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The Journal of American History


Exercise 6: The Ecological Indian

In much American lore, Native Americans are treated as timeless ecological saints living sustainably on the land—the opposite of aggrandizing and exploitative European colonists. Though historians challenge these simplistic narratives with more complex stories, these tropes frequently inform popular culture, where Indians are still often enlisted as one-dimensional (albeit noble) mascots for various political causes rather than complex actors.

In the Classroom

Consider recent remarks about indigenous people and environmental exploitation in the words of a successful movie star. During awards season in 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned the plight of indigenous people while accepting awards for his acting. Leaving aside the political point that DiCaprio made and whether you agree with it, evaluate what DiCaprio is saying about indigenous people and the environment in these passages. Why is it important to understand Native peoples as occupying more complicated roles than simple saints of sustainability? How does doing so lead to a richer understanding of the Native American past and a fuller understanding of Native American power and agency in early America?

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