Book Review

Out From Under Their Feet

September 27, 2020

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

U.S. Native Americans viewed the lands they lived from in a vastly different perspective than the English. When the English happed upon these shores and rapidly infested the areas, they brought with them the idea of land as a set of fixed boundaries, regardless of use.

The Indians, on the other hand, were mobile. They did not view land as something that could be owned, but rather saw it as a shared resource, an ecological cornucopia for all. They moved to wherever the best food supply for that season happened to be, be it a fishing lake or fruitful fields for planting. Having no concept of money, the Indians were neither rich nor poor. That the English saw these lands as something that could be purchased literally undermined the Indian's entire way of life.

"Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England"
William Cronon, Hill and Wang

The Indians had suspected, when the English first arrived at their shores, that they were driven from their homes by some sort of fuel shortage, "a feign to follow the wood." Indeed, England was, at the time, facing a severe wood shortage (which soon would lead to the predominance of coal as a fuel source).

English folks were hyped as to the abundance of the new world. "I will not tell you that you may smell the corn fields before you see the land; Neither must men think that corn doth grow naturally (or on trees), nor will the deer come when they come when they are called or stand still and look on a man until you shoot him, not knowing a man from a beast," Christopher Levett wrote, deflating the expectations of those who sought to come to the land, in quite length. "Nor the fish leap into the kettle, nor on the dry land. Neither are they so plentiful that you may dip them up in baskets nor take cod in nets to make a voyage, which is no truer than the fowl will present themselves to you with spits through them."

"Neigh, all Europe is not able to afford so great fires as New England," one vistor gushed of the abundance of wood, and other resources. Life was good on these shores. People actually lived longer in the U.S.

The Indians had lived on the land for 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and the two cultures could not be any different from one another.

Indian tribes were mobile, seeking to "obtain their food wherever it was seasonably most concentrated in the New England ecosystem," Levett wrote. For this to work the Indians needed "an intimate understanding of the habits and ecology of other species." It was a given, for instance, that there would not be much eating in February and March, as the animals to be hunted were lean ... and rare.

The men hunted while the women grew the crops. Unlike the monocultural fields of the Europeans, however, Indian fields intermingled different food plants. "Cornstalks served as beanpoles. Squashes sent their tendrils everywhere," Cronon wrote.

This approach to planting the ground came with its own benefits: "The resulting harvest of beans and corn provided the amino acids necessary for a balanced diet of vegetable protein," Cronon wrote.

This Indians apparently lived in harmony with nature. A churn of moving a tribe from one location to another reduced the stress on the land. In turn, the limits of the land kept the Indian populations at a modest level, reflecting Liebig's law that populations are limited by the amount of food available at the scarcest time of the year. Land for the non agricultural indians of Maine hosted about 41 persons across 100 miles while the crop-raising southern indian lived at 287 people per 100 miles.

Quotes and Notes