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 developed ways of using land that were largely in tune with nature. For example, if an area had fertile soil, Indigenous Americans would grow crops. After the soil was used, they would not farm there for some time to let the wild plants grow back. This helped keep the soil fertile.

Indigenous American tribes mostly viewed land as shared property for the use of the community. Areas could have defined boundaries, but the land was not meant to belong to only one person. It was not meant to be traded between people, either.

European settlers started arriving in North America in the 1600s. The settlers established colonies and considered the land under those colonies their own. To Europeans, the land was a source of individual wealth and power. These ideals clashed with Indigenous views of shared property. Soon, the settlers' demand for land was so great that Indigenous peoples began to push back.

Indigenous Tribes were Displaced
Early European-Indigenous American relations were defined by conflicts over land. In the 1600s there were 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 expanded. The government grabbed land to the west of its original eastern and southern states. This drove many Indigenous peoples from their lands.

In 1851, the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act. This law created the Indigenous American reservation system. Reservations were areas set aside for Indigenous tribes. The government forced Indigenous Americans to relocate there.

The reservation lands did not suit the needs of Indigenous peoples. The soils were mostly infertile, making it hard to grow crops. There were not enough wild animals to hunt, either. These factors had a devastating effect on Indigenous peoples. Life on the reservations resulted in significant poverty and a loss of Indigenous cultures.

Cultural Burning was Good for the Land
European settlers did not adopt Indigenous land management practices. As a result, the environment has suffered. One example is increased wildfires in the absence of controlled burning.

Cultural burning is a form of traditional fire control. It has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. It involves setting small, controlled fires during the cooler months. This helps minimize the risk of larger fires in warmer months. Cultural burning also improves soil quality and helps plants grow.

The regular use of fire by Indigenous peoples changed the natural development of the land. It prevented the growth of forests filled with large trees. Instead, the burnt land was used to grow better crops. Over time, the repeated use of burning caused permanent changes. Plants that tolerated fire were more likely to grow, which reduced the likelihood of wildfires.

Learning Traditional Techniques to Prevent Fires
European settlers ignored cultural burning methods. Instead, they preserved forests and suppressed fires. This allowed highly flammable materials to build up. It has led to larger and more frequent wildfires.

Today, governments are trying to learn from traditional Indigenous fire prevention methods. U.S. states, such as Oregon and California, are using controlled burns. Like Indigenous Americans, they set small fires in the late fall and early winter when the ground is damp and cold. This helps to prevent the fires from spreading.

Despite these steps, wildfires are still a big problem in the U.S. Billions of dollars are spent every year fighting wildfires. It may take time for the return of Indigenous American land management techniques to make a difference.

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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