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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Indigenous Americans have lived in North America for more than 20,000 years. They learned how to best use the land around them. They mostly lived in tune with nature.

For example, Indigenous tribes would set small fires during cooler months. This practice is known as cultural burning. Cultural burning is good for the land. It helps improve soil quality. It also helps new plants grow.

This regular use of fire changed the North American environment. It limited the number of trees that could grow. Plants that could handle fire grew instead. This reduced the chance of wildfires. It also made the land healthier.

Indigenous American tribes saw the land as something to be shared. It was not something to own. It was not meant to be bought or sold, either.

Indigenous Tribes were Forced to Move
European settlers began to arrive in the 1600s. They created colonies and claimed the land. Europeans saw land as a source of money and power. This was different from how Indigenous Americans saw the land. Indigenous people started to fight back.

In the 1600s there were wars between colonists and Indigenous American tribes. They fought over the land. After the American Revolution in the late 1700s, the United States grew. This forced many Indigenous peoples off their lands.

In 1851, the United States government created the Indian Appropriations Act. It started the Indigenous American reservation system. Reservations were areas of land set aside for Indigenous tribes. The government forced Indigenous Americans to move there.

The lands did not meet the needs of Indigenous peoples, though. The soils were mostly infertile. It was hard to grow crops. There were not enough wild animals to hunt, either. Life on the reservations resulted in significant poverty. There was also a loss of Indigenous cultures.

Cultural Burning Can Prevent Wildfires
European settlers did not use the land management practices the Indigenous people did. There was no cultural burning. Instead, they let flammable plants grow. Flammable plants catch fire more easily. This led to larger wildfires, more often.

Today, governments want to learn about cultural burning. They are looking at Indigenous fire management for ideas. The U.S. state of California is now using controlled burns. So is Oregon. Like Indigenous Americans, they set small fires in the fall or winter. The fires clear out dead plants and trees. This helps to prevent the fires from spreading in summer.

Wildfires are still a big problem in the U.S. Billions of dollars are spent every year fighting them.

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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