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  • Writer's pictureGood Team at Switchbackr

What We Can Learn from Indigenous Land Stewardship

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

There is so much that we can learn about how to be good stewards to this planet by listening to and uplifting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.

Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano

Environmental destruction, injustice and the current climate crisis are directly tied to colonial conquest. Additionally, mainstream environmentalism that began in the 1970s often created barriers in access to Indigenous ancestral lands and silenced the Indigneous communities who have acted as the earth’s frontline guardians since time immemorial.

As Kaitlin Garble wrote for GreenPeace, “When European colonizers came to present day America, they marveled at the seemingly untouched fertile landscape of possibility. But in truth, this landscape was a result of thousands of years of land management by Indigenous people.” It is no surprise that many conservation practices heralded today originated among Indigenous communities.

Below is only the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn from Indigenous Peoples about how to steward the land.

Anthropocentric vs. Ecocentric

Why have Indigenous people been so successful at conservation? They are experts on their land due to long histories and deep understandings of ecosystems on the local level. Indigenous people also view the human place within the natural world very differently than most Western cultures.

Eduardo Brondízio, co-chair of the IPBES global assessment and an anthropologist at Indiana University Bloomington, notes that “instead of focusing on a single management issue, [Indigenous people] look at the function of landscapes and what is important to keep in terms of connectivity, how different habitats can be managed to complement each other.” This understanding fosters a level of respect and care for the intricate process of the natural world that is lacking from post-colonial capitalist societies.

In contrast, Western cultures, from which the environmentalist movement in the 1960s was born, traditionally separates man from nature. Jazim Murphy in an article written for Yes! Magazine, write that this ideology, “reduces our perception of human connectivity to nonhuman life and to distance constituents from the objective recognition of Earth’s intrinsic value.” The anthropocentrism of Western ideology reveals how the West developed an exploitative relationship to the natural world since Westerners fundamentally saw their actions as having no influence on the environment.

The first step in learning how to steward the land more sustainably is decolonizing the rhetoric and beliefs interwoven into mainstream environmentalism. Policymakers and scientists must listen to Indigenous communities and amplify their voices to ensure that ecosystems can be preserved and protected.

Controlled Burns

One technique of wildfire management is to use smaller, controlled fires to clear brush and other small plants. These prescribed burns can minimize the potential for larger sweeping wildfires, like the ones currently blazing across the West Coast today. Besides wildfire management, controlled burning has other benefits like restoring ecosystem health, recycling nutrients, and preparing an area for new plants. However, this practice is nowhere near new.

Before the arrival of Europeans to Northern American, Native Americans ignited controlled fires annually to clear brush and encourage plant growth. However, when European people forcibly removed many tribes from their original land and banned many cultural and religious practices, controlled burning became less and less common. Instead, authorities shifted their fire prevention strategy to extinguishing fires as soon as possible.

In 1944, the U.S. Forest Service created Smokey Bear, and along with it, spread the message that all fires are bad, and it is crucial to minimize the occurrence of all fires, both big and small. The message was effective, and over the years many small forest fires have been eradicated. However, these small fires are essential to the survival of the forest ecosystem by clearing smaller trees and vegetation, and without them, forests are at much more vulnerable to massive fires that have the capacity to wipe out the entire ecosystem.

Now there is a growing collective mentality that we must accept these smaller fires in order to prevent more devastating ones. But, are we too late? Without the consistency of smaller fires, vegetation has become overgrown with highly flammable grasses, and is extremely difficult to manage. Forest management has been working to try and combat the years of overgrowth by using the original Native American practice of smaller controlled burns. However, with the combination of climate change, high winds, and preoccupation with fighting off widespread forest fires, few resources are left to dedicate to setting smaller, controlled burns. Take a look at our recent article, “Why the Recent Wildfires,” to learn more.

Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture, a movement currently sweeping the globe that promises to boost biodiversity while furthering climate change mitigation, stems from Indigenous farming practices. If land was abundant, Indigenous communities farmed extensively and then moved on, in a process known as rotational planting. The Choctaw, Iroquois, and Pawnee people often cut and burned forests to clear land for farming, farmed heavily until the soil fertility diminished, and then moved on to the next area to allow the soil to regain fertility.

However, when there wasn’t an endless abundance of land, Indigenous people took a much different approach with their environment. When farming, many Indigenous tribes mix wild and domestic species, creating habitats with up to 500 species of plants. This practice keeps biodiversity in a way that typical monoculture (planting vast fields of one field type) does not. Biodiversity in agriculture helps conserve water and soil, keeps soil fertile, and assists with pollination, allowing the land to be used for longer periods of time.

Additionally, long before composting was a hipster buzzword, Indigenous people in North America were avid composters. They implemented a strategy called Sheet Composting, in which compostable materials were layered with soil. Uneaten fish and animal parts were also planted with seeds as a nutrient source. Finally, seeds were balled in clay and compostable materials and planted by being thrown into the Earth. This is similar to a technique used in ancient Egypt and China. Despite the deep Indigenous history of composting, George Washington still is often cited as “America’s First Composter.”

Stewards of Biodiversity

As climate change and human activity cause biodiversity to decline globally, plant and animal species are threatened by extinction in the coming years. However, this rate of decline is much slower on Indigenous land than it is anywhere else. According to a UN report, approximately one quarter of Earth’s land is owned, used, or occupied by indigenous peoples, but that land contains 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Indigenous people also play a large role in long-term monitoring and restoration of biodiversity among ecosystems. In Australia, traditional burning methods promoted biodiversity. In a process called fire-stick farming, cultural burning was crucial to maintain understory plants for animal grazing. In the Pacific Northwest, Indigenous communities have been credited with restoring shellfish population. In Hungary, livestock grazing promoted by traditional herders helped balance plant species on national lands. When the country established national parks in the 1970s, grazing was either discouraged or banned because authorities didn’t realize the impact of traditional herders on grassland management.

Tragedy of the Commons

Similarly to how Indigenous people viewed land as something to be protected and conserved, natural resources such as animals were hunted and farmed in an efficient and sustainable way.

Buffalo run
Image Courtesy of Arstechnica

There is a common misconception that Native Americans and other Indigenous people did not have any form of private property. In fact, access to land, water, and hunting territories was regulated. Oftentimes, a family or clan would have claims to specific areas of land depending on the scarcity of land and the ability of defining land rights and boundaries. In the case of the Mahican people in the Northeast United States, fertile land near rivers was highly sought after, so as a result was often divided up. Although land wasn’t fully communal, there were still many communal aspects of agricultural life.

For one, unlike private property ownership today in which land is attributed to an individual, land was often shared amongst families or clans. Next, in addition to storing crops individually, it was common to also have a public store where people voluntarily contributed produce to be used under the discretion of the chief for the public need. Finally, large community fields were also common where each family was assigned a particular plot in that field.

Regarding hunting, some regulation of ownership of hunting grounds was needed to avoid overhunting and species extinction. Anthropologists Frank G. Speck and Wendell S. Hadlock reported that “It was . . . an established rule that when a hunter worked a territory no other would knowingly or willfully encroach upon the region for several generations...It was in these family tracts that the supply of game animals was maintained by deliberate systems of rotation in hunting and gathering.”

Looking Forward

Although legislation has been passed by the U.S. government recognizing Indigenous sovereignty, there is still a long way to go. The fight for land sovereignty among Indigenous communities is a complicated and difficult battle since often tribes’ ancestral land is located on land rich in natural resources. This adds difficulty in their fight to reclaim land rights as the battle involves both government and big business. These ongoing battles can be seen in the rollback of protections to public lands, such as Bear Ears, Grand Escalante National Monument, to be developed for economic interests and resource extraction.

Yet still, Indigenous people continue to stand strong to protect their ancestral land and the planet. The construction of the DAPL Pipeline has been a key protest and ongoing fight to protect Indigenous land and reclaim their rights. On July 6th, 2020 the U.S. District Court that ruled that the DAPL pipeline must be shut down and emptied of oil until a full EIS that adequately assesses the impact of oil spills on the natural ecosystem was completed. This was a big win for Indigenous activists.

In Big Sur, the Esselen Tribe reclaimed nearly 1,200 acres of their ancestral land with help from the Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC). The Esselen Tribe will once again be the stewards of this land in a long term plan created with WRC. Tom Little Bear Nason, Tribal Chairman of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County said that “It is with great honor that our tribe has been called by our Ancestors to become stewards of these sacred indigenous lands once again.”

As momentum continues to build for Indigenous rights, so too does the awareness of the critical role Indigenous Peoples have been and will continue to play in climate change mitigation efforts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states in its latest report that Indigenous knowledge is critical for adaptation. Indigenous Peoples must be afforded the right to access their ancestral land and to care for it in the way that only they know how.

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