Book Review

Out From Under Their Feet

October 28, 2020

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

When the English alighted on the U.S. shores 400 years ago they left the beavers for the Indians to hunt. Beavers were too much trouble and only the “Lazy” Native Americans had time to hunt them, they reasoned. In reality tho, the Indians were just far better at hunting, and they didn’t hunt any more than they needed to get by. There was a lot about this land Europeans didn’t understand. But these settlers had “Property Rights,” automagically divined into being by The King of a distant land and the Bible itself, granting dominion over land, over other animals, over all sorts of stuff.

U.S. Native Americans regarded the lands they lived upon from a vastly different perspective than the Europeans who would appropriate these lands for themselves. When they arrived, the Europeans brought with them the idea of land being a set of fixed boundaries, regardless of how it was used. The Indians saw in the land only how it could be used. That the Europeans saw land as something that could be purchased literally undermined the entire Indian way of life.

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, wrote William Cronon in the groundbreaking 1983 book "Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England." Having no concept of money, the Indians were neither rich nor poor. They were mobile, moving to wherever the best food supply for that season happened to be, be it a fishing lake or fruitful fields for planting.

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

The 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.

"The New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonably most concentrated in the New England ecosystem. Doing so required an intimate understanding of the habits and ecology of other species," Cronon wrote. "And it was this knowledge, that the English discovered, they lacked."

The Indians had suspected that the English were driven to at their shores by some sort of fuel shortage bask at their home, "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 its source of fuel).

The English were hyped about the abundance of this 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, at considerable 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 visitor gushed of the abundance of wood, and other resources. Life was good on these shores. People actually lived longer in the U.S. No wonder it was coveted by the English.

From this vantage point, the difference in how the two cultures lived was striking. "The way Indians had chosen to inhabit that world posed a paradox almost from the start for Europeans accustomed to other ways of interacting with the environment," Cronon wrote.

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

Unlike the monocultural fields of the Europeans, Indian crops 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.

They took a similar approach to game. The Indians would burn fields to attract deer to the resulting fresh fields, actually increasing the populations.The elk deer, turkey, hare, quail, and porcupine also brought with them their own predators, such as hawks, eagles, linx, foxes and wolves. All of which were also of benefit to the Indians.

When the folks from the old country named their lands, they named them after themselves, or after a fondly-recalled place in the homeland. The Indians named the land after its useful properties. Labeled under Indian terminology, the land itself provided a guide to survival for the Indians.

The English could not understand why the Indians didn't store more of their food and other needed supplies for the lean seasons of winters. Indians just assumed those would be lean times. They did not store a lot. Instead they just moved to where the resources would be.

"Diversity and mobility led New England Indians to avoid acquiring much surplus property, confident as they were that their mobility and skill would supply any need that arose," Cronon wrote.

The differences of how women were regarded was marked between the two cultures as well.In Native American villages, the men hunted while the women grew the crops. "Indian men seemed to acknowledge that their wives were a principle source of wealth, and mocked Englishmen for not working their wives harder," Cronon wrote.

Indians would mock the English women as "lazy squalls," and wondered why the men were our in the field doing all the work -- they did not recognize all the work English women were doing as work: making butter and cheese, sewing, making butter, spinning, weaving, caring for children, gardening, cooking.

In turn, the English men saw hunting and fishing that the Indians were doing as "leisure," rather than essential food gathering. As it turned out, this notion would provide a justification for taking control of the land, that the indigenous people of this land were not sufficiently exploiting it.

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

"Colonists thus rationalized their conquest of New England. By refusing to extend the rights of property to the Indians, they both trivialized the ecology of Indian life and paved the way for destroying it," Cronon wrote.

When it came to land, Indians tribes claimed the resources on the land -- the fish, the deer, the farmable land -- not the land itself. The recorded transactions documenting the ownership of the land was a recent invention, an innovation that clearly favored the Europeans. And so when they came to the bargaining table, the Indians thought they were trading off usufruct rights, perhaps unaware of the repercussions around the European notion of owning land outright.

"It is clear that the Indians conceived of this sale as applying to only very specific uses of the land. They gave up none of their most important hunting and gathering privileges, they retained right to their cornfields and and evidently intended to keep living on the land much as they had been doing before," Cronon wrote.

Quotes and Notes