M. Kat Anderson is part of the United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA Plants) team, which is part of the Natural Resources
Conservation Service. Her
responsibilities in the Plants Team are in ethnobotanical
and ecological information. She
graduated from the University of California
at Davis and received a degree as
an Ethnoecologist. Currently, she is a Lecturer in the
Department of Plant Sciences at U.C. Davis.
¡§The concept of California as
unspoiled, raw, uninhabited nature¡Xas wilderness¡Xerased the indigenous cultures
and their histories from the land and dispossessed them of their enduring
legacy of tremendous biological wealth¡¨.1 This quote expresses the essence of M.
Kat Anderson¡¦s Tending the Wild¡Xin which Anderson intensively explores
the California Indians before European contact. Vividly, Anderson
recalls the thousands of years of history that shaped California
before the arrival of the Europeans¡Xa period in which man and nature attained
equilibrium and flourished.
begins her book in describing California as a land of superlatives and
extremes, with ¡§the highest mountain peaks, the largest, oldest, and tallest
trees, the rivers of the greatest variety, and the most diverse Indian tribes¡¨.2 Home to the
lowest point on the American continent in Death Valley as well as the highest
point in present day US at Mount Whitney, California contains a unique
diversity. During the period of
early exploration, every European visitor noted that one-third of the state¡¦s
6300 plant species are endemic. The
state also contains nearly all of the world¡¦s sixty species of the manzanitas and forty-three of the forty-five
California-lilacs species. In 1542
around one hundred Native American languages echoed throughout California¡Xcomposing
one quarter of the 418 native languages within present day US. California
was also notable for its sheer abundance of wildlife that Jean Francois de Galaup, a French seafarer, described in 1786 that California
was a land of ¡§inexpressible fertility¡¨.
In addition, Early California was a massive flower garden, with densely
growing wildflowers and hundreds of varieties of grasses ranging from brodiaeas, mule ears, yampah,
lilies, tarweeds, wild ryes, and deergrass and California
bromes formed the bulk of the plant diversity in these communities. Also, the natural disturbances in California
played a major role in helping the plants and wildlife flourish. Late summer and early fall fires were
expected events in California
vegetations types below six thousand feet elevation, and thus shaped the
adaptability of plants in those areas.
Fire was only uncommon in deserts and high elevations. California plants were able to
eventually evolve with fire as a natural environmental factor over millions of
years, allowing many California species to not only be able to survive fires,
but also require it in order to fulfill their life cycle. Disturbance was a recurring part of
every vegetation type in California,
and thus it was accepted that perturbations are required in order for plant
populations and ecosystems to renew.
Mammals ranging from grizzly bears, tule elk,
pronghorn antelope, and now extinct black jaguar roved California. The state was also a major stopping
point for dozens of species of migratory birds, including the fox sparrows,
golden-crowned sparrows, and Arctic terns.
Plump, vigorous salmon ran through every major river in California,
exceeding in fatness than most fish that Early Europeans had seen. The Native Americans highly populated California
and had the highest population densities of any area of equal size north of Mexico
Because of California¡¦s
rich environment and large amount of resources, Native Americans and Europeans
alike were attracted to this land.
purportedly made a compromise in the long held hunter-gatherer/agriculturist
classification debate about Native Americans, but the later texts proved
otherwise. The term hunter-gatherer
evoked the image of a wander or nomad who plucked berries and pinched greens in
order to live a hand-to-mouth existence.
On the other hand, agriculturist referred to a person who completely
transformed the wildland environments, saved and sew
seeds, and tended vegetation by fire and hand weeding. Anderson
attempted to lean towards neither extreme and remain ambiguous by describing
that Indian groups across California
practiced diverse approaches to land uses that made such a characterization
impossible. She explained how ¡§a
reassessment of the record in California [revealed] that land management
systems [had] been in place here for at least twelve thousand years¡¨, which was
ample time for the Native Americans to affect the evolutionary courses of the
plant species and communities.3 Such an assessment insinuates Anderson¡¦s
lean towards the agriculturist side of the debate. At the beginning of contact with
Europeans, Californians populated in some areas about one person for each two
square miles, a density that ranked among the highest in the world for early
civilizations of native people. As
a result, California Indians could have easily overexploited wild plant
resources, even with simple, small-scale technologies, such as a digging stick,
seedbeater, obsidian and chert
tools, or even human hands.
Although California¡¦s tools
appeared primitive and not likely to affect many areas, the investigations
showed that such ¡§primitive¡¨ tool¡¦s powers were vastly underestimated by
scientists. The digging stick could
turn over and aerate large areas of soil in meadows, valley grasslands, and
coastal prairies¡Xaffecting the composition and densities of species found
there. Additionally, Seed beating
with a simple seed beater enhanced the herb population in a number of ways:
allowing seeds to scatter around the collection area and ensuring that only
ripened seeds be collected.
Harvesting was a complex process, and required different treatments for
different plants. The harvesting of
the tender, immature flower stalks of Agave before
flowering could have stimulated vegetative production, while cutting or pruning
at certain times of the year was less detrimental. These complicated processes required
numerous years of passed down experience in order to perfect¡Xsomething that the
far from primitive Native Americans did.
California was rich with wild
produce, but it was a calculated abundance. Plants such as buttercup seeds, manzanita berries, cactus pads, Indian rhubarb, wild
onions, and hundreds of other plants nourished the native people. Millions of grains from native grasses
became flour, and millions of plump tubers became ¡§potatoes¡¨ in Indian
ovens. A typical Yokuts tule house in 1700
contained baskets of dried blackberries, mushrooms, and seeds, as well as
jackrabbits, elk, fish, and antelope meat. One Native American elder described how
¡§the house was full of things to eat¡¨ during all seasons. 4 The seed gathering
grounds of the Indian groups across California
were very productive even in desert regions. After the transformation of the
landscape by Euro-Americans, large mammals such as bears had to roam great
distances to feed themselves.
California Indians tended native plants so that they would produce
materials needed for basketry and other cultural items, and their approach to
food was no different. They burned
areas to stimulate food-producing plants and discourage competitors such as
weeds, and sowed seeds to enlarge populations of seed-bearing annuals, as well
as pruning and digging in order to increase productivity and vitality of the
plants. Plants provided 60 to 70
percent of primary nourishment for Californian Indian tribes; and thus, the
tribes included four plant parts in their diet: seeds and grains, bulbs, corms,
rhizomes, taproots, and tubers, leaves and stems, and fleshy fruits. Almost every Indian adult had an
in-depth knowledge of what in nature was good to eat, and was skilled in
procuring and preparing food anywhere.
The extensive techniques of the Indians in planting and obtaining food
were contradictory to the beliefs of the scholars of the last quarter of the
nineteenth century, who subscribed to racist generalizations concerning the
intellectual superiority of ¡§civilized¡¨ society over native ¡§savagery¡¨.
is now home to approximately 150,000 people who trace their ancestry to the Native
Americans, despite the many years of genocide, dispossession, and
assimilation. Since the invasion of
the Euro-Americans, California Indian tribes continue to endure major cultural
threats. Economic and cultural
pressures have forced many Indians to embrace Western culture and use
exploitative land practices that degrade traditional lands and reduce the
variety and abundance of regional floras.
Every year, fewer elders are left alive to speak the native language and
remember the Old Ways and
transmit their culture¡¦s essence.
More than half of original Native American languages are now extinct,
and many are at peril with only a few speakers left. Much of the preservation effort focuses
on traditional gathering and land management. However, much of these efforts cannot
prevent the common threats to traditional gathering that Anderson
describes that ¡§culturally significant plants have declined with the loss of
habitat, especially wetlands, riparian woodlands, and open lower montane forest¡¨ which cover a majority of California. Former gathering sites with culturally
significant plants are now blacktopped widened roads, rangelands, or private homes.5 Vitally
important traditional management practices such as regular burning are no
longer possible because of government prohibitions and buildup of fuels from
fire suppression. As a result of
the rapid disappearance of tribes in their submission to Western culture and
the impracticality of important Native American agricultural practices, the
Native American culture is suffering in present day California.
M. Kat Anderson¡¦s Tending the Wild, Anderson
makes the argument that the richness and abundant resources of California
were not simply the doings of nature¡Xthe toil and practices of the Native
Americans helped make California
into such a flourishing region. She
believed that the land in California provided benefits for both the land and
the California Indians, and ¡§that indigenous people¡¦s stewardship of the land
carries important lessons for us in the modern world¡X[which] germinated in
[her] mind as [she] stood in a Mexican farmer¡¦s fields in summer 1983¡¨.6 Her appreciation of the sheer effort
Indians needed to undergo the hard manual labor of farming and other
agricultural practices prompted her interest in the agricultural studies of the
Native Americans. As a result, her
beliefs on the Native American¡¦s impact on their environment in California
could be easily exaggerated. On the
stance of the hunter-gatherer and agriculturist long held debate over the
characterization of the Native Americans, Anderson
explains her neutral stance in her book, but ultimately leans towards that of
agriculturist throughout her text.
She explains how the agricultural techniques of the California Native
Americans ¡§tended¡¨ the wild; however, she does not consider the fact that maybe
the already flourishing wild of California
could have been better off without the Indian¡¦s agricultural practices. Nowhere in the book does she ever
explain any of the detrimental effects of the Indians of the environment, or
even try to counter-argue that issue.
Her book does not seem to take much of an analytical stance¡Xshe simply
gives details upon which she elaborates with more details, almost completely
ignoring the conflicts between the Native Americans and the Europeans, other
Native Americans, and even the environment. She assumes that the reader feels the
same sympathy for the Native Americans as she does, and dwells upon the
hard-working practices of the Californian Native Americans in order to evoke
the reader¡¦s sympathy. Because of
her focus on simply the people¡¦s interactions with the environment and with
nature, Anderson displays the
characteristics of a geographic historiographer who believes that the land
shapes the people and their behavior.
L. Ollendorf, president of ALO
Environmental Associates LLC, presents a favorable review upon Anderson¡¦s
main points about the Indian¡¦s impact on nature. She characterizes the book with ¡§one
important outcome¡¨, which is that ¡§well-entrenched myths are dispelled¡¨.7 Her review
supports the plethora of information given about Native American land
practices, assuming that all of Anderson¡¦s
sources are credible. The fact that
Anderson conducted extensive research
for the book through interviews with Native American descendants who recalled
relevant practice of their grandparents is a vital point upon which Ollendorf attributes credibility. Subsequently, she agrees with Anderson
in her challenge of the hunter-gatherer stereotype of the Native
sympathizes with Anderson and her
hope that this book would influence Native Americans into retaining their
tradition. As an environmentalist
organization¡¦s president, Ollendorf applauds this
book mainly because it supports the conservation of native plant species.
Lightfoot, Professor of Anthropology at Berkeley,
presents a favorable review about M. Kat Anderson¡¦s book and the extent of the
detail. He applauds Anderson
for solidly outlining ¡§the problems facing contemporary Native communities in
the implementation of their traditional management practices¡¨ in an
environmentally indifferent world.8 Additionally,
he likes Anderson¡¦s extensive
bibliography that brings a wide range of readings from sources such as Native
American anthropology, geography, ecology, and studies. On the other hand, he does address some
shortcomings, such as Anderson¡¦s
outdated outlook on the hunter-gatherer/agriculturist debate. As a professor of anthropology, Lightfoot
recalls that recent archaeological findings of Native American remains indicate
the hardships and poor health that some Native Californians suffered as a
result of food shortages, parasites, violence, or endemic diseases¡Xpoints which
Anderson ignores. According to Lightfoot, a much darker
and less benevolent picture of the Native Californian¡¦s interactions with the
environment, which has now become a form of literature, is barely mentioned in Anderson¡¦s
book. Thus, Lightfoot attacks the
rosy picture that Anderson paints
over the book. However, the book
still provides a plethora of relevant information about Native Californian
practices and the environment.
M. Kat Anderson¡¦s book makes many
revelations on the Native Californian shaping of the environment and their land
practices. She starts off the book
with the quote that ¡§No country in the world was as well supplied by Nature,
with food for man, as California¡¨.9 This argument
shows that she already begins to disprove her own arguments on the Native
American influence upon California, since such a statement implies that
California was initially rich, and might have remained rich even if the Native
Americans had not tended to it.
Most Native Californians were
thoroughly satisfied with their way of life, and were unlikely to desire to
move out of California. In California,
the plants and animals were plentiful, and many land practices in California
would not be practical outside of California
because of the unique species that exists in California. Simply put, ¡§Early California was a
massive flower garden¡¨ that provided plenty of food for animals and humans alike.10
Nowhere else in the world would people find such a large variety of
plants and animals. This was
because California had an
incredible endemic amount of plants that only grew within the conditions of the
state¡¦s borders. Elna Bakker called California
¡§the great mosaic¡¨, since it contained a myriad of different marshes,
grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, and forests that
helped numerous organisms to survive.
It was also not uncommon to meet speakers of several different languages
within a half-days travel of a village. There was never a national body of
Indians, and thus the diverse groups that persisted throughout California
for its rich resources never communicated well. Despite a few shortcomings of the
region, California was a unique
area that thoroughly satisfied the Native Californians more so than other
the eyes of Anderson, ¡§since their world was taken over by Euro-American
settlers, California Native American tribes have continued to endure major
threats to their cultural survival¡¨ and fight an ongoing battle against westernization.11 In their
struggle, the California Native Americans have set an example for the rest of
the country to follow¡Xto preserve their culture with any means possible. During Pre European years, Native
Californians didn¡¦t receive much interaction with distant areas, and thus it
would be impossible for them to influence or be involved with tribes of another
region. Because of such an
unavoidable shortcoming, Anderson
doesn¡¦t include any information about the Native Californian¡¦s
interactions. Such information
would be too short, or simply biased due to small amounts of examples.
debate of California Native Americans as a hunter-gatherer or an agriculturist
still rages on. However, one thing
can be certain¡Xthey were the leading innovators of their era. M. Kat Anderson explains that ¡§the word tending,
as in the title Tending the Wild, is meant to encapsulate the essence of
the relationship that the indigenous people of California had with the natural
world in pre-Columbian times¡¨.12 The wilderness
of California became the way it is as a result of the intensive practices of
the Native Americans and their thousands of years of wisdom.
1. Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild.
1. California: University
of California Press, 2006 2-3.
2. Anderson, M. Kat. 13.
3. Anderson, M. Kat. 125.
4. Anderson, M. Kat. 240.
5. Anderson, M. Kat. 318.
6. Anderson, M. Kat. XV.
7. Ollendorf, Amy. "Book Reivew." History Cooperative. April 2007. History
Cooperative. 2 Jun 8. 2008
9. Lightfoot, Kent.
"Book Review." BNET. January 2006. BNET. 2 Jun 2008 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb1446/is_200601/ai_n18822983>.
10. Anderson, M. Kat. 1.
11. Anderson, M. Kat. 15.
12. Anderson, M. Kat. 309.
13. Anderson, M. Kat. 358.