"A wonderful book. Information rich to say the least, and the indigenous human connections and portrait of the deep connectivity of nature, are both strong elements." —Jim McClintock, author of A Naturalist Goes Fishing
Nature on the brink? Maybe not. With so much bad news in the world, we forget how much environmental progress has been made. In a narrative that reaches from Native American tribal practices to public health and commercial hunting, Wild at Heart shows how western attitudes towards nature have changed dramatically in the last five hundred years.
The Chinook gave thanks for King Salmon's gifts. The Puritans saw Nature as a frightening wilderness, full of "uncooked meat." With the industrial revolution, nature was despoiled and simultaneously celebrated as a source of the sublime. With little forethought and great greed, Americans killed the last passenger pigeon, wiped out the old growth forests, and dumped so much oil in the rivers that they burst into flame. But in the span of a few decades, our relationship with nature has evolved to a more sophisticated sense of interdependence that brings us full circle. Across the US, people are taking individual action, planting native species and fighting for projects like dam removal and wolf restoration. Cities are embracing nature, too.
Humans can learn from the past, and our choices today will determine whether nature survives. Like the First Nations, all nations must come to deep agreement that nature needs protection. This compelling book reveals both how we got here and our own and nature's astonishing ability to mutually regenerate.
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Nature and Native America
The long memory is the most radical idea in America.
— U. UTAH PHILLIPS
Mrs. Jack Treetop, a member of the Húnkpapha Lakhóta (Hunkpapa Sioux), was photographed in 1908 wearing a Mona Lisa smile, a lovely stole of cylindrical bone beads, and a fortune in dentalium shells. Her shells are the basis of a strange story: they had been harvested nearly 1,500 miles away under sixty feet of water off the west coast of Vancouver Island; some of them may have been gathered centuries earlier. Dentalium was used throughout the Great Plains, Great Basin, Central Canada, Northern Plateau, and Alaska for as long as 3,500 years for every kind of jewelry and clothing decoration. It was used as currency for at least a thousand years, and perhaps much longer. What looks like decorative beads is actually money.
Nature and money have always been intertwined. Until recently, nature was the source of everything people used, and this bounty was distributed in different ways. From time immemorial, natural resources have been bartered, gifted, and sold for money.
Dentalium, like most money, is durable, portable, uniform, and scarce. These shells rarely wash up on shore. Ethnographers claim that they were harvested exclusively by the Nuu-chah-nulth people (formerly called Nootkas) of the Pacific Northwest, who collected the shells a few at a time from sandbars about sixty feet below the surface of the ocean.
The shells were deeply valuable. For some California tribes, twelve fine shells bought a redwood dugout canoe. The highest-quality shells were about two and one-fourth inches long, and some native traders had measurements tattooed on their arms to verify the length of their dentalium (Anglos called them Indian bankers).
More than 600 tribal nations lived on the land that became North America, and these people had a wide range of economic and social systems. There was great diversity of language and architecture, but two systems were widely shared. Hundreds of tribes participated in a complex, far-flung trade network that stretched from Central America to Alaska, and used dentalium to buy food, hides and furs, fabrics, ceramics, baskets and canoes, turquoise, macaw feathers, and even slaves. And almost without exception, tribal peoples believed that spirits resided in many living and nonliving beings. Nature was full of lives that were much like human lives.
To provide a range of native attitudes towards nature, I chose three tribes with different histories from distinct areas and environments. The temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest (near the dentalium beds) supported some of the densest populations of native people in North America, and the area was undisturbed by Europeans until the 1700s. The Chinook people were the best traders in the region, and many of the earliest explorers and traders wrote of Chinook life. I have a Hopi friend from the southwest desert of New Mexico, where his ancestors have lived for thousands of years. And I have a soft spot for the Western Abenaki, who once lived on the land I grew up on in Vermont. These tribes all saw nature differently.
* * *
In the Pacific Northwest, people relied on salmon and other fish for food, and the runs never failed. It was a fat life, and the region supported dense populations of well-fed people for thousands of years. But the plentiful food, long residence, and wet, temperate climate did not create an egalitarian and unified society. Instead, it was an area with exceptional linguistic diversity and a highly stratified social system. When tribes that live in a small area speak unrelated languages, it means they aren't talking with each other. The six major language families in the Pacific Northwest were so different that native traders used a pidgin called chinuk wawa, made up of words from all the local languages.
People bought and sold things with dentalium, and these tribes also participated in a gift economy centered around potlatch, a ceremony in which food and goods are given away or destroyed for status and political gain. "Potlatch" may be anglicized from the Nuu-chah-nulth word patshatl, or "giving," and these celebrations of birth, adulthood, marriage, or death featured competitive feasting, speechmaking, and gift giving. A potlatch isn't just a party: it's a political struggle among people jockeying for economic and ceremonial privileges within the social hierarchy. Pre-contact gifts included storable food, canoes, copper sheets hammered from chunks of raw ore, dentalium, and slaves.
The essence of potlatch is reciprocation. Presents were given and returned as a measure of respect. Potlatch gifts reinforced a web of obligations, and were used to settle the hierarchy within clans, and between tribes, confederations, and nations. People passed their winters in a cheerful round of gatherings that redistributed the wealth throughout a community, though guests of higher status received more things.
Ownership and property are not simple, stand-alone concepts; they are socially defined relationships between people and things and nature. Can you own land? Wildlife? Trees or water? Native Americans had different relationships with property and wildlife than Europeans, and many tribes relied on a gift economy. As early as 1765, Thomas Hutchinson wrote in The History of the Colony of Massachusett's Bay that "an Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected." In Vermont two centuries later, a friend who gave a gift and wanted it back was called an Indian giver.
Property and ownership are complex legal constructs and, regardless of the economic system, gifts often come with strings attached. A gifting culture relies on reciprocity, so an individual retains some rights to a gift. Even today, when you buy something, some fraction of a purchase often remains the property of someone else. When you buy a book, for example, the arrangement of words belongs to the author even though the book itself is sold and owned. You have the right to read my book, but I retain the rights to that particular set of words. Curiously, modern scientists follow the rules of a gift economy: those who give the best papers and contribute the most to their field are gifted with grants. Information often gains value through sharing, and it's possible that the exchange economy was dominant during the Industrial Age, and a gift economy is returning as we enter the Information Age.
The Chinook tribe was based around the mouth of the Columbia River, a major travel route for indigenous peoples. Nearly every dentalium shell that was harvested by the Nuu-chah-nulth people (who also made canoes) was traded by the Chinook. If you follow the money, you end up at the Chinook, who also traded ninety-pound packs of dried, pulverized salmon encased in cord-laced fish skins and rush baskets, edible for up to two years, as a standard trade item. Their other major trade items were canoes (often made by other tribes) and slaves.
The Chinook, master traders, had close contact with early European traders, and repeated smallpox epidemics nearly wiped out these intrepid middlemen by the mid-1800s. The surviving tribal members burned their ancestral villages to getrid of the bad spirits that made them ill, and stayed with other tribes. Their language was nearly replaced by the pidgin trading language chinuk wawa. Traditional Chinook life was so altered by European exposure that the diaries of early traders and explorers offer some of the clearest glimpses of pre-contact Chinook life.
To understand how the Chinook saw nature, I wanted to experience their world. What did a Chinook see from day to day? The Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington just built a Chinook plank house, so it's now possible to sit in a traditional Chinook home. I'm all in.
The plank house is twenty miles north of Portland in a grassy coastal area where wetlands fed by slow tributaries to the Columbia River are interspersed with a coastal forest of Douglas fir and some gigantic Oregon white oak trees. People have lived here for at least 2,300 years, and the plank house is well adapted to the rainy climate. It's spacious, nearly eighty feet long and half as wide with a ridgepole over twenty feet high, and two large rectangular hearths down the center of the building provide heat during the winter. A platform runs down one side of the plank house, with woven cattail mats perpendicular to the walls dividing the long house into cozy, private nooks. Traditionally, each family slept together in their own section with private storage rooms underneath the floor for extra possessions and food, providing psychic reassurance that there will be plenty for tomorrow. The reconstructed plank house isn't an exact replica — there are risers on one side to seat people for presentations and no cellars — but even so it feels warm and safe.
In 1806, on a drizzly January day, Meriwether Lewis wrote a long journal entry that detailed the domestic clutter of Chinookan daily life. People smoked fish in frames that stood close to the fire in the sunken hearth running down the center of the house, and smoked meat in the rafters. The family with the highest status lived farthest from the entrance, while the slaves and lower-status people lived near the door. The plank-house door was an oval opening, often carved or painted to look like a human or animal mouth, and Chinook backed into the single door buttocks first, a deeply non-threatening position.
The Chinook had more slaves per capita than the surrounding tribes because they were such good traders. Female slaves carried water, hewed wood, and made baskets and mats while male slaves built and repaired the houses, fished and hunted for meat, cured and preserved foods, and paddled their master's canoe. In 1810, a male slave in Chinook country could be bartered for ten to a dozen blankets; farther north, male slaves cost seventy-five to a hundred dentalium, while females cost fifty to seventy shells.
When you share a large house with slaves, it's important to look different from them. The Chinook people wore very little, and did not use clothing to indicate their status. Instead, tattoos and jewelry were used as social signifiers, and they molded their babies' heads to make an elegant, angular profile that was easily distinguished from the rounded foreheads of their slaves. A flattened head was a badge of aristocracy and a sign of freedom. (Chinook wore European hats sideways, since their heads were wider ear to ear.)
Two centuries later, it is surprisingly easy to piece together what the Chinook thought about nature. One of the most important rituals of Chinook life was the First Salmon feast, honoring the salmon with elaborate ceremonies to thank them for returning. People did not take salmon from the river, they accepted a gift and its obligations. The first salmon of the season was ritually prepared to ensure a successful fishing season, and after the fish was cooked, people feasted, danced, and gave thanks. The bones and skin of the fish were returned to the river so the rest of the salmon could see that the first salmon — a gift from the sea — had been respected, so they would continue to swim up the river in great numbers.
Chinook believed that nature was made up of spirits, including wind, water, plants, animals, mountains, and many others. People had guardian spirits, often animals, who taught them skills. In addition, objects had spirits, from the house to the dish and spoon. All spirits had supernatural powers and human characteristics, both good and evil. Some spirits were good and helped people who pleased them, while others were bad and harmed individuals or the tribe.
The Chinook lived in a world where nature was alive, and they were part of nature. Sharp trading was second nature, and a dentalium-based exchange economy allowed people to sell things to strangers with no strings attached. Then the Europeans came, and one of their first gifts was venereal disease. As the best traders, Chinook had the most contact with the Europeans, and natives as far away as Alaska were soon calling sexually transmitted diseases "Chinook."
The tribes of the Pacific Northwest had avoided contact with the global economy until 1741, when a Danish sea captain named Vitus Bering was hired by Czar Peter the Great to explore the Siberian Pacific. His brig was shipwrecked on an uninhabited northern island that was home to a wide variety of sea life. Georg Steller, Captain Bering's naturalist, discovered Steller's sea cow, a relative of the dugong and manatee that grew to up to thirty feet long with sweet blubber and meat; it became extinct in twenty-seven years (if that's not a record, it should be). The sea otter, the heaviest member of the weasel family and one of the smallest sea mammals, was another of his discoveries, and it has the misfortune of bearing a sumptuous coat.
The sea otter trade changed the Chinook's relationship with nature. Captain Bering's crew returned to Russia with 900 sea otter pelts that they had bought from local tribes, and most of these skins were sold in Chinese markets. Sea otter fur became a favorite of the Mandarins, who used it to trim their silk robes. It is the densest fur in the world, more valuable than sable, and each pelt was about a year's salary for a worker. Enterprising traders soon sailed from China, Great Britain, and Spain. Captain James Cook, Juan Pérez, and other foreigners exchanged dentalium, copper, and iron for sea otter skins and sex, and by the 1760s, the Pacific coast fur rush was on.
The tribal people of the Pacific Northwest believed that all animals had spirits, but the sea otter was particularly valued. Some natives knew the sea otter as "the brother"; among some tribes, only chiefs and experts were allowed to hunt sea otters or wear their fur. Luxuriant, dense, and soft, sea otter fur was worn as chiefs' regalia and was given in potlatches to mark coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. For people to kill and sell thousands of sea otter skins, their relationship with nature must have changed. Instead of being respectful of their sea otter brothers, they killed these animals for manufactured goods and dentalium, and for a time they prospered.
Global trade changed the Pacific Northwest. More than a hundred American ships traded for furs on the northwest coast between 1788 and 1803, using Hawaii as a resupply point to deliver furs to China. In 1794, the Resolution's bill of lading listed a typical cargo of trade goods, including 378 iron swords, 52 copper sheets, 11 muskets, 7 pistols, 8 copper-mounted cutlasses, and 150 fathoms of dentalium. The captain purchased furs with dentalium, and bartered for furs with metal and weapons. A single ship could bring thousands of skins to market. Captain Charles Carey, for example, assembled a cargo in 1820 that included over 23,000 skins for the hold of his ship, the Levant, and sailed to China where he bartered the furs for tea to sell in Europe.
The enormous cultural and linguistic divide between the Europeans and the tribes made the fur trade a dangerous business. Hundreds of fully armed natives would paddle out in large canoes to inspect the trade items laid out on the deck. A few ships were commandeered by natives over the years, and surely many locals were killed by guns. But the greatest threat was germs.
Venereal diseases came first, and smallpox followed shortly thereafter. Historian Elizabeth Fenn explains in Pox Americana that smallpox likely first struck the Chinook as part of a continental pandemic that started near Boston in 1774 and eventually spread from Mexico to Alaska. When the first British expedition surveyed Puget Sound in 1792, navigator George Vancouver noted that the area was a necropolis, with skeletons "promifcuoufly fcattered about the beach, in great numbers." Their naturalist, Archibald Menzies, noted of the natives that "several of them were pock markd ... [and] a number of them had lost an eye."
The natives were immunologically unprepared for European diseases, and single epidemics would kill as many as three-quarters of the people in a village. After an epidemic, the survivors would torch their lodges and possessions to appease the bad spirits. But the foreign illnesses kept coming. Academic estimates of the pre-contact Chinook population range from 5,000 to 22,000. In 1825, the Hudson's Bay Company counted a total of 550 Chinook, with 170 slaves; thirty years later, a total of 56 Chinook managed 23 slaves.
Chinook did not bury their dead. The corpses of high-ranking individuals were placed in canoes that were raised on poles onshore, along with goods for the next life. But when epidemics overwhelmed a village, many of the dead were slipped into the grassy tidal rivers where they bumped along the banks of their tributary to the Columbia River and then out to sea. The prevailing current at the mouth of the Columbia is north to south. After an epidemic moved through the villages, a steady stream of bloated corpses piled up along the beaches south of the Columbia, fattening carrion eaters and famished dogs. For years, jumbled drifts of human bones lay bleaching on the gray and windswept shores.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wild at Heart"
Copyright © 2019 Alice Outwater.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Nature and Native America,
2. Nature as Sublime,
3. Nature and Health,
4. Collecting Nature,
5. Selling Nature,
6. Erasing Nature,
7. Conserving Nature,
8. Nature in the City,
9. Rearranging Nature,
10. Poisoning Nature,
11. Protecting Nature,
12. Embracing Nature — Thinking Globally, Acting Locally,
Appendix: Environmental Laws,
About the Author,