Myth 6: Wilderness does not recognise that such areas were ‘home’ to native peoples
Myth: Wilderness does not recognise that such areas were ‘home’ to native peoples (Langton 1996, Adams and Mulligan 2002, Cronon 1996).
Truth: This goes back in part to the American Wilderness Act, which states that wilderness ‘is an area where the earth and its community of life is untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. The question here is what ‘untrammeled’ really means. One could argue that it doesn’t mean that native peoples never lived there, but the ambiguity has understandably offended some indigenous peoples. Most recent international and Australian definitions are at some pains to avoid such ambiguity, and do recognise that wilderness in most parts of the continent was home to native peoples. Rather than wilderness ignoring native peoples, wilderness can instead be seen as a tribute to their land management. A response to this myth is:
This myth was actually correct when the global human population was a tiny fraction of the present total, and when all people were hunter-gatherers. But when we started to farm, log, mine, live in permanent settlements … nature became the enemy, something to conquer. Now we can see what has been lost – materially, aesthetically, and spiritually. We must save what little of the wild is left.(Soule 2002)
It has been pointed out that when indigenous people adopt the technology and economic behaviour of Western society (such as guns, TV, cars) and forget their language and customs, there comes a point along this path where they are no longer ecologically indigenous (Nabhan 1995). Nabhan seems to be pointing out that indigenous cultures learned to live sustainably with the land over many millenia. If people (whatever their ancestry) adopt a Western lifestyle they will be putting much greater impact on a natural area. Thus indigeneity alone might not be the important aspect, but whether a group demonstrated ‘ecological indigeneity’. There is also the question of the Western concept of ‘ownership’ versus the indigenous concept of ‘custodianship’. An ‘owner’ of a house may choose to trash it, while a custodian of a sacred place should not. In Australia, almost every area was 'home' to a tribe. Now most of that homeland has been developed to a greater or lesser extent, and the last areas of high wilderness quality should be protected into the future. That is part of true 'caring for country'.