Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 16, 2021

Was American Indian Overhunting Responsible for the Near-Extinction of the Buffalo?

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm


In the 1990s, there were repeated attempts to debunk the idea of an ecological Indian. Scholars and activists with seemingly little in common all sought to portray the Indian as wasteful of natural resources, if not even worse than the European settlers who have left the USA resembling a toxic dump as the 21st century stumbles forward.

My first encounter with this trend was with Frank Furedi’s sect in the early 90s that published a magazine called Living Marxism, better known as LM. (They still exist as Spiked today, long after dispensing with the idea that they are Marxist.) When I saw an LM article around that time denouncing Survival International as a group that sought to keep the Brazilian indigenous peoples “preserved in amber” like in the Museum of Natural History, I could not believe my eyes. The Yanomami were in danger of extinction as a result of mining and ranching excursions into their territory and these self-described Marxists were attacking the main group trying to protect them.

Furedi’s group in England was called the Revolutionary Communist Party that shared a name with Bob Avakian’s cult in the USA but little else politically except their belief that the left should not believe in the “noble savage”. In a debate with leaders of the American Indian Movement in 1980, Avakian’s spokesman referred to the “second harvest”, a practice from around 7,000 years ago when some indigenous peoples stored dried feces so that in the event of a famine, they could extract undigested seeds and other products for food. In other words, Indians ate shit.

The academic left wasn’t much better. In David Harvey’s 1996 “Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference”, he wrote that stone-age hunters had no way of determining whether they were overexploiting prey. This was the result of their inability to make connections between current and future animal populations. This would account for the disappearance of the Woolly Mammoth, for instance. He also fretted over Indian claims for land that was stolen from them in the 1800s. He feared that such “militant particularism” could  can foster “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” elements.

Harvey’s book attracted little support and he even disavowed it a few years after its publication. But one book stood out for its impact on American Indian scholars, the broader academy, as well as on Jonah Goldberg, the founding editor of National Review Online. That was Shepard Krech’s 2000 “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History” that should have been properly titled “The anti-Ecological Indian”. It was an assemblage of all the charges ever levelled against the Indian, including the business about killing off the Woolly Mammoth.

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  1. solly cholly, but that is a pathetic piece of crap you have written imho…bizarre that you would push crap like this…have you not seen the old photos of thousands of dead buffalo killed by the buffalo hunters? there was a huge push to kill them off, not only to deprive the native americans of a food source, but they kept blocking the new railroads…don’t think what you put out there has much basis in reality…

    Comment by ryan — June 16, 2021 @ 5:22 pm

  2. Thanks for the idiotic comment.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 16, 2021 @ 6:28 pm

  3. after reading Wuerthner’s letter in cp a passage from “1492”or “1491”?came to mind.it mentioned that the first Europeans up the Mississippi commented on the multitudes of people that they encountered and of the occasional Buffalo.after a period of time(?)Euro”s heading up river were commenting on how few people there were and on the multitudes of Buffalo seen.”old world”diseases apparently had taken a huge proportion of the Buffalo’s main predator.who knows how many people succumbed to the various pandemics that made their way across the continent.less predators more prey.giant herds.everything was in flux.hunting tactics changed with vast herds and few hunters.relative plenty for the survivors.then came the horse.the black plague(s) had tremendous effect on feudal relations in Eurasia.imagine the effect that pandemics that in their total dwarfed those Eurasian maladies had on The People of the Plains.

    Comment by tom townsend — June 16, 2021 @ 6:43 pm

  4. Clearly reading comprehension is beyond Ryan’s ability. In some ways his comments actually support what you wrote but for whatever reason he cannot understand that and ends up as a stupid fool. But the real reason I wanted to comment was to thank you profusely for this rebuttal to the asinine article you referenced by George W. on Counterpunch. I tried to read that article out of curiosity because of the title when it came out, but soon realized it was nothing but the ramblings of another stupid fool. I am actually surprised Counterpunch actually published such a horrid piece of garbage. Thank you for having the intelligence and knowledge to rebut it. My faith has been restored a little bit by your response. Thank you.

    Comment by Alan Banfield — June 16, 2021 @ 7:42 pm

  5. Um, long before market capitalism, mass extinctions have been following global colonization by Homo sapien, and perhaps Neanderthal, for 100,000 years: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180419141536.htm

    Not to say your thesis isn’t plausible, but we appear to be wired for wreaking planetary havoc.

    With compliments,


    Comment by Chris — June 18, 2021 @ 1:20 pm

  6. You are just repeating what Shepard Krech wrote but I guess you probably knew that.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 18, 2021 @ 3:11 pm

  7. The argument goes that predator die-offs occurred because prey species were wiped out by paleo-humans. I worked with a colleague of Wuertner’s who traced the development of agriculture in the Nile and Euphrates to localized extinctions of the big prey species. He suggested it was the acquisition of the horse by natives, and not market forces, that would have resulted in over-hunting, eventually, of the bison. We’ll never know.

    I think it is pretty clear the sharp-shooters were responsible for the bison slaughter.

    Comment by Chris — June 18, 2021 @ 5:41 pm

  8. One guy repeats Shepard Krech, another repeats Wuerthner. Yawn.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 18, 2021 @ 10:28 pm

  9. My friend, I’m reading here from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. I’m wondering where you got your figures on the prices of whiskey and Buffalo hides.

    When do you suppose whiskey was going for 16 bucks a gallon? Certainly not over a century ago, unless we’re using today’s dollars. I can go to Cut Bank and get a big bottle of rot gut for $15 now after all.

    Right now, a finished hide sells for $1000, sometimes more depending how far away and rich the buyer is. But a raw hide only fetches a hundred or so. A northern beaver will get you $15-20 raw. A couple years ago it was $60.

    The main work in harvesting a buffalo isn’t horse riding or shooting. Buffalo mostly stand there, and you can walk up to them on foot. Ain’t much different than it was back in the old days. The main work comes in the field dressing, cleaning and tanning.

    Indians were in no danger of wiping out the Buffalo. Even with the guns. But the harvest went way up when they were trading Buffalo skins for fire water.

    Today on the reservation there’s a big bison preserve with several hundred head of Buffalo just outside of Browning. There are also lots of signs warning of drunk driving.

    Comment by Pat — June 23, 2021 @ 11:07 am

  10. My friend, I’m reading here from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. I’m wondering where you got your figures on the prices of whiskey and Buffalo hides.

    I got it from the book “Destruction of the Bison”:

    Francis Parkman, who toured the plains in the 1840s, recorded in his diary that at Fort Laramie, “Prices are most extortionate…. a common clay pipe sells for half a dollar – a three-bit calico shirt for four dollars – a pair of the very coarsest pantaloons for ten dollars– a gallon of whiskey for 35 dollars, etc.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 24, 2021 @ 1:57 pm

  11. Well friend, that don’t sound right to me. It’s not even 35 a gallon here now.

    According to the Kansas City Post Gazette, March 3, 1886, a bottle went for 2 bits. That’s not even a dollar.

    Your point remains, and it was a good point, I’m just curious about the exact figures.

    Comment by Pat — June 25, 2021 @ 12:18 am

  12. FYI, I’ve been to Blackfoot reservations in both Montana and Calgary. I met with Blackfoot men who were raising bison in tribal land where they grew shortgrass and other grasses ecologically native to the northern plains. In Calgary I attended a tribunal on residential schools that I wrote about here:


    Comment by louisproyect — June 25, 2021 @ 1:06 am

  13. I drive past the tribal bison reserve every few days. Interesting stuff. Thanks pal. I will look into it. If you come through again look me up. I found you on Counter Punch. I found Counter Punch because of a guy called John Holt who is a bit of a strange character. He writes about the great outdoors. The Blackeet Reservation on this side of the border is about the size of an East Coast state like Delaware. A lot more money out there though. Guys here are barely scraping by. But just 5 people passed away on the reservation. Sure looks better than the half million or so in America at large. Take care of yourself friend.

    Comment by Pat — June 25, 2021 @ 12:45 pm

  14. By the by, I would wonder what you would think of talking to people about ecological native grasses while the entire reservation is plagued by hundreds of broken down cars, shack housing, plastic and other pollution, and general disregard for the environment. I hate to say but the reservation is no doubt the filthiest place in Western Montana. Did that strike your eye funny at all?

    Comment by Pat — June 25, 2021 @ 12:47 pm

  15. Did that strike your eye funny at all?

    My stay was with the more forward thinking Blackfoot who did not live that way, even if they were poor.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 25, 2021 @ 8:26 pm

  16. Thank you for presenting this perspective. The stain of the West’s deviation from the original state that was normal for all traditional civilizations provides the dense unenlightening landscape of our modern world. This slaughter reminds me of a passage from Rene Guenon’s, The Reign of Quantity & The Signs of The Times….
    “Man mechanized everything and ended at last by mechanizing himself, falling little by little into the condition of numerical units, parodying unity, yet lost in the uniformity and indistinction of the ‘masses’, that is, in pure multiplicity and nothing else. Surely that is the most complete triumph of quantity over quality that can be imagined.”

    Comment by utejack — June 26, 2021 @ 2:36 am

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