Socially Constructed Ideals of Nature Can Deconstruct Ways of Life

If someone were to ask you what you think is the meaning of nature, what would it be that immediately came into your mind? Would it be wild and untouched forests off in another country? Would you imagine quiet, serene, and protected national parks? Could it be the environment that you live in, whether it’s your backyard or a city? Everyone’s idea and perception of what nature really is can change based on the society that they live in, so how are we supposed to define what nature truly is? And when we realize how our efforts have altered a way of life for another culture, is there any way that we are able to reconcile that? I believe that it is important to reexamine and revise how we understand and view nature, and call in to question how correct and accurate our views may be. Here in the United States, our idea of the way that the environment naturally exists has altered way of life for many American Indian tribes that were living on areas of land that ended up becoming national parks. Our understanding of nature ultimately altered their way of life, and has had consequences that are still felt today.

The way we each perceive and understand nature is a socially constructed idea based on both our society and our surroundings and may in fact not be a true definition. What if the definition that you have always believed to be true turned out to be incorrect and nature has a meaning that is altogether different from what you have always thought? When we take a moment to rethink our current perceptions of nature and how the environment should truly exist, we may reach some conclusions that are different from the ones that we currently hold. By taking our current perceptions of nature and reevaluating them, we may even realize how our ideal of the environment may not always be correct and has had a negative impact on the lives of other human beings. I think that as a society, we need to be more aware of how our efforts to restore nature can have actually negative and far reaching impacts on another cultures entire way of life.

William Cronon speaks of this idea of a constructed view of nature in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness.” He calls into question each of our own perceptions of nature, changing them as constructed views that come as a result of the society that we live in. Throughout his essay, Cronon cites examples of how perceptions of nature have changed and been modified over time to reflect the ideals of the society that believed in them. Up until the 18th century, wilderness was desolate and barren waste that brought about emotions of terror. Nature was not something to be enjoyed, but rather something to be feared. Wilderness had been evil and a danger that people faced, and was not something to be taken lightly. In the 18th century, nature had supernatural underpinnings to it that were believed to allow one a glimpse the face of God if they happened to stumble upon a rare enough place on earth. Perceptions of nature were beginning to subtly shift from darkness and danger, to more mysterious and supernatural.

By the 19th century, people’s perceptions of nature had changed to seeing it as an invaluable attribute that needed to be saved from loss and destruction and preserved for the future. Instead of being the darkness that needed to be feared, nature was now a type of Eden that humanity had to save before it was lost to them forever. In the effort to save this beautiful wilderness, national parks were created in the United States. When you only look at the surface of the issue, the idea behind the creation of the parks seemed harmless enough. Sites became designated places for citizens to visit and take in the beauty that nature had to offer to them. They were thought to be a way of escaping the city and everyday life, and even today they are still used and visited as vacation destinations. Certain locations that were considered especially beautiful and heavenly were set-aside for the public to enjoy, places such as Niagara Falls, the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. In 1864 Yosemite became California’s, as well as the nation’s, first wildland park and Yellowstone was named the first national park in 1872.

While this setting aside of land may seem like a fine idea when looked at through the lens of the general view of nature held by our society, there are consequences that are often overlooked. When we realize that the current ideal that we as a society have of nature has greatly impacted and changed the lives of those who do not hold the same views as we do, our perceptions may be changed. In order for many of the lands that had been set aside to become national parks, an uninhabited environment had to actually be created. And in order for an uninhabited environment to be created, the American Indians that called these desired places home had to leave.

Throughout the history of the United States, there have been several instances where American Indians have been uprooted from their homelands and relocated in order for the United States government to take the land and repurpose it for their own benefit. In order to create a national park that was presented as existing in the truest natural state that it could, humans could not inhabit it. Even if American Indians had called the land that was to be a national park home for years, they were obstructing what was considered to be the true state of the environment that they were living in.  To restore the land to its natural state, as far as the United States’ view of nature is concerned, the American Indians had to simply be placed somewhere else. Their view of the true sate of the environment was one without the presence of humans that took up permanent residence on it.

People did not have to be entirely absent from the land, however, since it was being restored for the benefit of the public and for their viewing pleasure. In fact, in today’s national parks people can stay and camp for a night, or maybe even for a week, if they would like to experience this constructed experience of life in the wild. However, this can be examined under Cronon’s idea of a constructed idea of nature that is a product of people and the society that they live in. Is an accurate representation of nature one in which roads are paved and campsites have electricity? Do park rangers govern nature and the environment? Will you be handed brochures and have plenty of warning signs posted telling you of the potential dangers that you face by entering nature? If the true state of nature is aligned with the socially constructed ideals that led to the creation of state parks, then yes. Then by visiting these state and national parks, you are experience nature as you may expect it to be. But remember as you enter this experience, in order for the experience to be accurate enough to fit the mold of the constructed ideal of nature in relation to national parks, The American Indians could not call it their home.

As the creation of national parks gathered more and more momentum, the action of altering the land to return it to a more ‘natural’ state became more of a necessity. One area of land that ultimately became Yellowstone National Park was once the home of the Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, and Tukudeka tribes. Yosemite National Park had been the home of the Yosemite people and the Blackfoot Federation had inhabited Glacier National Park. Yet when each of these areas had been designated as national parks, these people were made to leave and be relocated. But in order to create a piece of nature in what was considered to be existing in it’s natural, uninhabited state that the public could view, alterations had to be made.

Native Americans can still feel the impact of being removed from their homelands to reservation even today. In an article by Duane Champagne, entitled Living or Surviving on Native American Reservations brings attention to the difficulties that American Indians still face today as repercussions of being relocated. A high unemployment on reservations makes for an unstable economic base and leaves many living on either low wages or government support. In the article, it is asked it is is possible for them to get out of the survival mode that they are currently in and be able to create thriving communities where their people can flourish. Champagne states that the reservation system has created several problems for American Indians, including addictions, poor health, few economic opportunities, and violence in families.  Reservation conditions do not allow the tribe members to fully realize their community values or their own individual goals. A way to change this survival mode that so many tribes are living in is for them to seek a greater political, economic, and cultural control. however, this can be difficult when their rights and ownership of land come into question, further adding to the stress and problems that they face in reservation life.

An article that shows how the debate of land purpose and ownership has continued into the modern day is Joanna Reid’s “The Grasslands Debates: Conservationists, Ranchers, First Nations, and the Landscape of the Middle Frasier.” The article follows the struggle over who should have ownership over the grasslands of the Middle Fraser, a canyon landscape located in the middle of British Colombia. The three groups involved in this debate are the people of the First Nations, the ranchers that use the land for animals and farming, and the conservationists that want the land to be designated as non-grazing reserves. Reid goes into detail to show what stakes each group has in the debate, and how each will be affected differently by whatever the outcome may prove to be. Each group has different reasons for the same space and each has a different claim to ownership, but how can the ownership issue be settled? Reid predicts that the landscapes will become multifunctional, with each group having land rights that will intersect and ultimately continue to change the landscape, making a new environment and yet another perception of nature.

Margaret Low and Karena Shaw’s article “First Nations Rights and Environmental Governance: Lessons From The Great Bear Rainforest” can lend another perspective to the question of how land should be used based on perceptions of nature. It focuses on how the role of First Nations in British Colombian resource management has changed over the past few decades. It has more recently become clear that while some environmental issues can fit well within existing governmental institutions, there are still many other issues that stand as challenges to the government. Issues such as species that are at risk, water management, the preservation of biodiversity, and the increasing threat of climate change will more and more often will need to involve negotiations between different the cultures.

Since British Colombia has a heavily resource extraction driven economy, there have always been conflicts over the resources and who has a right to them. The “environmental conflict” over the ownership of the land and its resources has brought into question what rights the aboriginals should have in relation to the land. In British Colombia, the aboriginals have never signed treaties with the government; so much of the land is still considered to be under claim by the First Nations.  It was not until recently that the government recognized this, and the land had been set to be developed.  Negotiations have begun to settle this dispute, but there are still issues that are present between the cultures. Recent trends to lobby for the creation of parks and nature reservations has led to tensions between the First Nation Communities and environmental groups.  While the environmental groups want to set aside land as parks, the First Nations need to develop their local economies and communities to improve their own lives. The people of the First Nations believe in protection and conservation and would like to set aside land, but it still needs to be taken into consideration that this is their home and where they make their livelihood. This is again another example of the conflict over nature and how it is meant to be, and two cultures clashing in their perceptions of the true state of the environment.

Perhaps there is a way to simultaneously find solutions to our relations with American Indians as well as the environment.  Dave Aftandilian writes in What Other Americans Can and Cannot Learn from Native American Environmental Ethics about how we can look to Native American ideas to guide our decisions on the environment. If we turn to the ethics that Native Americans referred to when we are considering how to treat and use the environment, we might be able to reach better decisions in regard to nature and other cultures. Aftandilian speaks of the Koyukon tribe and their ethics. They believed that they needed to maintain good relationships with other people, plants, animals, and all of nature. It was prohibited to abuse nature, especially animals, or else terrible consequences would result for the abuser. They had instructions on how to treat living animals properly and how to treat animals after they have died. Boasting of one’s hunting skills would be considered showing a lack of humility and respect for nature. Hunters were required to kill their prey quickly and painlessly and to not lose any animals that they had wounded. They aimed to reach a harmony with nature in order to keep and preserve their way of life and their survival. Their relationship with nature was one of balance and respect and brought them both survival and as well as a spiritual connection to the environment around them.

In conclusion, I believe that it is incredibly important for the United States as a culture to reevaluate the way that we expect nature to exist on its own. Our view of nature has changed over time, and is still not a true perception but is instead only one that has been socially constructed and reflects the time that we are living in. I believe that it will become much easier to change our perceptions once we are acutely aware of the trauma and pain that we have caused to the American Indian cultures in our pursuit of an untouched existence of nature. If we can apply their ethics towards the environment, then maybe we can change our relationship with them as well as our relationship with nature. There is damage done to both relationships that has been traumatic and may in some cases be unfixable, but it is still worth the efforts. Our socially constructed perceptions of nature have shifted and changed gradually in the past, and maybe right now is the time for a drastic shift in how we view nature.

References

Low, Margaret and karena Shaw. “First Nations Rights and Environmental Governance: Lessons From The Great bear Rainforest.”  BC Studies 172 (2011): 9-33. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 May 2013.

Reid, Joanna. “THE GRASSLANDS DEBATES: Conservationists, Ranchers, First Nations, and the Landscape of the Middle Fraser.” BC Studies. Winter2008, Issue 160, p93-118.  Web. 8 May 2013.

Aftandilian, Dave. “What Other Americans Can and Cannot learn from Native American Environmental Ethics.” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture & Ecology 15.3 (2011): 219-246. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 May 2013.

Kidwell, Clara S. “The Effects of Removal on American Indian Tribes, Native Americans and the Land, Nature Transformed, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center.”The Effects of Removal on American Indian Tribes, Native Americans and the Land, Nature Transformed, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil, n.d. Web. 08 May 2013.

Champagne, Duane. “Living or Surviving on Native American Reservations – ICTMN.com.” Indian Country Today Media Network.com. Indian Country Today Media Network, 8 Oct. 2011. Web. 08 May 2013.

“MILESTONES: 1830-1860: Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830.” Office of the Historian. US Department of State, n.d. Web. 8 May 2013.

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