Native American Style
By Terry L. Anderson
Over the past three decades, the environmental movement has promoted the view of American Indians as the "original conservationists"ï¿½??that is, "people so intimately bound to the land that they have left no mark upon it." (White and Cronon 1988, 417).
Appealing as the romantic notion of a Native American environmental ethic is, it has two major flaws. First, the spiritual connection attributed to Native Americans does not always mesh with the history of Indian resource use. And second, by focusing on myths instead of reality, environmentalist have patronized American Indians and demeaned their rich institutional heritage that encouraged resource conservation.
American Indian history teaches us that we must go beyond calls for spiritual awakenings and find workable institutions that provide positive incentives for good stewardship. Because American Indians adapted their institutions to the resource constraints, they were able to sustain life, often in hostile environments. Refocusing on these institutions offers the best way for Native American cultures to get out of the unsustainable poverty trap in which they are caught.
Sorting out spiritual myths from institutional realities reveals that property rights were an integral part of their heritage. Non-Indians also will do well to stop promulgating these myths as a solution to modern environmental problems. Especially in a multi-cultural society where world views vary widely, devolution of authority and responsibility offers the best hope for resource conservation. Rather than shunning property rights solutions, we should embrace them as did our predecessors on this continent.