This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)

The trope that Native Americans were the ‘first environmentalists’ is put forward predominantly by non-Native people and is constructed on the idea that the indigenous tribes of North America are in some way closer to nature. Today, referring to someone as an ‘environmentalist’ is not considered an insult. Broadly speaking, an environmentalist is a person committed to preventing – or at the very least stalling – rapid environmental degradation caused by global warming and climate change. Environmentalists are determined activists who stand up and expose global hegemonic powers for the damage they are doing to the planet. They are considered admirable. If environmentalists are benevolent, why would it be problematic to brand Native Americans as the first, or original, environmentalists? 

Firstly, the idea that Native Americans are closer to nature has its roots in colonialism.  At the turn of the sixteenth century, European colonialists justified their attack on american soil and its inhabitants through the dehumanisation of its indigenous peoples. The presentation of Native Americans as fearsome savages living wildly amongst nature legitimised colonial projects of dispossession and genocide. It was the relationship that Native Americans had with their natural environment, starkly contrasted with the violent one Europeans had with theirs, that the colonialists used to categorise them as animals. It is true that Native Americans tended to have a different relationship with the earth compared to western populations. Whilst the former’s involved complex, sophisticated and sustainable practices of land management, the latter’s was centered on what could be extracted to fuel rapid industrialisation and imperialism. Even so, to label Native Americans as the ‘first environmentalists’ is to, on the one hand, misunderstand the core principles of environmentalism, and on the other, to misrepresent Native American cultural traditions with regards to the land.

One example of a Native American land management practice is cultural burning. It has been carried out for fifteen thousand years by the Yurok, Kurak, Hupa, Miwok tribes, as well as hundreds of others in California. It has, until recently, been misunderstood by the US government and environmentalist groups, which has led to its suppression. There are many benefits of cultural burning. The considerate application of fire and meticulous use of different smokes created from the fires can increase food and seed production for medicinal use and help sustain diverse landscapes of grasslands, savannas and shrublands. In the Sierra Nevada, cultural burns have not been permitted for 120 years, and as a result the region has experienced severe droughts that have led to the loss of large quantities of vegetation. The high density of the forests in these areas means that without cultural burning there is a higher risk of large, uncontrollable wildfires. In an area just south of Yosemite National Park, people from the North Folk Mono Tribe and the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians have been working to reintroduce fire to the land.

It was in 1850 that the US government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning in California believing it to be a primitive and brutal cultural tradition that destroyed the land. Then in 1968, with the realisation that no new sequoias – an endangered species of redwood trees – had grown in the unburned forests, the National Park Service changed its fire policy to prescribe burning as a central feature of their land management strategies. In 1978, the Forest Service followed in their footsteps. Before 1968, the policies of both the National Park Service and the Forest Service had been informed by the dominant voices in the conservationist and ecological movement, who maintained that cultural burns were unnatural and warranted suppression. Fire, from their point of view, was a dangerous, destructive force that was to be eliminated rather than utilised for environmental flourishing. Indigenous knowledge was overridden by western theories and academics: a continued form of modern colonialism. This is where the problem of the ‘first environmentalists’ trope lies: it is deeply contradictory. Native Americans and environmentalists had very different ideas about what was beneficial for the earth in order to protect it. 

One of the key philosophies of environmentalists at the beginning of the 1960s was that of conservation and preservation of the land. For the environmentalist movement, any human interference with the land was unnatural and made it vulnerable to degradation. Natural environments needed to be left alone and they would prosper independently. This directly contrasted with Native American practices such as cultural burning. What environmentalists ignored was the significant historical processes of land management that had gone into sustaining the landscapes of North America by Native American populations. As a result, in their fight for environmental justice, and without realizing the importance of indigenous voices, they suppressed the rights and sovereignty of Native Americans. 

In 1933 President Hoover declared Death Valley, the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone, a National Park, ending the Native management of the landscape. In 2000, when the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act granted some areas of Death Valley back into the hands of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, they were met with opposition from groups of environmentalists. This was due, again, to their practice of controlled burns, which the environmentalists took issue with. The fire in these areas helped to clear springs of dead vegetation and increased water flows. The non-Native environmentalist idea that the most beneficial thing for land is to leave it as an untouched wilderness meant that they objected to Native Americans managing their own land, in particular to the practice of cultural burning, despite them having done so for thousands of years before 1933.

It is important to recognise how harmful stereotypes can be, even if we connote positive ideas with them. Whilst the term ‘first environmentalists’ may seem harmless on the surface, it is a stereotype grounded in a lazy and colonialist mentality, which generalises and carelessly misinterprets Native American cultures. As we move forward with environmental struggles, many of which do involve Native American activists, we must take into account the history of colonialism and indegenous anti-colonial struggle, and the role that ideas about the environment have played in this.