Many people are under a false impression that early Native Americans are the original environmentalists. This is an impression that many people share. The Abenaki tribes that resided in Maine from 3700 BP were not by our traditional definition, environmentalists. In fact they were far from ecologically sound. This paper is meant not to criticize the Native Americans of the age, but to clarify their roles in the environment. To better understand this subject some background is needed.The Abenaki People of the Northeast led a non-permanent exististance based mostly on the seasonal flux in the region.
The area of land now referred to as Maine especially. Maine has always had abrupt seasons and the Abenaki used these seasons to their advantage. Their culture is one of direct appropriation with nature. This meaning that they were a culture in which nothing was permanent.
Their survival depended on mobility. The Abenaki did not utilize storage as we do now, or even as the early Europeans of the time did. For each of the four seasons they stayed in areas where they would successfully survive. For instance, the summer months were spent on the coastal regions fishing and foraging while in the winter they pulled back into the interior forests for protection and hunting. However, they did return to the same part of the forests, coasts and waterfalls where their former camps had been.Although the Abenaki culture bent to the seasons, they dramatically shaped their surrounding environments. The Abenaki tribes would change the location of the campsites every ten to fifteen years due to a variety of reasons.
The southern Abenaki tribes who performed some sort of agriculture would experience severe soil exhaustion after a decade of farming that particular piece of land. The Abenaki required enormous amounts of wood for campfires, smoking meat, building homes and cooking to name but a small few. Pest infestation was also another reason that the Abenaki would move the camp. Fleas and vermin would become extremely bothersome after time had gone by and they had become accustomed to environments. They practiced a form of clearcutting known today as anthropogenic fire, anthro meaning “human” and pogenic meaning “induced”. They would purposely ignite massive forest fires around their encampment for a variety of reasons.
These areas would burn underbrush and smaller trees but not ignite the foliage of the huge trees. This burning was good for some forms of agriculture. Many nuts and berries, including Maine’s own blueberries, recovered quickly and would have a better growing season if the ground were charred by fire. Hunting was easier without the underbrush to hinder the chasing down of the game. The occurrences of raids by other tribes were lessened because it was easier to see into the forests. Anthropogenic fire was also used as a pest deterrent in many areas. There were obvious disadvantages to anthropogenic fire as well.
The setting of massive fires often resulted in unpredictable fires and many times would destroy necessary natural resources. These fires also reduced natural species of both animal and plants therefore reducing diversity. Early Europeans reported seeing huge amounts of smoke coming from the forests when they came across land in ships.
As you can see, by our current definition of environmentalism the Native Americans of the time were not the epitome. The Abenaki did however understand something that not only the colonists and explorers the time did not, that which many of us currently do not posses. The Abenaki and a majority of the Native Americans promoted the natural balance of nature thereby creating a sustainable environment. They used what is known as a diffused substinance pattern. By this we mean that by using resources available to them lightly as opposed to intensely using the same resources, they were conserving for the future. These tribes would spiritualize nature. In this culture everything was significant.
They held reverence for the environment and a strong kinship with nature. Often these people observed respectful guidelines to avoid spiritual retaliation. For instance, the bones of the beaver would be returned to the river where it had been trapped. This was believed to keep the beavers there plentiful.
As you can clearly see the early Native Americans culture regarding the surrounding ecosystem would probably horrify many ecologists upon first look, but perhaps if we look deeper we can learn a truer meaning to the idea of environmentalism. If we plan to sustain the resources of the earth for our children we must find a balance and end the selfish taking of resources. We can learn much from this culture.