Ecological Indigenization: Buffalo-Clad Imperialists at the 49th Parallel

I am going to tell you a story.  It belongs to the time before flour.  Before flintlock muskets.  Before paisley-pattered skirts and starched cotton blouses.

A man wakes up somewhere near Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota – except, he didn’t call it that back then.  He looks at his wife, admires the curve of her hips and her soft belly, a half-moon pushing against her buffalo robe.  “Wife,” he says, “We’ve got this river flint.  I am travelling northeast to trade.”  Maybe he wanted some miskwaabik (copper) from around Lake Superior.  Hard to say.

Wife nodded, admiring his strong legs and imagining where they might carry him.  Days passed and Wife went about the business of helping her husband prepare for a long journey.  She packed plenty of pemmican – pounded buffalo meat, dried berries, and local seed – to provide him with the energy he would need to reach the place where Muskrat lives.

This man travelled for quite some time – how long I’m not certain.  But, he left a trail along the shoreline of Lake of the Woods, Ontario.  He left a map that withstood the coming of the railway, Highway #1, and sat undisturbed when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.  This man is one of many, one of any.  His wife is one of many, one of any.  And, like the Euro-originated settlers that followed them, they were (unwittingly), ecological imperialists.

If you were raised on Lake of the Woods, your parents might have taught you that a good camp site is surrounded with “Manitoba scrub oak.”  They might also have told you that scrub oak speak to long distance, long-term trade.  About economies that school teachers rarely call economies.  About how a woman in the prairies made her husband pemmican to prepare for a long journey.  About how seed lovingly pounded into pemmican nourished him and passed through him, growing strong where he spent the night, choking out native plants along the shore. Before long, you’d have pitched a tent and fallen asleep in the same place as a man missing his wife did centuries before.

Or, perhaps less romantically, your father shouted these same stories over the buzz of the boat motor as you whizzed by to eat pizza on Scottie’s Island.

I am telling you this story because scrub oak matters in the way that names etched into Independence Rock matter.  In the way that dandelions matter before dandelions mattered.

Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism (1986) changed how we think about colonialism (Google claims that over 1,300 scholars cited his work).  European settlement, formerly the work of adventurous young men, hearty wives, and cunning bureaucrats, was attributed to Euro-originated biota.  Settlers created (albeit unknowingly) neo-Europes on “New World” soil.  Even the term – neo-Europe – suggests the ecological destruction of Indigenous landscapes.  In four syllables, we hear a fundamental redefinition of Indigenous territories.

But, how did it happen?  According to bio-geographical logic.  Crosby explains that the fertile zones of North America shared Europe’s temperate climate.  European plants, for example, were well-suited to grow here.  Euro-imported plants managed to out-compete local flora.  Not only were yellow-headed flowers adapted to growing on the depleted soil of agrarian Europe, they didn’t face “Old World” predators.  Fewer harvesters existed here.

But, long before neo-Europes grew up on Indigenous territories, neo-Little Missouri Grasslands took root.  While it is important to understand European colonialism, how North American environments were “Europeanized,” I believe our next challenge is to uncover how North American environments were “Sioux-ized,” “Anishinaabe-ized” or, further south, Haudenosaunee-ized.”

Recently, scholars have concerned themselves with the Columbian Exchange, writing “ecological Indigenization” onto European turf.  We follow the potato back to Europe.  Maize into the collections of the Anglican Church: “The fields of Mais the great stalkes whereof were trodden downe” (Samuel Purchas, Pilgrimmage, 1613).  And, syphilis from the “New World” through Columbus and his crew until it becomes known as the “French scourge.”[1]

I am asking us to shove over a little bit – not to leap across the pond.  To look at changes between Sioux territory and Anishinaabe territory.  Between Cree territory and Dene territory.    Maybe we’ll find more than a little scrub oak.  Maybe not.  Maybe we’ll find families swapping stories over boat motors.  Maybe not.

In high school, someone will tell you that Independence Rock says they, American settlers, were here.  At university, you’ll read Ecological Imperialism and your professor will tell you that dandelions say they, Euro-originated settlers, were here.

But, scrub oak speaks too.  It speaks Sioux.  It speaks Anishinaabe. English now.  Maybe – since Trudeau – it even learned some French. If you listen carefully, beneath the roar of stories about colonialism, it will whisper we were here, we were here.

[1] For a brief discussion of the syphilis debate, please see Mark Rose, “Origins of Syphilis,” Archaeology 50:1 (1997).  Available online at

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3 thoughts on “Ecological Indigenization: Buffalo-Clad Imperialists at the 49th Parallel

  1. Sean Kheraj

    Terrific post, Brittnay! You are absolutely correct on this point and I can’t wait to see your research once it’s complete. This is indeed the untold story of ecological imperialism before European imperialism in North America.

  2. Gerod Wiens

    Very inspiring, Brittany! I was very excited to finally read what you had to write. I enjoyed reading your perspective on the untold story of ecological imperialism. This piece has left me with many more questions!

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