Of the many stereotypes associated with American Indians, one of the most vexing is that of the Indian as inherent environmentalist. Of course, the “truth” is more complex than the stereotype can express, and Lee Schweninger’s Listening to the Land: Native American Literary Responses to the Landscape should be read by anyone desiring a deeper understanding of Native peoples’ relationship to place and the natural world. Schweninger’s rigorous study asks important questions: What are the origins of the stereotype of the environmental Indian? What cultural work does it peform? Do Native Americans experience a relationship with the natural world that is markedly different from that of Euro-Americans? Listening to the Land argues that the environmental Indian stereotype is an inaccurate, oversimplified image that prevents real learning and real action. This stereotype tends to remove Indians from the present and imagine them in the past. Schweninger suggests that the Indian as perfect environmentalist is a romantic, colonialist idea shaped by the dominant culture for its own benefit. Schweninger also finds, however, that Native people and writers do have a long-standing and unique relationship with place different from that of European Americans. Because many Native American writers do assert a land ethic, Schweninger argues that literary scholars must address “how knowledge of the stereotype helps one better read and more fully respond to those Native American authors who do profess an ethical relationship with the earth both in fiction and nonfiction” (10). According to Schweninger, a careful study of a Native land ethic shows that contemporary Indian authors “carefully balance a resistance to reductive stereotyping and a firm belief as expressed through their literature that there is such a thing as a meaningful and useful contemporary American Indian land ethic” (15).
Schweninger begins by surveying the origins and perpetuation of the environmental Indian stereotype in the journals of Columbus, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, mainstream advertising (the crying Indian portrayed in the 1970s by Iron Eyes Cody, for example), miniature coffee table books of “Indian wisdom,” and popular films such as Dances with Wolves. Because Indians are exposed to the same popular culture stereotypes as everyone else, Schweninger affirms, “American Indians have [End Page 190] themselves shared in creating and perpetuating the stereotype” as they have gained access to the means of self-representation (25). Furthermore, “mainstream academic culture as well as popular culture has assumed, whether legitimately or not, that American Indians have a special and in many instances enviable relationship with and understanding of the landscape” (29). Schweninger’s study carefully investigates these assumptions through the works of Native writers of several different tribal affiliations and regions writing in multiple genres, from Luther Standing Bear in the early twentieth century to Linda Hogan’s response to the Makah whale hunt in 1999. Listening to the Land concludes that “many serious, contemporary Native American writers assert that as American Indians they do indeed maintain a special relationship with the earth, and literary critics have begun to recognize as much” (29).
However, Schweninger asserts that few environmental or Native American literature journals have published much to date on a Native American land ethic. Here Schweninger argues for the value of ecocriticism to the study of Native literatures as well as for the importance of Native American literatures to the growing field of ecocriticism, particularly since European American nature writing remains the predominant subject of ecocriticism. Awareness of a Native American epistemology that denies a separation between humans and nature is particularly valuable for ecocriticism and its sister field of environmental justice criticism.
Following an introductory chapter, “The Land Ethic Stereotype,” Schweninger juxtaposes the work of anthropologist Shepard Krech III and Anishinaabe writer Winona LaDuke. In “Where the Buffalo Roam: Iconoclasts and Romantics,” Schweninger surveys Krech’s The Ecological Indian (1999), which challenges the assumption of Indians as ecological, and Sam D. Gill’s Mother Earth: An American Story (1987), which argues that the “earth as mother” concept is not indigenous in origin. Krech and Gill...