Conservation and Native Americans

A cool breeze blows through the trees lining the Columbia River in the state of Washington as shiny salmon dart through the water. Every year these fish make the difficult journey upstream to lay their eggs in the same waters where they began their lives.

Many years ago, before Europeans came to North America, Native Americans of the northwest depended on salmon. At the first sign of autumn, the salmon run would start. Native American oral histories tell of rivers being so full of the fish that you almost could walk across them to the other side. The native people harvested and dried enough fish to sustain them for the entire year. They also had a deep respect for the salmon. The belief that the fish had a spirit was shown by the tradition of thanking the salmon's spirit for its sacrifice before it was eaten.

Respect for Life

The Native American tradition is to respect the bodies and spirits of all animals that gave their lives to feed and clothe the people. On the Great Plains, the Cheyenne and other native peoples had strict rules against killing more bison than they needed. They believed in using every part of the animal. They used as much of the animal as possible for food. The animal's fat was used in cooking. Tools were made from bones. Clothing, shoes, and blankets were made from hides. Even the bisons' stomachs were used as water pouches.

Respect for life extended to plants and crops for Native Americans. The Iroquois of the northeastern United States celebrated festivals in honor of the "three sisters"—corn, squash,

2 ♦ E Conservation and Native Americans

(t)Darren Bennett/Animals Animals, (b)Collection of Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada.

and beans—their essential foods. The Maya who once lived in what is now southern Mexico and Central America, felt that if someone cut down a tree unnecessarily, that person's life would be shortened.

Every year, in the late spring or early summer, native peoples living on the Plains, including the Cree, Kiowa, Shoshone, and others, celebrated the cycle of life with the Sun Dance. This ceremony, which is performed by many tribes today, stresses the regeneration of life and humans' connection to Earth. Native Americans expressed thankfulness for Earth's gifts—the return of flowers and crops in the spring and summer, and the sacrifice made by animal spirits as they give their bodies to sustain the people. Their traditions recognize that people must cooperate with nature so that revival and rebirth can continue.

Native American Forestry Practices
Figure 3 Agriculture students experiment with the Native American practice of growing several types of plants in one area.

Respect for Earth

Native Americans felt a deep connection to Earth. While some European settlers viewed the New World as a wilderness ready to be tamed, the native peoples believed in living in harmony with Earth. They didn't understand the European desire to own and develop land. To Native Americans, everyone shared the land. You could no more own the land than you could own the air. The Lakota chief Black Elk once spoke of each human's responsibility to Earth in this way: "Every step that we take upon You should be done in a sacred manner; every step should be taken as a prayer."

Figure 4 Native American artist Helen Hardin titled this piece Father Sky Embracing Mother Earth.

Homemade Cricket Breeding

(t)Mathew Cavanaugh/AP/Wide World Photos, (b)Helen Hardin 1971

(t)Mathew Cavanaugh/AP/Wide World Photos, (b)Helen Hardin 1971

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