What Is the Relationship of Indian Tribes to Their Environment, and How Is It Changed?

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Claire Wendel
#20- What is the relationship of Indian tribes to their environment, and how is it changed?

Native Americans have long had an immediate relationship with their physical environment. They defined themselves by their land and by the sacred places that bounded and shaped their world. Most lived in lived in relatively small units close to the earth, living off of its rhythms and resources. They recognize a unity in their physical and spiritual universe. Land (its loss, location, and resource wealth or poverty), exploitation of land, and changing Indian needs, attitudes and religious demands define the issues the Indians and their environment faced. The Native Americans land dramatically changed when the Euro Americans came into contact. They were now faced with Old World pathogens and epidemic diseases, domesticated plants and livestock, and changing patterns of resource use altered the physical and cultural landscape. In the Nineteenth-century removal and reservation policies reduced to continental scope of Indian lands to islands in the stream of American settlement. Reservation lands became unwanted and remote environments with little economic value. The ALLOTMENT Act of 1887 allowed for the division of some reservations into individual holdings as a part of an effort to transform Indians into agrarian- yeoman farmers and farm families. In subsequent acts Congress opened Indian Territory. They withdrew forests, reservoir sites as well as mineral and grazing lands. The Indians access to those areas was regulated. The trust period was circumvented to speed up the transfer of lands into non-Indian hands. These policies caused more than 85 percent of Indian reservation lands to be alienated, as well as, a diminishment of resources. By the twentieth century, the small amount of land Native Americans controlled was mostly in the trans-Mississippi West. They are set apart economically as well as politically from ethnic groups or classes in the United States due to their cultural and land based identity. The lands were view as worthless by white in the nineteenth-century. To the Indians they are considers a place of spiritual value and some contained resources of immense worth.

Native Americans used their land for agriculture and grazing in the twentieth century. Indian cultivation, irrigation and field distribution systems had shaped the land whites called “wilderness”. Later, under the direction of agency farmers, many changed were made. Intensive replaced shifting cultivation, row agriculture replaced variable mound planting, monoculture replaced inter-cropping, and leveled fields replaced flood plain farming. Wells drilling, irrigation, dry land farming techniques, and unbound optimism helped government officials and Indians expand cultivation into the arid zones of the Southwest. Fences, pest and weed controls, and introduced cultigens flattened once-diverse field biota. Where Indians would refuse to farm, whites bought or leased their fields. Eventually, over-cropping marginal, arid lands without adequate rotation or fertilizer diminished the field productivity. Improper irrigation brought alkali to the surface of thin western soils. This made tens of thousands of acres sterile for all but the hardiest sagebrush or saltweed. In the late 1920s-1930s, drought, dust, depression, isolation, and wild fluctuations in crop prices and the larger market economy led to the widespread abandonment of Indian farming. The worthless lands were then leased to non-Indian operators who saw them as commodity rather than as cultural inheritance. When the whites brought domesticated animals to the lands it caused a drastic change in the landscape and biotic diversity. Livestock competed with and replaced native animal species, including bison. Change was also seen in the patterns the Indians used on the land. Predator control, fencing, water and range reclamation projects, assimilationist policies, and market forces...
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