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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Tended Wild                                                        James Lu


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.

            Anderson 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 City.  Because of California¡¦s rich environment and large amount of resources, Native Americans and Europeans alike were attracted to this land.

            Anderson 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. 

            Aboriginal 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.   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¡¨.

            California 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.  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. 

            In 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. 

            Amy 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 Americans.  Ollendorf 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.

            Kent 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 regions.

           In 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.

            The 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 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/eh/12.2/br_14.html>.

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.