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

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...
Selected text level

Indigenous American tribes have lived in North America for more than 20,000 years. Before the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s, Indigenous communities had developed ways of using land that were generally more environmentally sustainable.

If an area was full of wild animals, they would hunt in that area until the supply decreased. Afterward, they would move on and allow the animal population time to recover. If an area had fertile soil, they would clear the land and prepare it for growing crops. After the soil was depleted, they would not farm there for some time and allow wild plants to grow back. This helped maintain the soil's fertility.

Indigenous American tribes cultures largely viewed land as shared property for a community's use. Although properties could have well-defined boundaries, land was not meant to be owned. It was not meant to be traded between people, either.

These views of property clashed with the concept of private property held by the European settlers. The settlers saw land as a valuable asset owned by individuals and as a source of wealth and power. Landowners established farms in order to generate income from the land. Soon after the settlers arrived, their demand for land was too great, and Indigenous peoples began to push back.

Indigenous American Tribes were Displaced
Conflicts over land defined European-Indigenous American relations for much of the next 300 years. In the 1600s a series of wars erupted on the East Coast between colonists and Indigenous American tribes. After the American Revolution in the late 1700s, the United States steadily grabbed new land to the west of its original eastern and southern states. During the 1800s, settlers displaced Indigenous 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 Appropriations 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 self-govern and practice their own cultures. Ultimately, however, it was about expanding U.S. territory.

The reservation lands did not suit the needs of Indigenous peoples. The soils were mostly infertile and there was not enough water. With limited access to quality farmland and animals to hunt, 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
Over thousands of years, North American ecosystems adapted to suit the needs of Indigenous peoples. The settlers who took over the tribal lands did not adopt Indigenous land management practices. As a result, the environment has suffered.

Cultural burning was a form of traditional fire control passed down through generations of Indigenous peoples. It is one of the most important Indigenous American land management tools. It involves small-scale burns to clear underbrush, encourage the growth of new grass, and recycle nutrients in the ecosystem. It also reduces the danger of larger fires.

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 a complete list, but it indicates how widespread the practice among Indigenous North American tribes.

The regular use of fire altered the natural development of landscapes. It held back 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.

Learning Traditional Techniques to Prevent Fires
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 undergrowth built up. This has led to larger, and more frequent, wildfires.

Today, governments are trying to learn from traditional Indigenous American land management techniques for fire prevention. Many U.S. states, including Oregon and California, are now using controlled burns. Like Indigenous Americans, they are performing these exercises 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 continue to be a major problem in the U.S. Billions of dollars are spent every year fighting wildfires. It may take time for the ancient Indigenous American 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

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.