Indigenous Environments

Panelist Abstracts

Elizabeth Green-Musselman

From Knowledge Systems to Knowledge Networks: Rethinking Indigenous Knowledge from Colonial South Africa
A number of scholars have criticized the way that the literature on indigenous knowledge systems conceptualizes non-western cosmologies as well-bounded, unchanging systems. This paper draws upon insights from science and technology studies in order to help reconfigure our thinking about ‘indigenous knowledge’. Knowledge is best conceived in terms of networks rather than systems. That is, we ought to characterize knowledge fundamentally as something that travels rather than stays put. This dynamic, network-based understanding of natural knowledge helps us escape the stultifying inaccuracies contained in terms like ‘western science’ and ‘indigenous knowledge systems’. The paper will analyze illustrative examples of how official and unofficial knowledge networks operated and mutated at the Cape during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.


Lance Van Sittert

Nation-Building Knowledge: Dutch Indigenous Knowledge and the Invention of White South Africanism, 1890-1909
Recent scholarship has strongly argued that ‘science’, by providing ‘objective’ knowledge to inform state policy, played a significant role in the invention of a settler nation state in South Africa both before and after 1910. This argument has been made exclusively on readings of elite discourse and in the face of substantial counter evidence of the popular rejection of imperial Anglo science by the Dutch-cum-Afrikaner settler population. The role of science in settler nation building was considerably more complicated than its localisation through the creation of research institutions and training of practitioners. Indigenisation also involved the validation of previously denigrated bodies of Dutch indigenous knowledge as science. The practise of water divining in the Cape Colony was one such case of Dutch folk knowledge, denounced as an impediment to development in the 1890s, which was rehabilitated as an aid to development after the South African War in official discourse. Rehabilitation, by compelling practitioners to translate water divining into the dominant scientific idiom of the official discourse on agriculture, had the primary instrument effect of legitimating both the imperial Anglo scientific idiom and the settler nation-building project energetically embarked on in the 1900s among a hostile Dutch population in the Cape countryside. The historical example is instructive for the current post-apartheid nation-building moment and its equally enthusiastic embrace of previous despised African indigenous knowledge.

James L.A. Webb, Jr.

Indigenous Knowledge Concerning Malaria in North America and Tropical Africa: Problematics and Perspectives

This paper explores the historical and biological context of malarial infections in North America and Tropical Africa. It adopts a broad comparative approach to understanding the larger patterns in the transfer of theapeutics. As such, it produces some new perspectives on the idea of 'indigenous knowledge'.

Marsha Weisiger

Navajos, New Dealers, and the Metaphysics of Nature
During the Livestock Reduction era of the 1930s, Navajos (Diné) and New Deal conservationists offered diametrical descriptions of the land. Each reflected different values and understandings about the way nature works and the relationship of humans to nature. Conservationists employed scientific theories of equilibrium, succession, carrying capacity, and arroyo development to depict the Navajo range as seriously overgrazed. Diné, by contrast, drew on their understandings of cosmology, the mosaic of landscapes on the reservation, and the inter­relationships between livestock and land learned through generations of experience grazing sheep on the southern Colorado Plateau, and they concluded that they were witnessing nature’s cycle; rain would follow drought, and all would be well again. Neither Diné nor the New Dealers fully grasped the complexities of nature.  Each, no doubt, held pieces of the puzzle, but neither could see the value of the other’s. One key to understanding what went wrong with the New Deal program to save the soil lies in the disjuncture between these two stories of the land, native and scientific. Each narrator related a conception of the world that the other found incomprehensible. That was not necessarily an unbridgeable divide, for they shared common ground - the desire to maintain some sort of ‘balance of nature’  - although the means to that end certainly differed. The New Dealers had the power to prescribe their view of nature, but in their unwillingness to consider the Navajos’ understandings of the natural world, they proved unsuccessful in actually restoring equilibrium, or hózhó, to the range.

Jacob Tropp

Locust Invasions and Tensions over Environmental and Bodily Health in the Colonial Transkei
The 1890s was a particularly difficult period for locusts across many parts of South Africa.  In the Eastern Cape, the decade saw a series of locust invasions that wreaked havoc on agricultural production by both European and African farmers alike. In the recently colonized African polities of the Transkei, by this time taking shape as a growing labor ‘reserve’ for the larger white settler economy, Cape colonial officials responded to these invasions by attempting to enforce locust eradication in African communities. Such actions were necessary, officials claimed, to reduce the threats locust depredations posed not just to Africans’ crops but even more so to neighboring European farms in the Transkei and Eastern districts of the Cape Colony. Yet the presence of locust swarms in these years, the problems they posed, and the appropriate means and processes by which to respond were all understood in quite different terms within local African communities. This paper explores how people in particular communities in the Transkei perceived and responded to the locust invasions and official plans for locust destruction in alternate ways. The paper’s first part explores certain prophecies and protective agricultural rituals in parts of Thembuland and Pondoland that were centered on young women and a widely known ritual specialist, or ‘locust doctor’. I then turn to rumors and prophecies in Fingoland in which African residents drew connections between locust plagues and diseased children. Taken together, these cases suggest that popular practices regarding locusts were deeply embedded in complex local repertoires of both environmental and bodily health and healing. Popular responses to and narratives concerning official locust policies were not just about locusts, but expressed people’s wider interests in maintaining control over the health and welfare of themselves and their landscapes in the face of intense biophysical stresses and expanding colonial domination. Moreover, the reference to these earlier locust episodes in rural rituals of subsequent decades suggests the persistent local resonance of such interests in ecological and bodily control.

Paul Kelton

Indigenous Medicine and Colonial Diseases: the Cherokees’ Experience with Smallpox, 1696-1839
Between 1696 and 1839, smallpox afflicted the Cherokee Nation perhaps as many as ten different times. Scholars have long noted the destructive impact this introduced disease had on Natives in general and on the Cherokees in particular, but scholarship on the subject remains largely demographic in nature and gives little attention to Native medicine itself as a factor in shaping indigenous experience with introduced diseases. This paper puts Cherokee medicine at the center of its analysis and asks three interrelated questions: First, how did Cherokee medicine evolve to deal with smallpox? Second, how effective was Cherokee medicine in dealing with epidemiological crises? Third, how did Cherokee medicine, particularly in dealing with smallpox, become an arena for cultural persistence amid the acculturative impact of United States imperialism and forced removal in the nineteenth century?

Karen Flint

Reinventing Traditional Medicine in Post-Apartheid South Africa
In August 2004 South Africa officially recognized its ‘indigenous’ medical system and legalized the practice of traditional healers. The legalization and eventual regulation of ‘African’ medicines in combination with a growing domestic and international market for certain medicinal herbs has radical implications for the relationship of healers to the physical environment. In addition to the future challenges of regulation, healers also have to cope with a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, over-harvesting of medicinal plants, protecting intellectual property rights, avoiding exploitation for commercial gain, and possibly losing control over the ways in which future generations utilize traditional medicines. While there are historical precedents to some of these challenges, the legalization of healers and the globalization of the medicinal herbal trade have increased exponentially in the past decade. Many have profoundly altered the stakes of traditional medicine and created new stakeholders that now include pharmaceutical companies, government departments, and university research labs.  Bioprospecting of indigenous medicinal plants is now seen as a legitimate and necessary government project. Consequently, healers are contemplating new ways of defining and commercializing ‘traditional medicine,’ as well as changing the cultivating, production and packaging of local herbs and herbal mixes. An important and influential part of these changes are questions of how a largely local, unsystematized, non-hierarchical and oral collection of therapies that as of yet is largely unregulated will come to be systematized and brought under the regulatory eye of government? Given that governments tend to favor institutional sciences and those who are Western educated and bureaucratically literate, the question remains whether it is possible to rectify the imbalances of power which would enable healers to be meaningfully incorporated in a state sanctioned system of medical pluralism? The implications of this last question will most likely have the largest impact on the knowledge and practices of future traditional healers.

Derick Fay

Indirect Rule on Trial in South Africa: Traditional Authorities and the Constitutional Challenge to the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act
In late April 2006, four rural South African communities brought a court case challenging the constitutionality of the Communal Land Rights Act (CLRA) of 2004. As in indirect rule systems across much of Africa, the South African colonial and apartheid states had empowered traditional authorities to allocate and administer land held under so-called communal tenure, often transforming local systems and creating new offices and office-holders in the process. While previous drafts of the CLRA had aimed to democratize control over land, the final version of 2004 contained provisions which could vest land administration and allocation in the hands of traditional authorities. Preliminary hearings and review of written statements are currently ongoing in the Pretoria High Court. Drawing on a review of the regional literature on traditional authority and land, and the author's own fieldwork in a community that filed a statement opposing the CLRA, the paper reflects upon the potential outcomes of the court case for development and democratization in rural South Africa.

William Parenteau

Facing Modernization:  First Nations, Natural Resources and Treaty Rights in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, 1945-1999
One of the most important moments in the history of Native-non-Native relations in Canada came in 1999, when the federal Supreme Court ruled that First Nations in the Maritime Provinces had a right to obtain a ‘moderate livelihood’ from the forest, fish and game resources of the region. As noted frequently in the public discourse, this was a test case; that is, Donald Marshall, a member of a Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia, violated the federal eel fishing regulations with the intent of being charged and defending himself on the basis of treaties signed between the Mi’kmaq and the British colonial government in the mid-18th century. For the general public, the press and most in the academic professions, the Marshall Decision seemed to come out of nowhere. For critics, it was a radical example of American-style judicial legislation that would create chaos in resource-based industries. The surprise and fear expressed over the Marshall Decision was a function of the fact that the movement toward recognition of Native rights in Canada has been mostly received as series of test cases based on abstract legal analysis of arcane historical documents. It should more properly be seen as a long and complex set of interactions between Native people, non-Natives and the state. Starting soon after the end of the Second World War, the Maritime Provinces became part of a multi-billion dollar ‘modernization’ program designed to rationalize the production and manufacture of natural resources in the region. State-sponsored modernization presented numerous challenges and opportunities to First Nations. With regard to natural resources the program both intensified efforts to control Native harvesting and contributed to the growing ability of First Nations to mount formal legal defenses of their rights. However, the increasing possibilities for hiring legal council did not create what critics have termed a ‘Native rights industry’. First Nations in the Maritimes had been physically resisting state fish and game regulation for generations based on a deeply held moral conviction that they had treaty rights. Ultimately, this paper will argue that, even in the post-Second World War period, the struggle for Native rights to natural resources was fought on the ground as much as it was in the courtroom, and that decisions such as Marshall could not have been successful without physical resistance.

Darren J. Ranco

Penobscot Indian Environmental Diplomacy as Critique: Protecting Territory and Natural Resources
The purpose of this paper is to situate contemporary and historical Penobscot Indian engagements with regulatory agencies and colonial governments into a historical framework of power and diplomacy. My argument is that Penobscot diplomacy, especially when it is concerned with ‘environmental’ issues, cannot be seen as spurious attempts at tradition making or confused distortions of actual past cultural practices, but is instead an expression of alterity and critique rooted in maintaining Penobscot places and environments.

Joshua Reid

‘The Sea Is My Country’: Marine Tenure of the Makah, 1788 to 1855
Scholarship on American Indian tenure focuses on land. Studies explore how tenure is the foundation of tribal autonomy and self-determination; how it is protected and administered, especially on reservations; and how dispossession and termination affect tenure. Scholars have typically overlooked those indigenous peoples, like the Makah of Washington State, who vest their tenure concepts in marine rather than terrestrial spaces. By interrogating European and Anglo-American sources for Makah voices and maritime practices, this paper extends tenure concepts and themes to a marine environment. It examines how Makahs expressed tenure in the marine space around Cape Flattery and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the late-eighteenth through mid-nineteenth century. This paper reveals how Makahs grounded marine tenure in their indigenous knowledge of this space and the resources within it. They drew from this knowledge to shape their system of usufruct rights and maritime property concepts, both of which non-Indians failed to perceive or understand. Additionally, historical forces - particularly changing relationships of economics, environment, power, and culture - framed indigenous marine tenure. For example, these forces converged in a specific way to influence the concerns of Makahs during the treaty negotiations of 1855 with representatives of the United States government. This resulted in the Treaty of Neah Bay, which codified particular Makah maritime practices as treaty rights. Most importantly, by examining the historical dimensions of Makah marine tenure, we gain a better understanding of their current efforts to revive the customary practice of whaling.

Coll Thrush

English Cannibals and Fast Potatoes: Landscape Ideologies and Consuming Encounters on the Northwest Coast, 1774-1874
The Aboriginal peoples of the Northwest Coast are usually categorized as ‘hunter-fisher-gatherers,’ but oral traditions, historical accounts, and evidence on the land show that the region’s ecologies were managed and enhanced through sophisticated Indigenous practices. Part of a larger project examining the history of Indigenous and settler food systems in the region, this paper examines the ways in which the first British newcomers viewed Aboriginal peoples and landscapes through eighteenth-century ideas about cultivation, labor, reason, and ‘race,’ and contrasts these ideas with the beliefs and practices of Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples. The paper analyzes the ways in which participants in first encounters understood each other through their foods and landscapes, and traces the adoption of the potato among coastal societies between the 1770s and the arrival of foreign settlers in the 1840s. Responding to calls to ‘de-centre’ or ‘provincialize’ normative European categories such as race, nature, and history, this project uses food - its production, its distribution, its consumption - to excavate the particulars of colonial misapprehensions of Indigenous ecological and cultural realities, and to gesture toward the ways in which this ‘not-seeing’ would have dramatic ramifications, both for landscapes and for peoples, as exploration transitioned to resettlement.

Pekka Hämäläinen

Food Wars: Resource Management and Unequal Ecological Exchange in the Colonial Southwest
This paper examines the resource management strategies of the Comanche Indians, tracing how, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that powerful confederacy built a flourishing market-oriented exchange economy in the mid-continent, became the most popular native society in early America, and, eventually, forged an imperial system that overshadowed Euro-American colonial arrangements in the American Southwest. It shows how the Comanches pioneered the equestrian hunting-pastoral way of life in the grasslands, dramatically simplifying their economy in the process, and how that simplification entangled them in a complex web of ecological dilemmas: they recurrently overexploited bison populations during the periodic droughts that scourged the Southwest, their burgeoning horse herds depleted local grass reserves, and their bison-based diet exposed them to protein poisoning and other health hazards. To offset such ecological and nutritional dangers, Comanches employed a variety of traditional native strategies of resource management (setting grass on fire to encourage early spring growth; dispersing seasonally into smaller social units to avoid overtaxing local resources) as well as the kinds of strategies we usually associate with European colonial powers. Comanches relied on strategic violence to maintain a steady circulation of key subsistence goods, forging a dietary safety net on imported carbohydrates, and they organized massive long-distance raiding expeditions deep into northern Mexico, which allowed them to lessen the burdens of animal grazing on Comanchería’s fragile grassland ecosystem and displace the ecological costs of intensive horse pastoralism to foreign territories. Power, as it is traditionally understood, emanates from demographics, technology, and political will, but in the final analysis - and the colonial Southwest is a prime example of this - power gravitates toward those societies that are most successful in managing their environments and manipulating the streams of energy around them.  The Comanches became a domineering imperial power, this paper argues, not only because of their commercial, political, and military prowess, but because their diets were more abundant and balanced than their neighbors, because their vast horse herds gave them an unprecedented access to solar energy, and because they were able to move their ecological burdens outside of their core territory.

David Gordon

The Invention of Indigenous Knowledge in South Central Africa
Scholars consider “indigenous knowledge” as the ideological alternative to European colonial discourses and as the basis for resistance to the imposition of those discourses. Yet there have been few accounts of what “indigenous knowledge” actually was prior to European colonialism. Central African indigenous environmental knowledge was an artifact of pre-colonial struggles between conquering elites and autochthonous clans. This paper reflects on the construction of indigenous knowledge in the Bemba polity, as the conquest state of Chitimukulu appropriated local religious forms, thereby making the conquering and civilizing Bemba royals responsible for the fertility of the land, but at the same time delineating a sphere of autochthonous knowledge about the environment, laden with secrets, magic, and witchcraft. When considered as part of this longer history, Central African indigenous knowledge no longer appears as a static and pristine pre-colonial mentality. Instead, indigenous knowledge was a contested terrain of discourse and power, of struggles between conquering royals and autochthones, even before the advent of European colonialism. This pre-colonial history of Central African indigenous knowledge helped to shape the various forms of collaboration and resistance found during the European colonial period.

Shepard Krech III

Birds and Indians in North America.
For some time I have been interested in human-environment intersections through time in native North America. Here I wish to focus on the relationships between American Indians and what, compared to megafauna, charismatic or not, and plants, domesticated, managed, or wild, is a greatly neglected category of the natural world: birds, in western science the class Aves. Thus far, I have been working on the intersections of birds and native people in North America’s far north, south, and northeast, but my broader interests are continental. I wish to attempt to tease some conclusions on the impact of Indians on birds, and birds on Indians, from several specific cases anchored in time and space (in culture) both before and after the arrival of people of European descent.

Andrew H. Fisher

Honoring the Five Sacred Foods: Indigenous Religion and Resource Use in the Columbia River Basin
For thousands of years before contact with Europeans, the indigenous peoples of the Columbia Plateau followed a seasonal round based on the harvesting of salmon (nusux), game animals, roots, and berries. Together with water (chuush), these subsistence resources became the ‘Five Sacred Foods’ of the Washat or Seven Drums religion, which is still practiced in the Columbia Basin today. Historically, its core principle of respect for the gifts of the Creator moderated human impacts on harvested species and the environment in general. Starting in the late nineteenth century, however, both the Waashat religion and the natural resources it depended on came under prolonged attack by the forces of American colonization and market capitalism. Christian missionaries and federal bureaucrats attempted to silence the Seven Drums, while non-Indian entrepreneurs and settlers commercialized the salmon and expropriated the lands that supplied Native needs. State governments further burdened Indian subsistence practices with discriminatory conservation regulations, but Mid-Columbia Indians refused to abandon their religion, their treaty rights, or their sacred foods. Using the law, they eventually vindicated their reserved rights to fish, gather, and hunt at their ‘usual and accustomed places.’ Today, Washat still informs tribal efforts to protect and restore those places and the resources they provide, even as the tribes have harnessed modern technologies and scientific expertise to that end. This paper will examine the role religion has played in the defense of Indian treaty rights and natural resources in the Columbia Basin, as well as in contemporary resource management practices. It is not my intent to simply recapitulate Black Elk Speaks or the speeches of Chief Seattle. While I do wish to take faith seriously as a guiding principle of environmental stewardship and indigenous ecological knowledge, I will strive to avoid romanticizing Native American spirituality and ecological sensibility. This will be accomplished by focusing on concrete examples of the ways in which spiritual beliefs and traditional knowledge have influenced resource management practices on Indian reservations and public lands within the ceded territories of the Mid-Columbia treaty tribes. Specifically, I plan to devote substantial attention to tribal fish and game programs and to the activities of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, especially its ambitious salmon recovery plan (Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit, ‘Spirit of the Salmon’). I will also examine the tensions within Indian communities between those who regard Western science as an ally and those who see technocratic solutions and tribal regulations as a threat to indigenous culture and religion. In doing so, I hope to point up both the perils and possibilities of employing spirituality as a tool to address large-scale environmental problems such as species extinction.

Michael Sheridan

Sacred Groves in Africa: The Opposite of Witchcraft
This paper describes some of the implications of sacred groves for land management, and explores the idea that the recent fluorescence of interest in these sites is, in part, a response to the dissonances of frustrated modernity and globalized capitalism. It reviews some of the Comaroffian witchcraft-as-modernity literature in order to argue that many Africans are using the discourse of sacredness (especially sacred sites) to assert orderly moral, political, and ecological relationships in the face of rapid social change. The paper takes one suggestion from my literature review of sacred groves in the forthcoming book, African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change (Oxford and Athens: Ohio University Press and James Currey) and follows it to its logical conclusion.

Parker Shipton

Recruiting Nature: Snakes, Serpents, and ‘Relocalization’ Movements in Africa and America
This paper treats the use of symbols of nature in a kind of politico-religious movement. Within societies humiliated by conquest or colonization, impoverished by confinement, or disrupted by resettlement, movements of hope, self-preservation, and rebellion sometimes arise whose members seek, among other things, to redirect attention to sources of power nearby: a relocalization of authority and influence.  Prophetic, millenarian, apocalyptic, and other movements often classed as nativist revitalization movements (best understood, I suggest, as a polythetic or polytypic class that is one with serial overlaps, or Wittgensteinian ‘family likeness’) all count among them. From modest beginnings but with grand ambitions, these sometimes ironically gain fame and prestige - and ironically, new adherents - from repressive encounters with local police or military agents of puzzled or intimidated government officials afar who disparage them as cults. Their leaders seek to gain power also by co-opting, symbolically and semantically, the power of nature. This paper compares some African and Native American relocalization movements in which selected animals or animal species are used as focal points to connect social and political movements with earthly powers. If accepted as won over, ‘recruited’ nature lends the movements enough local credibility to gain inherents and make their threats to established state and ecclesiastic orders felt. Examples from Africa’s Nilotic-Bantu convergence zone and parts of the American west in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are compared and contrasted. The paper emphasizes, in both cases, the role of land loss and the symbolic reclamation of place through snakes and serpents: tangible or imagined creatures that connect the above and below; the living, dead, and reborn. 

Nancy J. Jacobs

Winged Networks: Bird Migration and Science Between Europe and Africa ‘Relocalization’ Movements in Africa and America
In 1909, a correspondent wrote to the Journal the South African Ornithologists Union: "I heard some days ago of a White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) having been shot in January by a native at Moriga, the Paramount Chief's village, about 25 miles from here, with a silver ring attached to its leg. I got the chief to send it in for inspection, as he does not want to part with it, and the ring is still attached to the half-dried leg. It bears the inscription 'Vogelwarte Rositten 1265 Germania.'

Can one find out the history of the bird, as the natives are much interested in it." Long-distance bird migration created new networks of human communication in the twentieth-century, when ornithologists put rings on birds. The birds flew to all corners of Africa, where their finders responded with wonder, curiosity, and hope for educational and vocational opportunities. Intercontinental avian migrants fostered a sense of belonging for some Europeans in colonial Africa. Among Africans, even the imagined networks were more local.