Native American Sustainability


Native American Sustainable Land Use Practices: AComparative Perspective between Indigenous Americans and Invasive Europeans throughout the Ages

 Posted by Sustainable UCR on December 19, 2009 at 5:22 PM


Native American Sustainable Land Use Practices: AComparative Perspective between Indigenous Americans and Invasive Europeansthroughout the Ages


            The indigenous peoples of the Americashave a rich cultural history. A theme central to many Native American tribaltraditions and practices is, and has been for millennia, sustainability, orrespect for the environment. Sustainability is philosophy and practice in whichpeople do not extract more resources from the environment than necessary,leaving resources available for future generations. Societies who livesustainably are able to comfortably prosper and enjoy the resources availableto them without impeding on future generations’ or other species’ to do thesame (Environment 576). Native people realize that they live in a world thathas power over them, and that people have no control over the environment;people cannot control weather patterns, fires, earthquakes, etc. In contrast tothis appropriate and accurate Native American philosophy, whites seem tobelieve that people can control and subjugate every aspect of the environment.This misconstrued idea has resulted in many a catastrophe; the post-Katrina NewOrleans flood, groundwater depletion, uncontrollable wildfires, air, water, andsoil pollution, land erosion, farmland infertility, eutrophication of lakes,cities succumbing to earthquakes or volcanic erruptions, massive speciesextinctions, disruption of ecosystem balances, resource depletion…

            The native peoples of the Cahuillatribe inhabited present-day San Diego County and eastern RiversideCounty near Palm Springs (Ramona par. 2). The Cahuillalived in a harsh desert environment and had little access to water; due to thescarcity of water, there was limited plant or animal life for food. The nativesrealized that if they were to survive in such an environment, they would haveto live sustainably and make a minimal impact on the environment. Mesquite beans were acommon ingredient in the Cahuilla diet. They harvested the beans and groundthem into a powder (Joshua Tree 200cool. The Cahuilla realized that if theyharvested all of the mesquite beans available at one time, there would be no seedsleft to produce more trees. Thus, they understood that their own survival as apeople was closely tied to the well-being of their surrounding environment, andsaw that it was absolutely essential they preserve the planet.

            The native Chumash tribe alsopracticed and taught sustainability as a key philosophy. The three Chumashideals are: a) Limitation: Individualsneed to recognize and accept one’s limitations and should not envy others. Eachperson is unique, and each person is valued for his or her special qualitiesand contributions to society. b) Moderation: Take only what is needed fromthe land and the ocean. Leave some for future days and future people. Man isunited with nature in spirit and body. Do not waste any part of any animal orplant, and do not kill more than needed. Honor the spirits of the plantor animal that is being harvested and explain what it is being used for. Thankthe spirit for allowing the resource to be used. Greed and hunger for power can lead to man’s downfall. c) Compensation: Givewithout expecting anything in return; recognize the fact that compensationcomes in many forms which are not always tangible (Chumash Indian par. 1).

            TheChumash tribe territory covered an area of 7,000 square miles at the peak ofits civilization, prior to European invasion. Their territory covered land frompresent-day Malibu to Monterrey,including Santa Barbara and the coastal Channel Islands (Chumash Indian par. 3). The Chumashlived in an area abounding in natural resources; food resources were soplentiful that there was no need to develop farming practices. The Chumash dietincluded shellfish, clams, mussels, abalone, and over 100 types of fish(Chumash Indian par. 9). Acorn soup was also part of Chumash daily diet.Although there was an abundance of wildlife available to the Chumash, they did nothunt or gather more than was necessary; they believed that other organisms hadthe right to live as well. This is contrasting to European philosophy; if it isa nuisance, kill it. The last Californiagrizzly bear (Ursa horribilis) wasshot in 1922 because people felt that the Grizzly bear threatened people’slives (Amrhein 2009). Is it the grizzly bear who threatened the safety ofhumans or vice versa? The grizzly bear was the rightful inhabitant of histerritory; he lived here in the mountains for thousands of years. Whiteencroachment on grizzly habitat threatened the survival of the Grizzly bearpopulation. While the natives avoided confrontation with grizzly bears, whitesmade a point to attack and eradicate the grizzly bear. The white attitudetowards human dominance over nature has resulted in the loss of California’s stateemblem: the Grizzly bear. Ironically, our state flag bears an image of agallant animal that no longer graces our Californiaforests. The designated scientific name explains in itself man’s attitudetowards the bear: Ursa horribilis –horrible bear.

            Anotherexample is the eradication of the buffalo population in the Great Plains. Buffalowere hunted and killed for sport and as a way to eradicate the Native Americanway of life; whites did not have any use for the massive number of buffalo theykilled.

            Thenative peoples of Americaoften practiced fire ecology to prevent massive, uncontrollable forest fires(Mann 27cool. Dead plant material, such as leaves, bark, and branches naturallyaccumulates on the forest floor (Campbell742). If too much organic litter accumulates on the forest floor and it catcheson fire during a lightning storm, the entire forest could be burned down. Toprevent such dangerous forest fires, indigenous peoples regularly burned theunderbrush in a controlled manner. Trees soon became adapted to Native Americanfires; seeds of many tree species do not germinate unless they have beenexposed to high temperatures that can only be provided by a fire. In early U.S.history, the United States Forest Service admonished the Native Americans forpracticing forest ecology and allowed the underbrush to accumulate. The result:large, uncontrolled wildfires that threatened human lives and naturalecosystems not adapted to large-scale fires. The U.S. Forest Service then beganto collect debris, but this plan utterly failed; all the debris that hadcollected over the years could not be efficiently collected and disposed ofproperly with limited resources, funds or people, only further perpetuating thefire danger. Recently, USFS ecologists incorporated the practice of fireecology into their protocols for forest management. Unfortunately, they had tostart from scratch and develop fire ecology plans anew. If more native peopleswere still extant, the Forest Service could turn to Native American experts foradvice.

            Using fire ecology to their benefit,the native people of the Amazonian rainforest utilized an agriculturaltechnique called Terra Preta, or “dark earth.” In contrast to current conventionalwaste disposal in landfills, the natives recycled and disposed of food waste,organic waste, and other organic material in controlled, small-scale,continually burning fires (Crowley 2009). The natives allowed the fires tosmoulder rather than burn openly. The benefits of Terra Preta may have beendiscovered accidentally, but the natives soon realized that plants that grew inpreviously burned areas were much healthier and grew much larger than thosethat did not grow in Terra Preta soils. They may have been oblivious as to whyburning organic material in the ground would improve plant growth, but theywere wise enough to use the increased soil fertility to their advantage.Organic waste was soon disposed of in agricultural fields to increase cropproduction. Terra Preta creates a prime agricultural soil because it increasesthe organic matter content in the soil. An inherent property of organic matteris loose and soft texture, which allows the soil to retain moisture for longerperiods of time, allowing the roots to access oxygen (Environment 462). Themost important property of Terra Preta is that it provides limiting nutrientsto plants, boosting plant growth and crop production (Crowley 2009). Dark soilmeans that more organic material is present, hence the name “Terra Preta” ordark soil. Unfortunately, the extensive knowledge of this Terra Preta techniquewas lost when native peoples suffered massive and catastrophic deaths secondaryto European invasion and introduction of foreign diseases. Although Terra Pretawas first studied by Charles Hartt of CornellUniversity in 1874, scientists haveonly recently discovered the potential of Terra Preta and its possibleapplications in sustainable agriculture (Cornell Universitypar. 3). Terra Preta could also divert millions of tons of food waste fromlandfills.

            Conventionalagriculture is based on control and strict regulation. This means short-termprofit, but long-term damage to the land. According to anthropologist TarynRampley, Homo sapiens is the onlyspecies that has the ability to conceptualize the future. It is evident thatNative Americans retained this ability, but it is apparent that Europeans havelost the capability to determine possible future consequences of today’s actions(Rampley 200cool. Furrow irrigation is used to ensure adequate amounts of wateris available to plants, land is tilled to aerate the soil, artificialfertilizers are added to fields to increase crop production, pesticides areapplied to deter insect pests or competitive weeds. The native peoples of Southand Central America used natural phenomena tomanage their agricultural fields. “Milpas” or “food forests” were a commonpractice. Natives planted compatible plants together to maximize crop yield.Nitrogen fixing legumes were planted to ensure that enough nitrogen was presentin the soil. Tall plants or trees were planted to provide shade for plants thatdid not fare so well in direct sunlight. Tall plants could also be plantedalong with vines so that the twining vines could have something to climb on.Insect-resistant plants were planted near susceptible plants to deter insectpests. Diversity of plants in agricultural fields also reduces the probabilityof pest outbreaks (Andow 1991).  

            Conventional agricultural soilsbecome salty over time as a result of irrigation by farmers, as irrigationwater contains trace amounts of salt that is very difficult to remove(Environment 324). Salt is toxic to plants in high concentrations, disrupting watertransport, ion gradients and osmolarity balance in plant cells (Taiz and Zeiger452). Since plant roots extract essentially pure water to avoid toxins, saltsaccumulate in the soil over time. An area the size of Riverside Countyis lost globally due to soil salinization annually (Amrhein 2009). Salinityalso causes soils to break down and become nothing more than dust; which isthen subject to erosion by wind and rain.

            To avoid soil salinity, nativepeoples of South America used techniques suchas crop rotation, addition of organic matter, planting near riparian zones,rotating fields, high velocity irrigation, and land terracing (Krech et. al 1259,Mann 206-207). Swift moving water prevents water from evaporating, and thusprevents salt from accumulating in the soil (Mann 206-207). They also wateredonly when necessary and only provided as much water as was necessary. Incontrast, American farmers often water crops daily, regardless of whether ornot the crops need watering (Environment 57cool. Unfortunately, with theexception of minimizing irrigation, crop rotation, and the addition of organicmatter, soil salinization cannot be dealt with efficiently in industrialagriculture using our current knowledge of native soil salinity preventiontechniques. Due to our exponentially increasing human population and rapidlydecreasing amount of agricultural land, it is not effective to rotate lands outof production on a periodic basis. Urban areas are encroaching on agriculturalfields, pressuring farmers to produce even more food on rapidly shrinkinglands. The native people may have had knowledge that is not evident fromarcheological studies of indigenous agricultural fields. One method could havebeen the use of salt-accumulating halophytes to remove salts that built up inthe soil over time. Native peoples may have rotated planting of such a plantphysiologically adapted to particular environmental conditions of their regionon a periodic basis. Unfortunately, we may never unearth this secret buriedwith the millions of natives who died at the hand of European guns and disease.

            Today, Native Americans are strongsupporters of renewable energy. Many tribes host construction of solar panels,wind farms, or geothermal energy farms on their reservations, while theprojects are funded by the United States Department of Energy (Ramona par. 2). Whilemany encounters between indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in conflict anddrastic losses of Native American traditions due to acculturation, thepartnerships between the United States Department of Energy and Native Americannations is an example of a positive interaction between Native Americans andEuropeans. Native peoples realize that electricity is an innovation that hasbecome such an integral part of society and humans are not going to revert tothe Dark Ages before the advent of electricity. Thus, native tribes are usinghuman dependence on electricity to their advantage, taking the opportunity topromote renewable energy to increase awareness about the importance of environmentalpreservation and incorporate sustainability into the mainstream culture. “The [Cahuilla] tribe's cultural and economic developmentstrategy is to establish a highly profitable renewable energy-poweredEco-Tourism business on tribal land. A secondary goal is to demonstratehow renewable energy power systems can be used to eliminate the environmentalimpact of electric grid power lines on Indian lands, National Forests, NationalParks, other protected areas, and the general rural environment” (Ramona par.5-6).

            Themassive loss of the indigenous people is notonly a cultural tragedy for the native people themselves, but it is a tragedyfor all of humanity. The Native Americans lived here for thousands of years anddeveloped sustainable land use practices through years of trial and error. Theknowledge was passed from generation to generation, and allowed native peoplesto live a prosperous life in harmony with the world around them. Asconventional industrialized agriculture is proving to be more and moreinefficient and detrimental to the environment, scientists are beginning tostudy other methods of environmental and agricultural management. However, wehave to start from a blank slate. Thus, it is imperative that Native Americanculture be preserved throughout the ages to come so that we do not lose such arich and precious heritage completely. We cannot afford to lose the NativeAmerican spirit, respect, and perseverance to protect the world around them.Every human in the world needs to adopt this attitude in order to ensure thatthere will be a world for our children.



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