Re: PC natives and environmental change

Harriet Whitehead (whitehea@WSUNIX.WSU.EDU)
Sun, 14 May 1995 06:47:46 -0700

Rick Wilk's post puts a fine point on the my earlier argument that native
peoples must be defended in terms of general human rights, not their
purported environmental wisdom. In the same vein, we must not assume that
those who point out the vulnerability of the "environmental wisdom" approach
have it in for native peoples, or belong to right-wing groups, or are
behaving irresponsibly. Rick is quite right that the argument can 'fall
into the wrong hands,' so to speak (already has!), but so can any
argument if you count all the spins that can be put on any particular set
of facts. IMHO the responsible approach is first to correctly understand
the reality that you're dealing with, even if there is danger that what
you find won't please you; then shape your advocacy arguments in ways
that will stand up to public scrutiny. If you announce yourself only
sympathetic to native peoples who *don't* in any way degrade their
environment, then you're not really an advocate for native people.

There is another common misunderstanding that tends to surface
again and again in these threads which is that you can simply read off a
people's environmental impact from their environmental *attitude.* Would
that this were so, since if it were our own culture's degradations might
be cut in half! But in fact there's no reason to assume that a respectful
attitude toward the land or toward wild species, or a detailed knowledge
about these, necessarily prevents long-term degradation. From where a
group of people stand at any point in their history, they are typically
unable to see the long-range trends of which they are a part. They may
very well be "respectfully" taking care not to over-harvest the gazelle
species that is *the last remaining representative* of a genus that
un-benownst to them has been disappearing ever since homo sapiens
appeared on the continent or island or wherever. In industrial societies,
decades of environmental science has still not achieved control of the
many variables that must be conquered in order to correctly model these
sorts of long-range trends. Yet we persist in thinking that somehow,
mystically, native peoples have it all figured out. Dream on!

Harriet Whitehead
Anthropology WSU

On Fri, 12 May 1995, wilkr wrote:

> Let us not forget the political purposes that our work is likely to be
> used for.
> I am not calling for censorship. There are some very good measured
> critiques of notions of harmony and stewardship among so-called
> "primitives" (Edgerton's "Sick Societies" comes immediately to mind.).
> There are also some good recent arguments that many of the classic
> anthropological studies of indigenous 'pathology' (like the warlike
> Yanomamo and the isolated !Kung) were actually describing imbalances
> caused by European expansion or external destabilization.
> But outside the discipline there are people who are ready to use our
> words as a rationale for
> 1. taking away or continuing to deny indigenous peoples the rights to
> control their own resources
> 2. continuing to destroy and despoil our own resources.
> Don't forget this is the day that the Congress takes initial votes on the
> new "Dirty Water Act." ! I well remember about 8 years ago standing up
> during a discussion of a BLM land management plan, arguing for the
> preservation of some semblance of the old-growth in the Lincoln national
> forest, and being answered by a bureaucrat who had read A. Terry Rambo's
> book "Primitive Polluters" who argued that the forest had always been
> despoiled!
> Again, I am not arguing for censorship. It is absolutely essential that
> we continue to study pre-western systems of land modification,
> instensification, and environmental manipulation. But if we stress only
> their destructive aspects, we are piling dry wood on a fire, and we
> should not be surprised when our eyebrows get singed. There has to be
> some balance in the story of prewestern human/land interactions..