Gladue Rights Research Database

The Ecological Indian

The “Ecological Indian” is a variation of the Noble Savage stereotype that equates Indigenous people with nature and a natural condition which never changes and is always harmonious.  From its beginning it has been used as a means of critiquing Euro-American society.  For example, where Western societies were seen to disrespect, plunder and destroy the natural environment, Indigenous people where held up as a counter example, as people who were innately environmentalist and eco-friendly. The view that indigenous people are “ecological” and therefore aligned with the political agenda of conservationists and environmentalists has been part of Euro-North Americans’ popular culture from before confederation.  

The stereotype does not allow for the ways indigenous people have always used and shaped their environments according to their own needs and cultural values and severely limits the ways Euro-Canadians think about their relationship with the Indigenous “other,” a relationship distorted by their uneasiness with a colonial past.  In fact, Indigenous people are not always conservationist in the sense that they seek to keep the environment from changing.  They have always interacted with and changed their environment based on cultural values which at times even led to extinction of species and damage of ecosystems.  As Indigenous cultures and values encountered the capitalist economy people were confronted with options, good and bad, that had not existed earlier. 

This does not mean that Indigenous people do not think of and value the environment and the natural world differently than dominant Canadian culture.  It does mean that it should not be assumed that Indigenous relationships within the ecosystem cannot change or adapt.  Certainly, it should not be taken to imply that if Indigenous people engage in resource development and exploitation that they are somehow being “un-Indigenous.”  Such arguments about Indigenous cultural stasis has led to the assumption that Indigenous cultures will never fit into the “modern world” and are therefore “doomed to disappear.” In the past, theories of social evolution in the work of anthropologists and sociologists made use of this stereotype to describe Indigenous people as low on the evolutionary continuum towards the modern (and superior) human being. These views have, in turn, be used to create policies that encourage the disappearance of Indigenous groups as distinct peoples. 

 

Suggested Readings:

  • ShepherdKrech III, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999) 
  • Daniel Francis,The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012)