Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Two:
The Native Americans and the Land

Native American Impacts on the Land

Modern Americans tend to believe that the Native Americans who first inhabited this continent lived in almost perfect harmony with the environment. There is some truth to this assertion, and a great deal of dangerous misinformation. A fundamental beginning for understanding the relationship between precontact Native Americans and the natural environment is to understand that they would never have asked the question. Before the arrival of European man in California, the people who lived here saw themselves as inseparable from the natural world of plants and animals. The Western Mono lived in a unified world of predator and prey, of spirits and totemic clan groups. Their mythology related them to their fellow creatures and to the landscape. But this does not mean that they had no impact upon their world, for they certainly did.

Perhaps the most difficult historical question modern wilderness managers face in California and the Sierra is defining how preindustrial human beings affected the ecosystems we are now seeking to preserve. Were early human actions so insignificant that they really are of no modern consequence? Or were they critical to the development and maintenance of the landscape that we now call "natural" and that we so deeply appreciate? The final detailed answers to these problems are still deeply hidden, but a preliminary picture is emerging, and that picture suggests that Native Americans were, in many ways, a major factor in development of the California landscape.

Many Native American impacts on the landscape were localized. Hale Tharp, apparently the first white man to visit the Monache village at Hospital Rock, reported in 1858 that he found several hundred Indians living at the site, that the camp was occupied all year, and that the campfires were never allowed to go out. [8] Perhaps not all the people Tharp met that day actually lived at Hospital Rock, but nonetheless even a well-run collection of camps with this many people would have had significant local impacts. To support several hundred people through hunting and gathering involves a great deal of resource manipulation, and keeping camp fires burning 365 days a year would definitely affect local vegetation. Without doubt, a camp like Hospital Rock, which according to the archaeologists had been occupied for at least 500 years prior to Tharp's arrival, had changed the appearance and biology of considerable surrounding acreage. Quantifying this change, unfortunately, is as yet impossible. We simply don't known enough about what the Indians were taking from the environment, how they were taking it, or even exactly what the environment was at the time.

Native American impacts were not always local, however, for at least one of their cultural habits affected the entire landscape. Throughout North America, anthropological research makes it clear that Native Americans used a great deal of fire to modify the landscape. Fires were kindled for various reasons, including improvement of forage for game animals, encouragement of valuable plants, game herding, and visibility improvement. From all we can tell, the Western Mono, the Yokuts, the Tubatulabal, and the Eastern Mono all set fires at various times for various purposes, and likely a substantial number of fires. Understanding the impacts of these fires is difficult. Fires change both the density and composition of vegetation. Frequent fires, from any cause, can completely change ecosystems. We know that Native Americans frequently lit fires. [9] We do not know, however, how many fires burned, or what percentage of those fires were kindled by Native Americans rather than by natural causes. Thus we cannot, as did the early European pioneers, separate the land from its Native American inhabitants.

In the middle nineteenth century, when Europeans first studied the resources and landscape of the southern Sierra Nevada, they profoundly misperceived what they saw. Because they refused to take seriously the technologically simple people they found living there, they completely missed how significantly the Native Americans had changed the landscape and its natural systems. Because the early Europeans missed these crucial relationships, they convinced themselves that they were looking at a virgin, primeval landscape, the work of God. The rapid disappearance of the Indians in the 1860s, which we will detail in the next chapter, only served to reinforce this perception.

Ultimately, this mistaken idea of a primeval landscape would be taken up not only by pioneers, but also by politicians and conservationists and would in time become a subtly flawed foundation block in the formation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap2c.htm — 12-Jul-2004