Indian Country Today | National Humanities Center

TeacherServe Essays

Indian Country Today

By Krech, Shepard, III (Trustee; NHC Fellow, 1993–94; 2000–01)

Today, many American Indians live on the same lands occupied by their ancestors centuries ago, even if the lands often represent a fraction of the original territory. Increasingly in the twentieth century, industry together with paternalistic and bureaucratic governmental caretakers lacking or not interested in, or not applying or enforcing, environmental controls, have exploited these lands and their resources, as have native people themselves. There is no single narrative about these contemporary issues, and to excoriate the larger society as one absolves Indians of all blame (which some find tempting given the traumatic consequences of some of these cases) is to sacrifice evidence of Indian participation in, or control over, what happens on their land and to their resources. There is no need to victimize Indians or strip them of agency in their lives except when their actions fit the image of them widespread in the public imagination as absolute paragons of ecological virtue. Frozen in this image (called the Ecological Indian), native people should take only what they need and should use all that they take, and if they must participate in larger markets far better it be to profit from hydroponic vegetables, fish, or other “traditional” products than for oil, coal, trash and like commodities. They are held to exacting standards that, with minor exceptions, neither they nor their non-native accusers have ever met.

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History / Environment and Nature / American History / Indigenous Americans / Human Ecology / Environmental Conservation /