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Indians and Ecology

Arrowhead, ca. 1000
Arrowhead, ca. 1000
Maine Historical Society

Text by Richard Judd

Images from Maine Historical Society and Abbe Museum

Deploying their hunting and gathering over the broad array of resources available to them, Native Mainers were not likely to over-exploit any of them.

Moreover, their use of these resources was conditioned by a code of religious respect for all of nature. Each of these activities was accompanied by a religious ritual that reinforced this reverence: the Green Corn ceremony at the end of harvest; the Deer Sacrifice ceremony; the midwinter New Year ceremony; the Maple ceremony, the Planting ceremony, and the Strawberry ceremony, for example.

Indians used fire to clear away trees for their crops and remove brush and weeds from their fallow fields. This practice resulted in a patchwork of forests and fields in varying stages of succession all along the southern coast and up the larger rivers.

Wood was a crucial resource, used in cooking, manufacturing, heating, and lighting, and thus their clearings grew larger each year until foraging became inconvenient and the whole village moved up or down the watershed. These movements, once or twice a generation, added to the Indians’ ecological footprint.

They also set the woods on fire periodically. According to early chronicler William Wood, it was the “custome of the Indians to burne the wood in November, when the grasse is withered, and leaves are dryed. It consumes all the underwood, and rubbish, which otherwise would over grow the Country, making it unpassable, and spoil their much affected hunting.”

These light ground fires did little harm to the larger trees, but their cumulative impact was significant, and, from the Abenaki perspective, beneficial, since they reduced forest litter, returned nitrogen to the soil, improved the quality of forage for browsing animals, encouraged useful plants and herbs, drove away reptiles and insects, and increased the supply of berries.

The fires also spared the forest a greater conflagration by reducing combustible material on the forest floor. Forest-burning was not common among the hunter-gatherer people east of the Saco River.

There is some debate about how the forest in Maine might have looked to the arriving Europeans. Early historian Francis Parkman visualized a “vast, impenetrable wilderness” – a forest primeval – but early European accounts suggest otherwise.

South of the Saco River they describe a high canopy over an open woods, with large trees well spaced apart: a park-like forest carpeted with tall grass and with numerous open meadows.

There were, of course, natural disturbances operating on the same forest – wind storms, floods, insect infestation, disease, grazing and browsing animals, natural fires – and these make it difficult to generalize about Indian influences.

And as some historians point out, early descriptions were often based on hearsay, and written self-consciously to project a favorable and familiar image to potential colonizers. Still, the documentary record suggests a pattern of seasonal burning, and bog and lake sediment cores show that prehistoric fires were most common where Indian populations were greatest.

Indians, in short, thoroughly modified their forest environment, and with it, the range of animals, plants, and insects that lived within.