There is no "one way" Native Americans view the environment, because each tribe is a separate and distinct entity, and each made use of different habitats when they inhabited their original territory. In general, though, Indians share the belief that humans are only one part of the natural world, not separate from it or superior to any other elements, such as animals or plants. Hunting, fishing and gathering are part of a balance that also involves rituals. The rituals help Indians give thanks for the bounty that they use from the earth.
There is a debate about whether Indians and their views of the environment have been romanticized. For of course, Indians had to manipulate their original environment in order to survive. Because they existed in fewer numbers than current human populations, though, and were often nomadic, they probably left a lighter "footprint" on the earth.
"I think there are some people that have an extreme degree of sentimentalism and view tribes perhaps as the perfect stewards of the land, which is an exaggeration," says Doug Nash, the former general counsel for the Nez Perce Tribe.
"But traditionally tribes relied on resources for their existence. They weren’t about to over-utilize or destroy them, because it meant burning down your grocery store."
For centuries, the idea of "managing" the environment was foreign to Indians. They tried to adjust their lives to that of the natural world. But as they saw native plants and species declining, they felt they had to get involved in the political arena. With additional resources available in the form of federal grants and casino receipts, tribes are making their mark in environmental management.
For more information, see: "Environment," Chapter 8 of The Native North American Almanac, Duane Champagne, ed., 1994, Gale Research. Inc.
The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, by Shepherd Krech III, 1999, W.W. Norton and Company
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National Tribal Environmental Council