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Don’t Downplay the Role of Indigenous People in Molding the Ecological Landscape

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The United States has recently taken some important steps to rectify past injustices to Native Americans. These include the Supreme Court upholding an 1833 treaty guaranteeing tribal sovereignty in eastern Oklahoma, and several professional sports teams getting rid of offensive names such as “Redskins.” However, in my profession—global change ecology—I believe there is a trend to downplay the importance of Indigenous people.

In the U.S., Native Americans have long been regarded as ecosystem architects, taming nature and molding it in ways to sustain their needs for food and shelter. The anthropological evidence suggests this is true in most places around the world. An example in the central U.S. is the existence of vast areas of tallgrass prairie that existed for millennia before the arrival of European settlers. Most ecologists attribute this to frequent fires set by Native Americans, because fires caused by lightning are not very common in that region. These people used fire to prevent the natural transformation of grasslands (a great food source for humans and the animals they hunted) to forests, in the process known as succession. Similarly, Native Americans burned the vast expanses of oak, hickory and pine forests in the eastern U.S. to prevent the emergence of less desirable trees. Oak and hickory are great nut producers, and pine was important to build canoes and seal it with sticky resin.

Yet recently, some scientists have been attributing such disruptions to the ecological landscape to climate change, not to the deliberate choices made by Native people. One notable example is a paper published in January in the journal Nature Sustainability, in which scientists using a network of sites in southern New England and Long Island, contend that Native American burning was rare; that the few fires that occurred were mostly climate-driven; and that their use of agriculture was also very limited. These conclusions contradict the fact that oak and pine forests, which require periodic understory burning, have dominated in this region for thousands of years, and most anthropological evidence that points to the extensive use of fire and agriculture by Native people. In response, I and my co-author have written a rebuttal published on July 20, also in Nature Sustainability.

Having studied forest change in the eastern U.S. over the last 40 years, I do not deny the importance of climatic conditions in vegetation and fire dynamics or its role in enhancing the extent of human fires, but this team’s study was limited by the fact that low intensity understory fires produce insufficient charcoal to discern in the lake sediments they studied. Indeed, many of the changes that occurred after the cessation of Native American burning are not consistent with climate being the primary ecological driver. A warming world over the last century should have promoted warm-adapted grasslands and oak and pine. Instead, according to my research, it promoted the invasion by cool-adapted trees due to the absence of burning, much to the detriment of these major vegetation biomes.

In their zeal to promote the importance of climate change as an ecological driver, these scientists and many others are neglecting the profound ecological role that Indigenous people played in the eastern U.S. Their conclusions contradict the proud legacy and heritage of land use and stewardship by Indigenous peoples, not only in the U.S. but worldwide.

There has been a significant increase in scientific journal articles dealing with climate change over the past few decades. It is the dominant focus of environmental scientists and for good reason. However, it is unfortunate that science, as a human endeavor, can be prone to bandwagons that trample over other ideas to promote the centric view. This is not fair and often not intentional but is a fact of life. In this case, however, it is not just different scientific ideas that are being ignored but a huge body of evidence pointing to the importance of Indigenous people. This trend is not limited to New England but can be found in many locations in the U.S. and around the world. Examples include attributing catastrophic fires in the western U.S. and Australia solely to climate change, when, in fact, the absence of Indigenous burning over the last century or more, and the resulting buildup of highly flammable fuels, is another primary contributor.

Ignoring the important role that Indigenous people played, and in some areas, still play, further marginalizes these people. It also hampers our ability to understand how to best manage vegetation against the invasion of unwanted species and future catastrophic fires, such as reducing fuels by forest thinning and restoring natural fire cycles with controlled burning. Scientists need to consider the vast array of causes for ecological change, not only climate, to better serve the stewardship of the world’s precious biomes.



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