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Research on the Colorado Plateau
Paleobotany and Paleoclimate of the Southern Colorado Plateau
Packrat Midden Research in the Grand Canyon
Environmental Change in the Upper Gunnison Basin
The Spread of Maize to the Colorado Plateau
Where Have All the Grasslands Gone?
Changes in SW Forests: Effects and Remedies
Native Americans and the Environment: A Survey of   Twentieth Century Issues
Impacts of Cattle Ranching in NE Arizona
Ecology and Mormon Colonization
Contribution of Roads to Forest Fragmentation
Fire-Southern Oscillation Relations in the Southwest

ResearchNative Americans and the Environment: A survey of twentieth century issues with particular reference to peoples of the Colorado Plateau and the Southwest (page 1 of 10)

Author: David Rich Lewis. Adapted from: Lewis, David R. 1995. "Native Americans and the Environment: A survey of twentieth century issues." American Indian Quarterly, 19: 423-450, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Visit the University of Nebraska Press website at nebraskapress.unl.edu/.

Navajo and Hopi women

Navajo and Hopi women at Pow-Pow, 1946. Photo NAU.PH. by the Fronske Studio  courtesy of Cline Library Special Collections, Northern Arizona University.


Native Americans have long had an immediate relationship with their physical environments. At contact most lived in relatively small units close to the earth, cognizant of its rhythms and resources. They defined themselves by the land, by the sacred places that bounded and shaped their world. They recognized a unity in their physical and spiritual universes, the union of natural and supernatural. Their origin cycles, oral traditions, and cosmologies connected them with all animate and inanimate beings, past and present.

The pace of change in Native American cultures and environments increased dramatically with Euroamerican contact. Old World pathogens and epidemic diseases, domesticated plants and livestock, the disappearance of native flora and fauna, and changing patterns of native resource use altered the physical and cultural landscape. Nineteenth-century removal and reservation policies reduced the continental scope of Indian lands to islands in the stream of American settlement. Reservation lands were largely unwanted or remote environments of little economic value. The Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 provided for the division of some reservations into individual holdings as part of an effort to transform Indians into idealized agrarians—yeomen farmers and farm families. In subsequent acts Congress opened Indian Territory, withdrew forests, reservoir sites, mineral and grazing lands, regulated Indian access to those areas, and even circumvented the trust period to speed the transfer of lands into non-Indian hands. These policies contributed to the alienation of more than 85 percent of Indian reservation lands - a diminishment of land, resources, and biotic diversity that relegated Indians to the political and economic periphery of American society.

By the early twentieth century, the little land Native Americans controlled was mostly in the trans-Mississippi West. They maintained a land base and a cultural identity, things that continue to set them apart, economically as well as socially and politically from other ethnic groups or classes in the United States. Although viewed as relatively valueless by nineteenth-century white standards, these lands were places of spiritual value and some contained resources of immense worth. This fact informs nearly all Native American environmental issues in the twentieth century. Land (its loss, location, and resource wealth or poverty), exploitation of land, and changing Indian needs, attitudes, and religious demands define the issues facing modern Indians and their environments.

Follow these links to:
Agriculture and Ranching
Forest and Watersheds
Hunting and Fishing
Natural Resource Mining and Pollution
Waste Storage and the Atomic Threat
Stereotypes and Interests in Conflict
Selected References