January 2017: America’s First Conservationists

~by Virginia Rhys-Anson

Walk upon the land gently.

Care for her animals.

Protect her trees.

Keep her waters clean.

Keep Earth healthy

For the seventh generation after you.

The early Native Americans were America’s first conservationists. They were very fortunate to have seen nature in its pure form. We can see pristine nature in our national forests. Many early native tribes believed that the Great Spirit had blessed them with this abundance. However, they also knew that nature was not infinite–that if they overhunted game or over-picked berries, Mother Earth could not replenish her supply quickly enough to keep up with the demand. They also believed that she was a living being, not merely a mix of dirt and rocks and water—a being to be highly respected and cared for.

Animals, even those that the native peoples considered to be their enemies, were respected and were not overhunted. However, once killed, as much of an animal as possible was used. Not only were the Native Americans conservative about the amount of game that they killed, they were also selective as to which animals they hunted. To ensure that no species was overhunted, the Plains tribes rotated their game. If they hunted the caribou one season, they chose, perhaps, deer the next season. The Waswanipi tribe rotated the area where they hunted. Maybe one season they hunted in the north, but the next might find them in the west. Some tribes forbade hunters to kill breeder animals. The Lithic tribe, for example, would not hunt female or pregnant deer, only the young and old animals.

A few tribes were quite scientific in their approach to hunting. The Algonquians kept a close count of the beaver population. Their tally of these aquatic rodents included a record of the number of young and old in each cabin as well as which females gave birth and the number of their offspring. They would only hunt the number of grown beavers that equaled the number of kits that were born and survived that season.

Not all tribes, however, were hunters. Many, like the Iroquois and Pueblo, were farming tribes. Just as did the hunters, they tried, whenever possible, to protect their Mother Earth. Their farming techniques were completely natural and did no harm to the environment. Of course, herbicides and pesticides, as we have today, hadn’t been invented. So they were naturally completely organic.

Various tribes developed their own farming methods. Those that lived near the Rio Grande River planted their crops in such a way that they prevented flooding and allowed grass to grow in their desert environment. Hopi Indians were able to grow corn in the desert because they took advantage of underground moisture by planting seeds twelve to sixteen inches below the surface. The Papagos of southern Arizona watered their crops by collecting heavy summer rains in ditches.

Some tribes created a farming technique that was equivalent to rotating crops, which prevents soil erosion. These tribes planted several crops in the same area. For example, they might plant corn, beans, and pumpkins in the same plot of land. The bean plants used the cornstalks for support. The beans, in turn, put nitrogen into the ground. The corn used this nitrogen as fertilizer. Beans and other legumes take nitrogen from the air, combine it with other elements, and place it in the soil through their roots. Since corn cannot take nitrogen from the air, it depends on the nitrogen that the beans put into the soil for its needs.

Fire also played a major role in the lives of many Native American tribes–for cooking, warmth, and ceremonies. Since they knew well the destructive power of fire, building a campfire required much care. Of course, true to being America’s first conservationists, the Native Americans used only as much wood or buffalo feces as they needed to fuel their fires. If possible, they built the fire on rocks. This allowed the rain and the wind to rid the area of the ashes without leaving a trace and without disfiguring the earth. They carefully tended the fire so that no sparks could set the forest or prairie or desert ablaze. When the campfire was no longer needed, it was completely extinguished. When the Navajos left a campsite, they buried the embers of their fires and their leftover food. They unpiled the stones and filled any holes they had made. They returned the land to its original condition.

Since the Native Americans lived as part of nature, they had no trouble safely disposing of their waste and garbage. In all honesty, the American Indians did have two big advantages over us. Whatever they used came only from nature, and they didn’t own a lot of stuff. Whatever waste they had could be thrown back into nature where it would decompose and become food for future vegetation and animal life. The tribes of the southeastern United States, for example, made mounds of discarded shells from shellfish. These mounds, called middens, would eventually decompose and return nutrients back to nature. They also crushed some of the shells to use as the floors of their homes.

The Native Americans were natural people who frugally incorporated what they found in their natural environment for everything, including their houses. The type of home each tribe built depended on the environment in which it lived. The Eskimo igloo, the tipi of the Plains Indians, the adobe dwelling of the Pueblo Indians, and the Iroquois longhouse were all adapted to Mother Nature and all were built from what she provided.

Many people think that all Eskimos lived in ice igloos. That is a partial myth. The ice igloo was not the primary dwelling for the Eskimos. It was only a temporary shelter for hunters during seal hunting season.

The Eskimo home was dome-shaped like the ice igloo, but it was made from layers of sod. The Eskimos used driftwood and whale bones to form the frame of the house. They built their homes partially underground. The ground provided some insulation from the bitter cold outside. Its dome shape of the igloo was so energy-efficient that the only thing the family needed to heat and light the home was a soapstone lamp.

The Plains Indians constructed their tipis from animal hides in the shape of a cone with a hole in the top to allow smoke to escape. Fifteen to eighteen buffalo hides had to be dressed, cut, and sewn together to form the outer covering. A tipi might also be made from deer hides. The tipi was very easy to dismantle and erect when the tribe moved to follow the buffalo herds.

Nomadic eastern tribes, such as the Algonkian, lived in wigwams. The wigwam was circular, or dome-shaped, much like the Eskimo home. However, it was built entirely above ground. Since the Algonkians lived in wooded areas, saplings or small poles were stuck into the ground and bent into the dome shape to form the frame of the wigwam. The tops of the poles were then lashed together. The Algonkian Indians made the outer walls of their homes from grass mats and birch, elm, or basswood bark. When they decided to move their camp, they simply disassembled their wigwams and took the bark and mats with them. They cut new poles when they reached their new destination.

The Apache Indians made their temporary homes from brush, leaves, and sticks. Natchez Indians built theirs with thatched roofs and walls made of poles covered with mud. The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest constructed large apartment-like homes from stone or adobe bricks that they made from clay or dirt and straw dried in the sun. The Iroquois built longhouses from tree branches and bark. The structure of Native American dwellings depended on both the climate and the supplies that Mother Nature provided.

Many Native American tribes depended heavily on animals. For the Plains tribes, it was the buffalo. They used it for their homes, their weapons, their drums, their drinking vessels, clothing, tools, and much more. Their creativity in finding uses for the buffalo is, perhaps, the best example of the ecological nature of the American Indians.

The Algonkians and Eskimos of Canada and Alaska depended upon the caribou for many of the goods that the buffalo gave to the Plains Indians. From caribou skins the Indians also fashioned mattresses and thongs for clothes drying racks.

The walrus was essential to Alaska’s natives. Walrus flippers were food for Eskimo families. The rest of the carcass fed their huskies. Walrus teeth made good fish hooks and their bones were fashioned into harpoon parts. The Eskimos carved the ivory tusks into figurines. The hide covered the hull of the Eskimo umiak, a boat that was larger than a kayak.

American Indian tribes also fashioned weapons and other items that they needed for hunting from plants and animals. The tribes of the northern latitudes of North America hunted beavers, otters, porcupines, and ptarmigans. The Eskimos made harpoons, spears, bows, kayaks, and sleds from antlers and brittle driftwood. To make their bows flexible, they backed them with seal-skin and braided caribou sinew, the tendon that runs up the leg of an animal.

The deer, likewise, played a vital role in Native American life. We live in a throw-away, disposable society. Not so, the American Indian. Very little, if any, of the deer carcass was tossed aside. Deer antlers were useful to the Indians for making glue, arrow tips, and flint-flaking tools. Likewise, deer hooves became rattles and the sinews became food, thongs, thread, string, and clothing. Bones and antlers were made into needles and tools.

The American Indians were, perhaps, the first botanists. They studied plants very carefully. They knew the parts of plants, which plants were edible and which ones were good as medicines. Members of the Tewa tribe studied plants so intensely that they developed forty names for different parts of a leaf.

Plants were vital to the American Indians’ way of life. To them, plants were living creatures, just as animals are. They provided food, housing, and medicines. Because the native peoples saw plants as living creatures and because plants provided so much for them, the American Indians were very careful not to injure the trees or bushes, especially those that bore anything edible, such as berries.

Plants, usually dead wood, likewise became useful for building their fires for cooking and warmth. Once their fire was ready, they cooked long slices of meat over the fire by placing it on long-handled, pronged sticks, which they had made from green wood since green wood does not burn as readily as brown, dead wood. If they wished to cook their meat in boiling water, the American Indians dug a hole, placed round stones around it, and built a fire within the hole. Then they suspended water in a bag made of tripe—animal stomach–or animal hide above the stones. The Algonkians boiled their meat in bark as well as animal hide containers. When the water boiled, the piece of meat was cooked.

The American Indians ate nearly anything in their environment that was edible. The Great Basin Indians mixed rice, grass seeds, and the yellow pollen from the cattails with water to make a dough for bread cakes. They also ate roots and bulbs such as bitterroot, camaas, sego lily, and yampa. The Great Basin Indians enjoyed such delicacies as duck eggs, robins, fish, rodents, insects, roots, locusts, jackrabbit, cottontail rabbits, and lizards.

The Native Americans had one problem that we don’t. They had no refrigerators, freezers, or preservatives. So they sometimes smoked their meat. This preserved the meat so that it would last longer without spoiling. It also allowed them to eat the meat without first cooking it, which made it easier to take on hunting expeditions.

Despite the fact that the Native Americans had no hardware stores, they were still able to paint quite colorful drawings on their tipis and clothing and make decorative beads for their bracelets and necklaces. They made dyes from the things they found in their natural environment. It might be easy to guess how they made green and black. Green came from plants and black from burnt wood. But where would they get yellow and blue? They made yellow from either bullberries or buffalo gallstones. They concocted blue by mixing—are you ready for this?–dried duck manure with water. They fashioned their paintbrushes from such things as willow sticks, chewed cottonwood, porous buffalo bone, and antelope hair attached to twigs.

Early American peoples, mainly for their own survival, became quite ingenious in their uses of nature’s store for their daily living needs. They highly respected and honored the earth, which supplied what they needed. Native peoples knew that they could not exploit and overuse Earth’s resources. Thus, they became America’s first conservationists—conservationists not only in practice, but in attitude.


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • email
  • Digg
  • Google Bookmarks
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Twitthis
  • del.icio.us
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • MySpace
  • Sphinn
  • Mixx