Book Review: California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction

December 11, 2009

California Natural History Guide No. 96, by Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parrish, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009. $19.95. Available at ucpress.edu.

This book is a synthesis of a huge amount of new information and a re-interpretation of old knowledge about California Indians, gathered since the 1980 publication of The Natural World of the California Indians by Robert F. Heizer and Albert B. Elsasser.

Lightfoot and Parrish cast their book around the framework of three themes: indigenous landscape management, sustainable economies, harvesting California’s wild resources.

Indigenous landscape management covers the techniques and methods California Indians used to maintain landscapes and biota (plants and animals) that result in the familiar hallmarks of California wildlands today–coastal prairies, oak savannahs, montane meadows, and other plant communities. Sustainable economies are the methods of long-term use of natural resources (harvesting of wild crops and animals) that don’t harm the environment. And harvesting California’s wild resources illustrates those plant and animal resources as they were used in the past and are still used today.

The second half of the book is divided into two sections, one devoted to color photos of plants and animals, and a second to how California Indians of particular regions of the state (here called “provinces”) used those resources.

The book has some discussion of the foodways, lifestyles, village and tribal organization, and language groups, but these are more fully discussed in Heizer and Elsasser’s 1980 volume.

Much of the first half of California Indians and Their Environment views California Indians through flame and smoke (“The Central Role of Fire” is a major chapter). The authors see a landscape constructed by indigenous fire managers either setting fires or taking advantage of natural (lightning-caused) fires. The overarching theme of the first half of the book is pyrodiversity (“landscape heterogeneity and diverse biota that result from various stages of plant succession as those plants recolonize burned areas”).

Lightfoot and Parrish do not shrink from controversies in the anthropological community. There are arguments against their view of the importance of managed fires in shaping the California landscape. A “darker side” of Native California has emerged from research, which conflicts with the idea of a bountiful nature, well-maintained to provide plenty for all. New views of group politics and hierarchies contrast with older ideas of “chiefs [with] no real power…beyond that of offering good advice in a persuasive manner” (Heizer and Elsasser, p. 209).

The text also emphasizes the continuing relevance of studying with and learning from contemporary California Indians. Lightfoot and Parrish conclude their text with a section on “Lessons on Cultural Survival.” They suggest “teaching about California Indians is an opportunity to stress California’s great environmental diversity and to emphasize that human cultures can work hand in hand with natural ecological processes to maintain and even enhance biodiversity.”

This volume does not cover in great detail the same material as Heizer and Elsasser, so if you have an interest in California Indians, you will find it a useful addition to your library. Most of the references are after 1990, and nearly 150 are from 2000 or later. If you are a California Natural History Guides completist (collect them all!), you should know that the volume that precedes this one is David Carle’s Introduction to Fire in California (CNHG No. 95) which covers the physics and behavior of fire, its natural history in California, and modern-day dangers and prevention/safety strategies.

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