Land Management Declined as Native Americans were Displaced

Land Management Declined as Native Americans were Displaced

The arrival of European settlers to North America reduced Native American access to land and disrupted their land management practices. Acknowledging the wisdom of traditional land management techniques can diminish the threat of wildfires and contribute to better stewardship of the land.


3 - 12


Conservation, Social Studies, U.S. History

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Before the arrival of European settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries, Indigenous American tribes had lived in North America for more than 20,000 years. During that time, they developed ways of using land that were generally more sustainable than European colonizers.

If an area were full of wild animals, or game, a tribe would hunt in that area until the supply of game decreased, then they would move on and allow the animal population to rebound. If an area had fertile soil, the tribe would clear the land and prepare it for crops. After the soil was depleted of nutrients, they would not farm there for some time and allow wild plants to grow back, which helps maintain the soil's fertility.

Indigenous American tribes cultures often viewed land as shared property for a community's use. Although properties could have well-defined boundaries, land was not meant to be owned or transferred from one person to another.

These views of property clashed with the concept of private property held by the European settlers who began to arrive in North America in the 1600s. For these settlers, land was an asset owned by individuals and was a source of wealth and prestige. Landowners developed their property—by establishing farms, in most cases—in order to generate income from the land. Soon after the settlers arrived, their demand for land was too great, and Indigenous people began to push back.

Indigenous American Tribes were Displaced
Conflicts over land defined European-Indigenous American relations for much of the next 300 years as settlers claimed more and more territory. These clashes started in the 1600s as a series of wars on the East Coast between colonists and Indigenous American tribes. After the American Revolution in the late 1700s, the United States steadily expanded westward, and during the 1800s, settlers displaced Indigenous American tribes all the way to the Pacific Ocean. If a group of people is displaced, it means they have been driven from their home or territory, usually by force.

In 1851, the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropraiations Act. This law established the Indigenous American reservation system and relocated Indigenous peoples to designated territories. The stated purpose of this system was to give Indigenous Americans land over which they could exert sovereignty and practice their own cultures, but ultimately it was about expanding U.S. territory.

The reservations were mostly unsuitable to the traditional needs of the tribes. The reservation lands tended to have infertile soil and were lacking in adequate water or other resources. With limited access to quality farmland and game, Indigenous Americans were unable to practice their traditional farming or hunting lifestyle. These factors had a devastating impact, resulting in significant poverty on the reservations and a loss of Indigenous cultures.

Cultural Burning was Good for the Land
When Indigenous Americans were removed from the tribal lands they inhabited, their land management methods were disregarded. As a result, the environment has suffered. Over time, those methods had changed North American ecosystems to suit the needs of Indigenous Americans.

Indigenous communities across North America have used burning to manage land. Some of these tribes include the Karuk and Yurok in the northwestern part of the U.S. state of California; the Apache, Navajo, and Jemez in the U.S. Southwest; and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in the U.S. state of Minnesota. This is not an exhaustive list, but it provides an indication of the pervasiveness of the practice among Indigenous North American tribes.

Burning was among the most important Indigenous American land management tools. Cultural burning is a form of traditional fire control passed down through generations of Indigenous peoples. Cut-and-burn techniques were used to clear underbrush, encourage the growth of new grass, recycle nutrients in the ecosystem, control animal species, and reduce the danger of larger fires. The regular use of fire altered the natural development of landscapes, hindering the development of forested ecosystems dominated by large trees. Instead, the burnt land, with its fertile ash, was used to grow crops. Over time, the repeated use of burning caused permanent changes in the ecosystem to favor plants that tolerated fire, changes that were useful for humans.

The settlers did not adopt Indigenous Americans' beneficial burning techniques. European practices of preserving forests and suppressing fires became common. However, North American ecosystems were reliant on regular burning to continue their natural cycles. With cultural burning no longer in use and natural fires suppressed, highly flammable underbrush built up, which has led to larger and more frequent wildfires.

Learning Traditional Techniques to Prevent Fires
Today, governments are trying to learn from traditional Indigenous land management techniques for fire prevention. Many U.S. states, including Oregon and California, are using controlled burns to clear out underbrush and dead trees. Like Indigenous Americans, they are performing these exercises in the late fall and early winter when the ground is damp and cold to prevent the fires from spreading.

Despite these steps, wildfires continue to be a major problem in California and other states. Billions of dollars are spent every year fighting wildfires and paying for the property damage they cause. It may take time for the ancient Indigenous land management techniques to significantly reduce the incidence of major fires.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 25, 2023

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