Book Review

Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples, (1995, Sante Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers).
Written by: Donald A. Grinde and Bruce S. Johansen

Reviewed by: Leonore Hijazi, December 2007

“A supreme irony of our time is that peoples who have tried to live within the bounds of a natural ethic today face some of the worst pollution in North America.”
Grinde and Johansen

Ecocide of Native America by Donald A. Grinde and Bruce S. Johansen explains that Native Americans were ecologists long before the environmental movement swept the continent.  The book offers a comprehensive view of Native American ecological thought before delving into historical accounts of Native American land use practices and present-day environmental problems on Indian reservations.  The book is full of first-hand accounts, testimonies, symbolic references, vivid imagery, and science.  

Grinde and Johansen philosophize about Native Americans as ecologists before giving historical evidence of Indians’ symbiotic relationship with nature.  The heart of the book lies in the stories of environmental degradation that happened, or more likely, are happening still, on the lands European Americans gave the Native Americans before taking the most ‘rich’ lands for themselves.  Though European Americans found most the land they offered as reservations unfit for agriculture or living, in modern times they have found value in these lands as dumping grounds for toxic waste or appropriate sites of coal or uranium mines.

In Chapter Five, Grinde and Johansen tell Emma Yazzie’s story.  A Navajo elder living in the Four Corners area of the Navajo reservation, Emma Yazzie continued to live where she was born despite the fact that it was also the site of one of the largest coal mines in the Western Hemisphere.  The mine company put a road right through her pasture, and the toxic pollution has killed many of Yazzie’s sheep as well as stunted their growth.  Not only is Navajo land being polluted, but the ‘mother mountain of the Navajo spirit,’ Black Mesa, is literally being destroyed.

Other compelling stories include the fight of Northwest Indians to maintain their traditions of fishing salmon in the wake of development and pollution, the Mohawk battle to save their Akwesasne reservation from pollution from GM and Alcoa plants, and the plight of the Navajos living near the uranium mine in New Mexico- where “the biggest expulsion of radioactive material in the United States” occurred in 1978 when more than 1100 tons of uranium mining waste gushed through a dam in Church Rock, New Mexico.  (page 211)  The book ends with moving testimonies from Native Americans such as Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Crees of Northern Quebec.  His people lost much of their land when a huge dam was constructed in the James Bay area.  “It is not a dam- It is a terrible and vast reduction of our entire world.”  In response to monetary compensation offered to the Cree he responds, “How can money compensate the poisoning of the earth, the loss of the heritage, and the permanent destruction of our economy?”  (page 233)

This book disputes the simple ideas many people have about Native Americans and the natural environment.  For example, the authors explain that native peoples did not have low population density because resources were scarce or because technology limited, but they chose to control their population growth through spacing of births and natural methods of contraception.  In addition, the authors explain that American was not a ‘virgin land’ when Europeans arrived.  Native Americans managed large tracts of land intensively for hunting and agriculture purposes.  This brings to mind, of course, René Dubos’s article, “Symbiosis Between the Earth and Mankind.”  Dubos described English landscapes that appeared natural but were actually “of human origin.”  Just as Dubos would glance at an overgrown hedge with its plants, insects, and mammals and see evidence of human presence, so too must Native Americans have seen their reflection in the supposed “virgin” landscapes ‘infested with wild animals’ that bewildered European immigrants.  They had learned to live in symbiosis with nature.

But if land were so precious to Indians, why did they sell it for trinkets to the first Europeans who asked for it?  Often, the authors explain, Indians understood the agreements to mean they would share their land with the whites, not give it away.

Ecocide of Native America offers examples of when Native American lands have been officially or unofficially recognized as “lands of national sacrifice.”  The authors describe in detail the Puyallup festival celebrating the first catch in the annual salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest.  They explain, “The ceremony showed an extraordinary respect for the salmon and a desire to maintain runs for future generations with techniques honed by centuries of experience, without the careless industrialism that led to the damming, polluting, and overfishing of rivers…” (page 146)  The rest of the chapter profiles in detail the legal battles that Indians had to fight to protect the right to fish for salmon as treaties their ancestors had signed with the American government had upheld many years prior.  The chapter ends with the stunning revelation that even if Native Americans could fish as they have for thousands of years, the fish are now harboring toxic levels of dioxin.

The chapter on the environmental devastation of Akwesasne, the lands of the Mohawk people in upstate New York, is equally thorough and insightful.  The authors explain the symbolic significance of the turtle to the Iroquois (the group of Indians tribes that includes the Mohawk)- the world took shape on a turtle’s back- before offering the disturbing evidence that turtles in Akwesasne have been found to have amounts of PCBs high enough to label their bodies as toxic waste.

To the detriment of their story, the authors sometimes adopt a pedantic tone.  For instance, ‘…Anyone who believes that American Indians only recently began using the metaphor of earth as mother knows precious little history.” (page 30)  Also, Grinde and Johansen sometimes seem to fall into the easy trap of putting Native Americans on a pedestal for their land-use practices while demonizing Europeans.  “At the time of the first sustained contact with Europeans,…many diverse native cultures- 2,000 distinct societies speaking hundred different languages- all shared ways of life which involved symbiosis with the natural world.” (page 32) As opposed to the few globetrotters that traveled to North America, most Europeans at that time probably did not have carbon footprints much larger than Native Americans.  Of course, the perspective has changed considering the huge amounts of pollution emitted today.  The authors later state, “A society in which ‘science’ and ‘religion’ do not clash (as in many Native American cultures) does not suit the assumptions of European thought.”  (page 106)  The authors make this brash statement but fail to support the claim with any evidence.

Grinde and Johansen are occasionally inconsistent in their judgments.  Though they repeat many times that Native Americans lived in symbiosis with nature, they also express proudly the fact that Navajos “embraced sheepherding so successfully that their human population had increased between three and fourfold in six decades.” (page 115)  Sometimes the authors praise Native American methods of keeping population at a steady level, but here they give evidence of the contrary with the same admirable tone.  The authors often make new hypotheses within a sentence, paragraph, or chapter, and yet fail to support them.  On page 136, they state “It is probable that if people were not manipulated through advertising to use more energy…per capita energy consumption from coal might…decline.”  Grinde and Johansen have made a big assumption that they neither acknowledge nor support.

Though some may interpret the book’s variety of material covered to reflect depth of vision, it may also be seen as a lack of focus.  The introduction is an interesting philosophical opening that delves into inconsistent European settlers’ accounts of Indians as well as attempts to question why some of America’s most polluted lands are in Indian reservations.  The first chapter, “America’s First Ecologists?” is thorough in its support for the title’s hypothesis.  The authors offer much evidence of Native Americans’ healthy relationships with their natural environments and refute common arguments that Native Americans were simply poor and backward societies.  The last section of the chapter focuses on population estimates of Native Americans.  It is a bit too thorough for the scope of this book.  Furthermore, the next two chapters focus on a Pueblo revolt in Colonial New Mexico and the Yamasee livelihood before and after the arrival of Europeans to North America.  This two chapters are out of place when compared to the rest of the book which focuses on modern-day ecological disasters in Indian reservations while also incorporating information from a myriad of Native American groups across North America.  While not entirely irrelevant, the two chapters would be more appropriate in a historical work.

The power of the information provided outweighs any shortcomings of Grinde and Johansen’s arguments.  Every Native American should read this book.  Everyone who lives on or near a Native American reservation should read this book and explore how their local environment may have been threatened.  Every American should be aware of the disasters profiled here.  It is appropriate reading for the general population.

Grinde and Johansen have asked a question not many Americans have ever considered- why are Native Americans being punished for the poor development choices of the wide American population?  They have shown that Native Americans used to live in symbiosis with nature and still attempt to do so.  They give powerful examples of the lack of respect shown to Native American lands and the price Native Americans are paying.  Though there are slight inconsistencies and the authors are sometimes patronizing, the work contains information valuable to anyone calling himself American.  It is a must-read.


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