The Earth is organized in to a series of eco-systems supporting different types of life. In every ecosystem, life develops according to a well-defined sequence of steps. Ecologists call this the Principle of Succession, e.g. one plant takes root and flourishes followed by another, and then yet another, until a climax is reached where the introductoin of large trees stops the process. To put it plainly the first life forms to get established in any given eco-system are microbes. These are followed by insects and smaller plants. These in turn create conditions favorable for the growth of medium sized plants, bushes and small trees. The climax comes when large trees like Douglas fir, oak or hickory establish themselves.
Mount St. Helens provides an excellent example of succession at work. The mountain actually is a volcano; it erupted (more like exploded) in 1980 flattening hundreds of square miles of forest. The eruption left the area devestated by magma, ash and mud. All animal life completely disappeared. Yet, despite the destruction smaller plants in the area clung to life. Within a few weeks of the disaster purplish flowering plants called lupines began peeking out from amid the charred remains of fallen trees and burnt grasses. Shade cast by the lupine created conditions for the return of wild grasses which liked the shade. Fifteen years after the eruption small trees and shrubs began to appear on the mountain side. This was followed by the re-emergence of the climax eco-system, e.g. hemlock and Douglas fir trees. These large trees cast shade on the mountain's side pushing out the lupine (and other smaller varieties of plant and tree) that preferred growing in sunnier conditions.
In 2009, my wife and I visited Muir Forest just outside of San Francisco, California. We visited the forest for two reasons: firstly, this was one of the only places in North America where you could see massive redwood trees growing; and secondly, this is where George Lucas shot the ewok/stormtrooper speed bike scene for the movie Return of the Jedi.
I was blown away by the immensity of the trees. They towered upwards of 300 feet in to the sky. Some of the trees were so thick a person could dig out a tunnel and drive a medium-sized car through it. I saw the trunk of one fallen redwood. I counted the tree rings (one ring per growing season). This tree had thousands of rings. Someone had even gone to the bother of identifying the growing seasons when Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Jesus walked the Earth.
When I was growing up I was in the boy scouts. I had plenty of opportunities to camp, canoe, portage, hike, shoot rapids, etc. In all my wilderness experiences, I swear I never heard what I did in Muir.
Nothing. I heard nothing but absolute silence.
When it comes to climax eco-systems, this area was completely dominated by the redwood. Smaller trees incapable of growing to the height of the redwoods simply couldn't compete for the necessary sunlight. They just didn't exist here. And the reason there weren't any birds is because redwoord bark is over 12 inches thick. The thickness of the bark protects redwoods from fire and insects; and since there were no insects...there weren't any birds.
Succession: Avoiding the Unavoidable
There is evidence that large areas of Canada and the United States were at one time covered by these massive trees. This ancient world would have been just as dark and just as quiet as the one I encountered at Muir. So if succession is unavoidable, what happened to all the trees? Why isn't the world covered in climax-stage vegetation? The answer is catastrophes and humans.
Succession is frequently interrupted by catastrophes like lightning fires, mud slides, flooding, comets or, as the case may be, volcanic eruptions. Following a catastrophe life finds a way to take root again and flourish. Catastrophies are game changers which alter eco-systems making it possible for new fauna (animal life) and foliage (plant life) to live. North America, has been shaped by fire for thousands of years.
Fire is destructive and life-giving, e.g. fires open the ground up to direct sunlight by destroying large trees. This makes room for sun-loving grasses, bushes, plants, etc. to grow; and inevitably one type of plant encourages another type of plant to grow; it also encourages herbivores (plant eating animals) to move in to the eco-system. And predators (humans, wolves, bears) move in to the eco-system to exploit the herbivores. As you can see, fire shapes an entire eco-system.
Aside from volcanoes, there are only two other significant sources of fire, e.g. lightning and people. Lightning cause fires in the boreal forest all along the north-south expanse of the Rocky Mountains as well as in the Hollywood Hills of California. In Northern Saskatchewan and other similarly treed areas, forest fires are frequently the product of lightning. However, as we turn our attention eastward the primary source of fire was, and has been for thousands of years, people. First Nations peoples used fire to control vegetation and animal life near their settlements. Fire was even used in the hunt, e.g. hunters lit fires forcing prey in to ambushes. Native peoples weren't always practical when it came to the use of fire. Sometimes they applied torches to sap-dripping fir trees just to watch them explode.
Originally bison could only be found upon the Great Plains of North America. These immense creatures depended entirely upon grass for food. Thus, their range was limited by the boundaries of the grassy flat lands. Nonetheless, Native Americans were able to expand the range of the bison by using fire. The Indians burnt down trees and encouraged the growth of grasslands. The bison simply followed their stomaches eastward becoming a reliable source of food for the Indians living there.
The bison were potentially a problem for Native farmers. (The Iroquois, in particular, are reputed to have planted fields of maize stretching for tens of miles.) Yet, Natives Americans constructed no fences. Instead, they kept the bison population down by regularly harvesting them. This prevented the bison populations from becoming unmanageable. Also, when using fire to shape the land Native Americans made sure to maintain a healthy distance between their farms and the newly created grasslands.
In the decades following Christopher Columbus' arrival to the New World, European settlers unwittingly unleashed a series of devestating diseases upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Indian societies a thousand years or more in the making disintigrated disappearing almost overnight. In the resulting vacuum the forests and bison which the Indians previously managed so well became unmanageable. Forests overtook huge tracts of land reaching as far west as Kansas and as far south as Georgia. Bison populations likewise exploded without the Indians to manage them. Indian farms, orchards, fishing causeways, villages, towns, religious monuments, etc. disappeared under grasses, brush and a variety of climax-species like hickory, oak, maple and fir. As Indian settlements faded from view so too did their memory. Within three generations after contact, European settlers forgot about the peoples they'd encountered in those first years. The rest is history as they say: the myth of an unoccupied wilderness that was North America was born. (Mann, Pages, 283-288)
In the decades following the arrival of Columbus the number of bison grew from hundreds and thousands to tens of millions. The population explosion was made possible for primarily two reasons: firstly, the Indians increased the land's carrying capacity through their clearing of forests and encouragement of grasslands; and with an increase in food supply more bison could be supported; and secondly, with the virtual disappearance of the Indians there was no longer anyone managing bison populations (the bison basically had nothing to fear from predators). Ultimately, the millions of bison which eventually stomped their way about the prairies was not something "intended" by the Indians but definitely the "unintended" result of the Red Man's removal.
In the centuries before European settlement (pre-1492), two-thirds of Canada and the United States was covered by one crop or another; large tracts of land in the American Southwest was terraced and irrigated. Cahokia, the largest human-made structure in the world until the 20th century, was constructed in Missouri (see picture below). Thousands of smaller mounds have been discovered all throughout the Americas. Evidence of ancient causeways and water levies has also been found. The Eastern Coast of the United States was not originally covered by dense, thick forest (or climax species). Rather, the forest had been pushed back by nations like the Potawatomi who established farms all along the coast. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.
In Mexico, Indians shaped the eco-systems of the Mexican basin and Yucatan peninsula to make them suitable for farming; and in South America societies constructed terraces, canals and stoney highways in to the western faces of the Andes Mountains. In the Beni (Bolivia), other societies both farmed and fished (using Venice-like causeways to fish and travel from community to community). Agriculture reached down into Argentina and central Chile. Indians converted approximately a quarter of the vast Amazon forest into farms, orchards and turned the once-forested Andes to grass and brush (the Inca, who were worried about a fuel supply for their cities, actually established tree farms).
In 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto completed an expedition through the American Southeast (Florida). His written account tells of seeing vast numbers of people on his travel but not a single bison. (In fact, not a single account from an early explorer even mentions sighting a single bison.) A century later, after disease had swept Indians from the land, the French explorer La Salle canoed down the Mississippi. Where De Soto found prosperous communities La Salle encountered only "a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man." Everywhere the La Salle encountered bison, "grazing in herds on the great prairies which then bordered the [Mississippi] river." When Indians died, the shaggy creatures vastly extended both their range and numbers, according to Valerius Geist, a bison researcher at the University of Calgary. "The post-Columbian abundance of bison," in his view, was largely due to diseases from Europe which killed the Indians and reduced the hunting (controlling) of bison populations. The massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again (Mann, Pages, 360-371)."
People of the Great Plains: Blackfoot
The safest and most effective hunting technique was to force the animals to stampede off the side of a cliff. There are several locations on the prairies where this approach was employed with great effect. One of the more well-known sites is a place called "Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump." Apparently the location received its name from a not particularly bright hunter. The story goes that a young man wanted to watch the bison fall off the cliffs from below. And I'm sure you can guess what happened next....
Canada purchased the Northwest Territories from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870. The purchase encouraged an increasing numbers of white settlers to the Great Plains. White settlers, seeing the bison more of a nuisance than anything, hunted these creatures indiscriminantly and placed a lot of pressure on the Blackfoot. The final tragedy came in 1878 when the herds migrated south for the winter to the United States never to return. The Americans prevented the return of the bison by burning the grasslands on the shared Canadian-American border. With the Great Plains basically cut into two by a wall of burnt grass, the bison remained in Montana, Missouri, etc. where they were hunted to virtual extinction by 1879.
From the perspective of the Canadian Government, the destruction of the bison was desirable. The Canadians built a transcontinental railway linking east and western Canada. Settlers, particularly farmers, were encouraged to move westward and establish homesteads. However, white farmers were not any more capable of establishing farms than Indians with millions of bison trampling about. Canada did not offer any kind of meaningful protest at the slaughter of the bison by the Americans. Rather, the slaughter benefited the Canadians by forcing the Blackfoot Confederacy into treaty negotiations with them. Through these negotiations Canada was able to "legally" lay claim to lands that would eventually become the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union's dictator Josef Stalin once observed that if you wanted to get a man to obey all you had to do was starve his family. I think Stalin would've been proud of how the Canadians handled the situation with the bison and the Blackfoot, i.e. instead of using war the Canadians used a combination of treaties and starvation to settle the last great frontier known as the West.
People of the North: Inuit
For food the Inuit hunted big game like caribou and walrus and harpooned whales. As the Inuit established their communities well north of the tree line, they developed a form of shelter made completely of ice and snow. They called these dwellings igloos (a word regrettably that witty Americans ignorant of Canada overuse to describe Canadian homes. And if there are any Americans reading this right now, "Canada is a big country and no I don't know Steve from Toronto").
At one time, anthropologists used to lump the Inuit into the same category as all the other First Nations; however, subsequent research has determined that genetically speaking the Inuit belong to a different bloodline than the Huron, Aztecs or Iroquois. Thus, they are considered to be an entirely separate ethnic group. Accordingly, in Canada the Inuit are not considered a First Nation. Instead, the Inuit are referred to as "Native Peoples", "First Peoples", or "Aboriginal Peoples" along with the Métis.
The chiefs gave their huge homes extravagant names, e.g. House Which Thunder Rolls Across, House That Other Chiefs Peer at from a Distance, or House People are Ashamed to Look at as It is So Overwhelmingly Great. One thing is for sure, Haidan chiefs had an obvious appreciation for the extravagant.
In the spirit of the Haida, I have renamed my own home. But the name of my house is not related to how grand it is so much as it betrays the existence of three rug rat occupants: House With Rug that has been Ironed with Crayon Hieroglyphics All Over Walls . Based on the length of my house's name I would've had some serious Haida-bling, indeed. More recently my wife and I fixed up our place by filling holes and painting the walls. Nevertheless, my boys as we speak are at work undoing these repairs by playing hockey inside the house using mini-sticks and shooting small hard projectiles.
Unlike the communal societies found on the Great Plains, the Haida practiced a caste system. Just like India (and in some respects even England today), leaders were selected from a class of nobles. The next lowest class were the commoners who formed the basis of the population's majority. And then lastly, there were the slaves (prisoners captured from neighboring tribes or people stuck working in cubicles selling insurance in 9 to 5 desk jobs).
For the Nootka living on Vancouver Island, there was an additional class—the warrior. Only the warriors could belong to the most exclusive golf courses and get reservations to eat at the fanciest restaurants. Okay, so I made that last sentence up but it is true that the warrior enjoyed a great place of prestige and respect in his society.
The Haida were a sedentary people who lived in towns. Consequently, they were one of the few Pacific Northwest nations that carved totem poles. The Plains Indians were too busy chasing the bison to create totem poles. If you happen to find a totem pole outside of British Columbia, you are more than likely seeing something called an anachronism. These poles were constructed exclusively on the Western Coast of Canada and the United States.
The Huron Confederation consisted of four nations—Wyandot, Erie, Neutral, and Tobacco—who spoke the Wyandot language (related to the Iroquoian language). Not unlike their fierce Iroquoian neighbors to the south, the Huron lived in palisaded villages for protection.
In 1615, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited Huronia the Huron and Iroquois Confederations had been at war for over a hundred years. The French, eager to find friends to help support their new colony at Quebec, agreed to support the Huron in their war against the Iroquois; it was a fateful decision because it ultimately led to a heightening of tensions between the two confederacies and the eventual destruction of Huronia by the Iroquois.