Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2005, 526 pages, $39.95
A common belief among those who are not of California Indian ancestry is that California was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of European and American settlers, peopled by small groups of indigenous Indians who subsisted by hunting and gathering and had minimal impact on the environment.
This image of California Indians—as primitives living hand-to-mouth at the mercy of nature or as conservation-minded environmentalists, whose minimalist interventions on the environment served to guard nature’s treasures without despoiling or changing them, as restoration- and ethnoecologist Kat Anderson phrases it—has been perpetuated by early American scholars and environmentalists, including John Muir.
In fact, as Anderson shows in her new book Tending the Wild, California Indians were sophisticated stewards and managers of the landscape. For centuries they practiced sustainable resource management through pruning, harrowing, sowing, thinning, transplanting, weeding, irrigating, digging, selective harvesting, and most importantly, intentional burning. Their management practices increased diversity of species and habitat and maintained plant communities that otherwise would have disappeared.
In this thoroughly annotated and referenced work, Anderson presents the findings from her 20 years of research on California Indian land management. She draws on interdisciplinary studies, including her own extensive interviews with elders from a number of tribal groups, to describe in detail the California landscape as it appeared before European contact; the tragic and shameful history of European, Mexican, and American interactions with California Indians; and the many ways in which indigenous Californians managed the environment and used plants for food, basketry, and other elements of daily life. This fascinating book is rich with information and beautifully written for a broad audience of both laypeople and professionals. The author’s conclusion—that California Indians managed their environment with far greater care and ecological sophistication than do land managers today—has much to teach us about our place in the natural world and about integrating judicious human use into conservation and restoration work.