Native Americans Are a “Keystone Species”

By Neenah Payne

The concept of “keystone species” was introduced by ecologist Robert Paine in 1969. A keystone species has a large effect on the community it supports. Keystone species increase the species biodiversity of a community and enhance stability of the environment. Without them, ecosystems are prone to collapse. No other species can fill the function or niche of a keystone species.

Because Native Americans have understood the vital importance of collaborating with other species for thousands of years, the Americas were a veritable Garden of Eden with pristine waters and abundant healthy top soil when the European arrived. However, Water Is Life Festival: September 4 shows how threatened America’s water systems are now. The drying up of Lake Meade means people in the Southwest will soon no longer have water or electricity. We now have only enough top soil to grow food for 60 years!

Fortunately, Americans are beginning to understand the essential roles “keystone” species like the wolf, beaver, and buffalo play in our health and survival. Return To Nature In The COVID Era explains that the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park after 65 years radically enhanced the ecosystem. Wolves help keep forests and streams healthy which allowed many other animals to return and thrive.

Thomas Downing: New York’s Oyster King!  shows that New York was the oyster capital of the world in the 19th century. The Chesapeake Bay area was also known for its oysters. However,  the oysters were over farmed and went into serious decline. New York’s Ambitious Billion Oyster Project  explains that the Billion Oyster Project on Governors Island in New York City is attempting to restore 1 billion oysters to the Hudson River by 2025.

Oysters are a keystone species that provides an essential habitat in which many other marine species find refuge from predators. They also provide important ecosystem services. Eastern oysters are ecosystem engineers. In estuaries, bays, and lagoons, they attach themselves to substrate or other oysters to create large reefs. Reefs provide habitat, food, and a nursery for fish and crustaceans as well as a shelter for smaller organisms to protect themselves from predators. Oyster reefs are known to combat coastal erosion by acting as a buffer against the waves.

Keystone Species Enhance Nature

The Eastern oyster, also known as the American oyster and the Gulf Coast oyster, is the most popular mollusk on the Gulf Coast. They can be found all along the Eastern coast of the United States in saltwater bays, lagoons, and estuaries. Not only is this filter feeder a delicacy to Gulf Coast locals and tourists alike, it is also a natural habitat for small marine organisms such as sponges, crabs, and fishes.

How Wolves Change Rivers – George Monbiot says:

This is the story of how wolves changed the course of the rivers in Yellowstone National Park. It is a story that explains trophic cascades; that all life is connected and any changes in the web of life affect all other species, even the way that rivers flow. This story teaches us that our action, great and small, can have dramatic effects on life itself. Instead of viewing each individual species as separate from the whole, we must begin to see how all life is interdependent upon one another.

Why We Need Beavers — Nature’s Carpenters and Plumbers explains that beavers are both architects and engineers who radically transform ecosystems and create habitats for fish, insect, birds, and aquatic animals. The video Why beavers are the smartest thing in fur pants says, “Beavers are ecosystem engineers second only to humans”. They help protect against droughts, floods, and wildfires and provide habitats for about 80 species including mammals, fish, and birds while cleaning rivers. Native American tribes know beavers’ role in enhancing the environment.

Beavers: Nature’s Hydrologist – Part 2 explains:

When beavers make a series of dams and ponds withina drainage basin, the water cycle in the entire watershed is affected.….When Europeans came to America, they trapped beavers by the millions to ship beaver pelts to European countries, especially for making hats. The beaver loss was dramatic. Since the arrival of Europeans, the beaver population of the United States has dropped from perhaps 200 million to 10 million. If each of the lost beavers had built only a single acre of wetlands, then an area of more than 300,000 square miles — a tenth of the total land area of the United States was beaver-built wetlands. Now these wetlands are gone.

If California had not gotten rid of its beavers, it might not have a “fire season” each year. It might not be dealing with such a devastating drought now. Texas suffered a “once in a 1,000-year flood” this year. Had it not gotten rid of its beavers, it might have been protected from such an historic disaster.

How Bison Are Saving America’s Lost Prairie points out that Allan Savory: How Cows Can Save The World  shows that Scientific American warns that the world’s remaining top soil will be gone within 60 years.  So, unless we save our soils, we have just 60 harvests left. Industrial chemical agriculture is destroying our soils and our health. Since it ramped up in the 1970s, we’ve lost one third of the Earth’s topsoil.

When soils are damaged, the soil turns into dust in the process called “desertification”. About 60% of the world is turning into deserts — pushing 40 million people every year off their land.  By 2050, it’s estimated 1 billion people will be refugees of soil desertification. The soil, plants, animals, people, and the climate are connected in a fundamental way the West has only recently fully understood.

Allan Savory, Founder, Holistic Management, warns: “Poor land leads to poor people which leads to social breakdown”.  Savory’s 2013 Ted Talk is among the TOP 100 MOST-WATCHED TED TALKS. It has been seen by over 8.5 million viewers. Savory explains why livestock are the ONLY protection for soils and water and the ONLY way to save our civilization.. Bison help prairie get back to nature.  He says that as the public changes, policies change.

America Before Columbus

Charles Mann is the author of  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. The book has 4,589 reviews on Amazon with a rating of 4.6.

Amazon Description

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492—from “a remarkably engaging writer” (The New York Times Book Review).

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city.

Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

Charles C. Mann is the author of 1493, a New York Times best-seller, and 1491, which won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck award for the best book of the year. A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, he has covered the intersection of science, technology, and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad, including National Geographic, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post. In addition to 1491 and 1493, he is the co-author of five other books, one of which is a young person’s version of 1491 called Before Columbus.

The Atlantic: The Pristine Myth

Charles C. Mann, the author of “1491,” talks about the thriving and sophisticated Indian landscape of the pre-Columbus Americas.

For years the standard view of North America before Columbus’s arrival was as a vast, grassy expanse teeming with game and all but empty of people. Those who did live here were nomads who left few marks on the land. South America, too, or at least the Amazon rain forest, was thought of as almost an untouched Eden, now suffering from modern depredations. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that this picture is almost completely false.

According to this school of thought, the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’s arrival was well-populated and dotted with impressive cities and towns—one scholar estimated that it held ninety to 112 million people, more than lived in Europe at the time—and Indians had transformed vast swaths of landscape to meet their agricultural needs. They used fire to create the Midwestern prairie, perfect for herds of buffalo. They also cultivated at least part of the rain forest, living on crops of fruits and nuts. Charles C. Mann, in “1491” (March Atlantic), surveys the contentious debate over what the Americas were like before Columbus arrived—a debate that has important ramifications for how we manage the “wilderness” we still have left, if indeed it really is wilderness, untouched by the hand of man.

If it is true that the pre-Columbus Americas had tens of millions of people and highly developed civilizations, what happened? Why were there so few traces when the conquistadors and the colonists began to arrive in earnest? One demographer has estimated, according to Mann, that “in the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died—the worst demographic calamity in recorded history.” Others think this number is too high. But what is clear from oral history accounts is that Europeans who arrived early on found busy, thriving societies.

When John Smith visited Massachusetts in 1614, he wrote that the land was “so planted with Gardens and Corn fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people … [that] I would rather live here than anywhere.” But by the time the colonists reached Plymouth in the Mayflower six years later, they found one deserted village after another—the Indians had been felled by European diseases to which they had little resistance.

Mann writes,

‘All through the coastal forest, the Indians had “died on heaps, as they lay in their houses,” the English trader Thomas Morton noted. “And the bones and skulls upon the several places of their habitations made such a spectacle” that to Morton the Massachusetts woods seemed to be “a new found Golgotha”—the hill of executions in Roman Jerusalem.

The debate over how many Indians lived in the Americas will perhaps never be settled—there is too little archaeological evidence, and too many variables required to calculate their population. Mann makes clear, though, that the contributions of these civilizations were myriad—from corn to tomatoes to ways of sustainably managing land—and we would do well to learn from them.’

Mann is an Atlantic correspondent. We corresponded by e-mail last week.—Katie Bacon.

Native Americans: Architects of Abundance

How The Native Americans Built A Legendary Civilisation | 1491: America Before Columbus

Architecture and urban design. Whether living a nomadic existence or in sprawling urban centres, indigenous people throughout the Americas created their homes and community structures to fulfill the needs and values of their society.

Architects of Abundances: Indigenous Food Systems and the Excavation of Hidden History

Lyla June discusses several examples of Indigenous food systems both in pre-Columbian times as well as in the present. These examples show us ways in which we can live in more harmony with Earth’s processes to create abundance for all life, including, but not just for humans.

Rediscovering The Earth’s System of Economics

In the video below, Lyla June Johnston explains how Native American practices have served to enhance the Earth for all species for thousands of years. She proposes “The Seven Generations New Deal: Ecology + Economy”

3,000-year-old solutions to modern problems | Lyla June | TEDxKC

In this profoundly hopeful talk, Diné musician, scholar, and cultural historian Lyla June outlines a series of timeless human success stories focusing on Native American food and land management techniques and strategies. Lyla June is an Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages.

Her dynamic, multi-genre presentation style has engaged audiences across the globe towards personal, collective and ecological healing. She blends studies in Human Ecology at Stanford, graduate work in Indigenous Pedagogy, and the traditional worldview she grew up with to inform her music, perspectives and solutions. Her current doctoral research focuses on Indigenous food systems revitalization.

Keystone Plants by Ecoregion

Native plants are core to the wildlife garden. Intentional use of native plants, which have formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over millions of years, creates the most productive and sustainable wildlife habitat. While some plants play a singular role for one or limited types of wildlife, others are essential to the life cycle of many species. The local species of these plants vary by ecoregion, that is, areas where ecosystems (and the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources) are generally similar.

Keystone plant genera are unique to local food webs within ecoregions. Remove keystone plants and the diversity and abundance of many essential insect species, which 96% of terrestrial birds rely on for food sources, will be diminished. The ecosystem collapses in a similar way that the removal of the “key” stone in ancient Roman arch will trigger its demise.

The research of entomologist, Dr. Doug Tallamy, and his team at the University of Delaware have identified 14% of native plants (the keystones) support 90% of butterfly and moth lepidoptera species. The research of horticulturist Jarrod Fowler has shown that 15% to 60% of North American native bee species are pollen specialists who only eat pollen from 40% of native plants.

This data has been summarized by Level I Ecoregions along with top plants used by pollen specialist bees in the clickable lists below. In addition, approximately 4,000 genera of native plants that support over 11,000 lepidoptera can sorted by zip code in National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.

For purposes of these lists, we have included critical plant genera and local species that host significant numbers of butterflies, moths, and pollen specialist bees. Without these “key” plants, the ecosystem and the wildlife would suffer.

Importance of The Original Instructions

Mapping a New Geography of Hope With Native America shows that what Lyla June is proposing is based on The Original Instructions that Native Americans have known to follow for thousands of years.

Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future

In the 2008 video below, actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman said Native Americans were told that they would see America come and go. He said, “In a sense, America is dying from within because they forgot the instructions on how to live on Earth”. He warned that people who do not know how to live spiritually on Earth likely will not make it. He explained that when Columbus came, that started the true First World War. By WWII, the indigenous population of the Americas had dropped from 60 million to 800,000! The Native American population in the US is currently 4.5 million.

Indigenous Native American Prophecy

November is American Indian Heritage Month —  a good time to learn more about these ancient cultures whose guidance we need now to survive.

For more information:

  1. Water Is Life Festival: September 4
  2. Native America’s Gifts To The World
  3. Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
  4. Why We Must Be Honest This Thanksgiving
  5. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month
  6. 100 Year Anniversary of Santa Fe Indian Market
  7. Can Native America Transform The World Again?
  8. Native American Day: Learning The Way of Earth
  9. Growing Calls To Repudiate “Doctrine of Discovery”
  10. How Reconciliation With Native America Can Save Us

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze

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