmony with nature, accepting its bounty while leaving almost no footprint on the land, a Native American prays toward the rising sun.
Eleven major reasons for Native American ecosystem burning:
Hunting The burning of large areas was useful to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows (rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over cliffs where the animals could be killed easily. Some tribes used a surround or circle fire to force rabbits and game into small areas. The Seminoles even practiced hunting alligators with fire. Torches were used to spot deer and attract fish. Smoke was used to drive/dislodge raccoons and bears from hiding.
Crop management Burning was used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca, greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and tobacco. One report of fire being used to bring rain (overcome drought). Clearing ground of grass and brush was done to facilitate the gathering of acorns. Fire was used to roast mescal and obtain salt from grasses.
Insect collection Some tribes used a “fire surround” to collect and roast crickets, grasshoppers, Pandora Pinemoths in pine forests, and collect honey from bees.
Pest management Burning was sometimes used to reduce insects (black flies, ticks, and mosquitos) and rodents, as well as kill mistletoe that invaded mesquite and oak trees and kill the tree moss favored by deer (thus forcing them to the valleys). Fire was also used to kill poisonous snakes.
Improve growth and yields Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries), and tobacco. Fire was also used to promote plant structure and health, increase the growth of reeds and grasses used as basket materials, beargrassdeergrasshazel, and willows.
Fireproofing areas There are some indications that fire was used to protect certain medicine plants by clearing an area around the plants, as well as to fireproof areas, especially around settlements, from destructive wildfires. Fire was also used to keep prairies open from encroaching shrubs and trees.
Warfare and signaling Indians used fire to deprive the enemy of hiding places in tall grass and underbrush, to destroy enemy property, and to camouflage an escape. Large fires (not the Hollywood version of blankets and smoke) were ignited to signal enemy movements and to gather forces for combat.
Economic extortion Some tribes also used fire for a “scorched earth” policy to deprive settlers and fur traders from easy access to big game and thus benefiting from being “middlemen” in supplying pemmican and jerky.
Clearing areas for travel Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
Felling trees Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
Clearing riparian areas Fire was commonly used to clear brush from riparian areas and marshes for new grasses and sedges, plant growth (cattails), and tree sprouts (to benefit beavermuskratsmoose, and waterfowl), including mesquite, cottonwood, and willows.
Image result for controlled burns
Many plants have seeds that open only in the extreme heat of a fire.  Other plants thrive once the ground is cleared of dead matter, freeing up resources like sunlight and returning nutrients to the soil.  Game like deer and rabbits are attracted to this fresh green growth, both increasing their population and attracting them to the location of a Native American’s choice.  A controlled burn can also reduce the risk of an out of control wildfire like those seen recently in California. (Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Gaming Commission)

Changes in Native Indian burning practices occurred as Europeans settled across the continent. 

Some settlers saw the potential benefits of low intensity, controlled burns, but by and large, they feared and suppressed them as a threat to their homes, farms, and towns.

Meanwhile, as Native American populations collapsed due to disease, violent conquest, and forced removal, the once-cultivated and sculpted green spaces between European settlements became truly wild.

In fact, the “primeval” forest observed by the romantic and transcendentalist writers of the early Nineteenth Century was the product of a catastrophic disruption of Native American society over the previous century by European settlers and conquerors.  In other words, the state of primeval nature – the overgrown forests with thick underbrush, overrun with wildlife – as described by such ostensibly perceptive men as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Henry David Thoreau existed because European-style civilization had supplanted Native American-style civilization, and their carefully cultivated wilderness landscapes had fallen into disrepair.

As Denevan puts it, “The pristine image of 1492 seems to be a myth, then, an image more applicable to 1750, following Indian decline.”

Asher Brown Durand’s The First Harvest in the Wilderness is impressed with the majesty of what he saw a untouched nature.  However, his painting might more accurately (if less poetically) be titled The First European-style Harvest in the Wilderness.

By the 1880’s, impacts of colonization had devastated indigenous populations, and fire exclusion became more widespread; by the early 20th century fire suppression had become official U.S. federal policy. Understanding how Native Americans used fire pre-settlement provides an important basis for studying and reconstructing subsequent fire regimes throughout the landscape and is critical to correctly interpreting the ecological basis for vegetation distribution.

Read more about how specific indigenous Americans groups shaped their world.

A section of Everglades National Park that is maintained through periodic controlled burns, which helps rangers consume dead plant material and clear invasive species. (Shark Valley, Florida, 2018.)

Further Reading

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.


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The lush product of controlled burns. (Everglades National Park, Florida, 2018.)
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This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Continue reading “Reform and Resistance: The Cuban Revolution Part II”