Myth 6: Wilderness does not recognise that such areas were ‘home’ to native peoples

Myth: Wilderness does not recognise that such areas were ‘home’ to native peoples (Langton 1996, Adams and Mulligan 2002, Cronon 1996).

Truth: This goes back in part to the American Wilderness Act, which states that wilderness ‘is an area where the earth and its community of life is untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. The question here is what ‘untrammeled’ really means. One could argue that it doesn’t mean that native peoples never lived there, but the ambiguity has understandably offended some indigenous peoples. Most recent international and Australian definitions are at some pains to avoid such ambiguity, and do recognise that wilderness in most parts of the continent was home to native peoples. Rather than wilderness ignoring native peoples, wilderness can instead be seen as a tribute to their land management. A response to this myth is:

This myth was actually correct when the global human population was a tiny fraction of the present total, and when all people were hunter-gatherers. But when we started to farm, log, mine, live in permanent settlements … nature became the enemy, something to conquer. Now we can see what has been lost – materially, aesthetically, and spiritually. We must save what little of the wild is left.(Soule 2002)

It has been pointed out that when indigenous people adopt the technology and economic behaviour of Western society (such as guns, TV, cars) and forget their language and customs, there comes a point along this path where they are no longer ecologically indigenous (Nabhan 1995). Nabhan seems to be pointing out that indigenous cultures learned to live sustainably with the land over many millenia. If people (whatever their ancestry) adopt a Western lifestyle they will be putting much greater impact on a natural area. Thus indigeneity alone might not be the important aspect, but whether a group demonstrated ‘ecological indigeneity’. There is also the question of the Western concept of ‘ownership’ versus the indigenous concept of ‘custodianship’. An ‘owner’ of a house may choose to trash it, while a custodian of a sacred place should not. In Australia, almost every area was 'home' to a tribe. Now most of that homeland has been developed to a greater or lesser extent, and the last areas of high wilderness quality should be protected into the future. That is part of true 'caring for country'.


Prof Brendan Mackey of ANU has noted (I post it heredue to teething problems with website!):

'Congratulations on your very helpful web site which I have passed on
> to Harvey Lock from the Wild Founrdation in the USA..
> However, I think you are going to get some justifiable flack on this
> phrasing: " As such it can be questioned whether they should continue
> to be accorded the social immunity vested in the term ‘indigenous’.
> Indigeneity alone might not be the important aspect, but whether a
> group demonstrated ‘ecological indigeneity". You will not find much
> support for claiming to be able to tell an Indigenous community they
> are or are not not Indigenous because they do not conform to criteria
> you have established. In any case, I think the question of Indigenous
> identity is really not the issue here - rather, the question is one of
> the human ecological footprint and the interplay and balance between
> cultural, technological, and natural processes. You might be
> interested in how we dealt with wilderness issues in chapter 6 of our
> Cape York report:
> which focusses more on the "continuum ecological footprint" concept
> that Rob Lesslie and I wrote about all those year ago in the last
> millennium!'

In reply I doubt there is any major point of disagreement here. I was quoting Nabhan who made the observation about social immunity. However if my PhD has taught me anything it has shown me the incredible sensitivity around the word 'wilderness'. As such I shall modify the post. The point here is that many native peoples developed the 'Wisdom of the Elders' (Knudtson and Suzuki) that became lore and 'law' about how to live sustainably in a natural landscape. I think this is what Nabhan was getting at in regard to ecological indigeneity. When one goes beyond that sustainable lifestyle to a Western lifestyle then one brings in many environmental impacts that can damage an area. If they key issue is 'respect for country' then such impacts need to be excluded from wilderness in terms of large natural areas. What is at stake is not whether these are homelands, but whether they are being managed to protect their natural qualities in the long term. Developers have argued that because an area was a homeland to native peoples, then they should be allowed to log, mine or build hotels,etc. The point is our last wild areas should be protected, and that is part of the respect for country we should all feel. Most of Australia has been developed, but the last areas of wilderness quality need to be protected and managed. Haydn

Good information. Lucky me I ran across your site by chance (stumbleupon).
I have bookmarked it for later!