Yes, Native Americans Fundamentally Altered Our Environments

Chris Newman
Jan 24, 2020 · 5 min read

A new study has the conservation community abuzz with the (very, very old) notion that Native Americans lived in a pristine, Edenic wonderland whose ecological contours they barely altered.

This incredibly bold interpretation of the study’s results is being rapidly spread by shockingly irresponsible headlines such as “Native Americans Barely Impacted Landscape for 14,000 Years. Europeans Came and Changed Everything” that are being copy-pasted and rushed to publication by media that really ought to know better, like EcoWatch.

Even Native people — my own family members included — are sharing this interpretation of the study without actually reading beyond the headline — a headline that seems to suggest that Native people managed their landscapes sustainably as compared to Europeans, but in fact argues that Native people writ large barely managed their landscapes AT ALL.

EcoWatch posts this as the first sentence in the article:

“ There’s a theory going around that Native Americans actively managed the land the lived on, using controlled burns to clear forests. It turns out that theory is wrong. New research shows that Native Americans barely altered the landscape at all. It was the Europeans who did that, as ZME Science reported.”

Every single part of the statement above is wrong.

  • That Native people used prescribed fire is not a theory. It is a documented fact. The only thing under discussion is the extent to which Native people employed it.
  • The NC study does not “prove” that “theory” wrong. It is one data point that suggests Native people in New England didn’t appreciably alter their landscapes, and it is currently outweighed by many, many other data points.
  • The study’s conclusions absolutely do not apply to Native Americans on the whole, as EcoWatch (and ZME Science) suggests
  • There’s a difference between altering a landscape and destroying it, a distinction that EcoWatch (and other unwitting proponents of environmental racism) fail to make just about 100% of the time

Let’s talk about this in detail.

While EcoWatch and others use this study to shout broad claims about Native American land management in order to generate clicks and promote 19th-century Muir-ish “pristine Earth theory,” let’s get a few things straight:

  • This is a single study. A single study does not obviate the conclusions of all studies and other evidence that exist alongside it; that’s not how scientific consensus works.
  • This study was limited to southern New England. Assuming the conclusions of the study are correct, it’s quite an irresponsible leap for people interpreting this study to apply its conclusions to all Native Americans
  • The study is a.) concerned with the alteration of whole, watershed-level ecosystems, b.) over the course of 14,000 years of pre-contact history, most of which was non-agricultural

The study largely centers around the use, or lack thereof, of prescribed fire by Native people in New England. So let’s keep that in mind as we examine others’ efforts to use this study to confirm the “Fairy in the Woods” Indian stereotype.

Who To Believe?

There’s no way around this: there are lots of contemporary accounts from Europeans describing Native people employing prescribed fire to enormous sections of woodlands and prairie all over North America — from Adriaen van der Donck, to George Percy, to Thomas Morton, to Peter Fidler, to John Palliser. These people were neither lying nor mistaken about what they saw. Fire was a critical tool in encouraging game animals to congregate near population centers. Europeans saw them employing it and wrote down what they saw.

Then there’s the secondary evidence, again offered by contemporary Europeans, of the tell-tale signs of human-originated fires: forests in the Ohio Valley that resembled English parks; and forests in the mid-Atlantic with trees spaced so widely you could march an army through them. That, and the presence of animals that require healthy, deep-soil rangelands to thrive (like bison), are clear indicators that delayed succession was maintained in these areas for extended periods of time. Lightning fires in these regions were, and still are, extremely rare — coupled with the first hand accounts above it’s very, very clear that Native people were setting these fires to manage their landscapes.

Then, of course taken less seriously by White people, are the oral traditions and non-written knowledge of Native people themselves — indigenous families all over the country have long verbal records of fire being used as a tool for maintaining ecosystems precisely as described by the eyewitness accounts above.

Spitballs, Supertankers, and Stadiums

I am not qualified to argue with field experts about pollen and lake sediment charcoal data, and I’m not claiming these researchers didn’t see what their samples suggest, nor am I encouraging the death of expertise.

But the results of the Nature Conservation study have to be reconciled with everything above, and I imagine that’s going to be a glaring target of research by future academics; which is why it’s so important NOT to engage in the scientifically illiterate practice of assuming the latest study is the last and greatest word on a topic. A study is a data point — nothing more, nothing less — among, in this case, lots of others, in addition to eyewitnesses, secondary evidence, and oral tradition.

Which is to say, there’s a lot more work to do to “prove” that prescribed fire was not a common landscape management tool among Native Americans — because even with this study, both the scientific and “extra-scientific” consensus very strongly suggest otherwise.

What, Exactly, is Going on Here?

This study is not the first to claim that Native people didn’t actively manage their landscapes. Several authors and other notables — John Muir, Hugh Raup, Emily Russell, and others — have made this same claim. But, like those presenting contrarian climate science, they are decidedly in the minority.

It’s enough, then, to make you wonder exactly why this study is gaining so much popularity. And the reasons are pretty simple:

  • In the past, the notion that Native people weren’t actively and significantly managing their landscapes (with fire or otherwise) was generally based on the assumption that Indians were too stupid to do so. This study is one of the first to arise that’s based on evidence other than bare-assed racism.
  • Conservation proponents in the U.S. — most of whom are White — really, really, really want to believe that the best thing for landscapes is for them to be depopulated and, as a result, unmanaged. This is a notion based not on science, but on the historic political imperative to remove indigenous people from landscapes for plausibly virtuous reasons.

EcoWatch (and others parroting their conclusions) are, in a phrase, just really excited about the potential return to a White-originated 19th century conservation ethic in spite of the fact that, clearly, indigenous people are the only ones on the planet who have any idea what the hell they’re doing when it comes to conservation.

And with their headline, they’ve performed a neat trick that disguises their contempt of Native people as a compliment by framing us in comparison to the destructive orgy of European meddling.

They simply decline to mention that their own human-free notions of conservation are a continuation of that meddling.

Chris Newman is a farmer, indigenous food sovereignty advocate, and enrolled member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians. If you like what you’ve read, please consider a contribution on Venmo at @sylvanaquafarms

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

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