“The time has come to rethink wilderness,” wrote the preeminent environmental scholar William Cronon twenty-five years ago.
Cronon challenged the environmental movement in 1995 to recognize that they were using a false narrative to promote their cause. Wilderness was “a human creation,” he argued, which was “invented” and “constructed.” The United States created the definition of “wilderness” as a place “untrammeled by man” with the Wilderness Act of 1964. Cronon urged people to acknowledge that what Americans called “wilderness” was actually already in use by Indigenous peoples. It took “the removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness,’ ” he reminded us.
Instead of a self corrective, a generation later, the words “wild” or “wilderness” appear to be everywhere.
“Montana is untamed, wild and natural,” claims our Visit Montana website, as it seeks to attract tourists to our state. It features full-color photographs of “wild” scenes with mountains, animals, plants, rivers and lakes. Yet each of these photographs is of Indigenous lands, used for thousands of years by Indigenous people. These photographs do not reflect the “untamed” natural world, but instead the exact opposite, places that Indigenous people have managed and cultivated in sustainable ways to continue to be utilized for generations.
As a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana and a traditionally trained ethnobotanist, I teach my students about this history and I share my traditional knowledge in public talks across the state of Montana.
Here is what we know.
Scientists tell us that Indigenous people occupied the Americas for more than 30,000 years. And with each year new science tells us that their occupation was perhaps even longer. During that time Indigenous peoples developed intimate knowledge of their land and landscapes, which they shared with their descendants. And countless scholars and scientists have researched and written about this knowledge and history.
Indigenous people developed diverse and complex societies across the Americas, from the Arctic to the Amazon. Charles Mann wrote about this history in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
Indigenous people developed an intricate understanding of the ecology and ecosystems within their territories. Fikret Berkes wrote about this in Sacred Ecology.
Indigenous people developed a thorough understanding of the plants within their territories, which they used for food, medicine, tools and other uses. Nancy Turner wrote about this in The Earth’s Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living.
Indigenous people developed and domesticated numerous species of plants, which we still use today, such as corn, potatoes and tomatoes. Elizabeth Hoover and other scholars wrote about this in Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health.
Indigenous people developed an elaborate understanding of the complex connections between animal species. R. Grace Morgan wrote about this in Beaver, Bison, Horse: The Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains.
Indigenous people developed cosmologies, belief systems, ceremonies, rituals and other place based religious practices unique to the Americas. I wrote about this in Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet.
Unfortunately, this story of Indigenous life in the Americas is erased when we use the words “wild” or “wilderness” to describe the places where Indigenous people have lived for millennia. Even then the characterization of parts of Montana as “wild” was not true. There is no place in what we now call Montana that has not been changed by the Indigenous people that call it home. There is no place that is “untrammeled by man.”
There is some hope though.
Last summer, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Sierra Club took a step back to “rethink” its own “complex history.” Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, wrote that they were complicit in the “willful ignorance” that “allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands.” He stated they would do better.
Perhaps now is the time to say goodbye to the words ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ and the false narrative they continue to perpetuate in American society.
Montana is not “untamed, wild and natural.” It has been “tamed, utilized and cultivated” by generations of Indigenous peoples, past and present.
Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), Ph.D. is the author of Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet and an associate professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.
Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.
Missoula’s Farmers Markets. Eat local now through the early fall! The original Farmers Market at the north end of Higgins runs every Saturday 8am-12:30 – information here. The Clark Fork Market is now located at 101 Carousel Drive near Dragon Hallow, runs every Saturday 8am -1pm – information is here.
Bike to Barns tour – Aug. 14-Sept. 30. Explore local farms and flavors on a 15-mile bike tour through Missoula’s Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods. Check back here for more info.
Fixit Clinics – Aug. 21 and Oct. 2, 11am-3pm. Save the date for upcoming Fixit Clinics, hosted by Home ReSource! Bring your broken items and work with skilled repair coaches to learn how to fix them. More information and sign ups here.
Paddleheads River Cleanup Day – Aug. 22, 1-3pm. Don’t miss a great day of river cleanup fun, a FREE PaddleHeads baseball ticket for all volunteers, prizes, a free meal from Five on Black, a special river-themed jersey auction, and more! Participate in the river cleanup in the afternoon, then stick around for the game afterward. A portion of proceeds from the game will support Clark Fork Coalition’s work to protect and restore the Clark Fork River watershed. More information here.
River City Roots – Aug. 27-28. Help out with sustainability efforts at River City Roots! Volunteers are needed to sort trash, recycling, and compost, and to help out at the bike valet. Check this page for more info and to sign up.
Spontaneous Construction – Sept 18th. Missoula’s festival of creative reinvention! Reuse. Compete. Create. Enjoy! More info and team registration here.
Missoula’s third annual Clean Energy Expo – Sept 25, 10am-2pm. Climate Smart Missoula, together with partners at the Montana Renewable Energy Association, City of Missoula, Missoula County, and Clearwater Credit Union are back to hosting this premier event at Caras Park. More information is HERE, let us know if you’d like to sponsor or host a table, and do Save the Date.
Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.
Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.