Finding hope for the future in a complicated past

Rich, complex Native American societies offer a rebuke to the idea that civilization can only thrive at the expense of the environment. 

Moira Donovan
Sherilyn Young, with the Mi’kmaq Forestry Initiative, inspects a stand of red pine in Nova Scotia.

What did the Americas look like before Europeans arrived? Many of us were taught that the first white explorers encountered pristine wilderness. Sure, Indigenous peoples had thrived here for millennia, but their harmonious relationship with the land had left the surrounding ecosystems unsullied. Or so the story goes.

In recent decades, however, a different narrative has emerged, as scholars have added nuance to our understanding of pre-Colonial America. This new perspective depicts Native communities as active landscapers who altered forests, planted fields, and otherwise mastered the land. 

This view fleshes out the portraits of these early Americans, who have long been portrayed as simplistic hunter-gatherers. The reality is likely more varied across time periods, tribes, and individuals. This history kindles hope for conservationists because it challenges the idea that civilization can only thrive at the expense of the environment. 

At the same time, leaps in geospatial technology and the globalized flow of ideas have sharpened our understanding of the stewardship role that Indigenous communities play today. At 370 million strong, the world’s Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the total population. Yet, they currently care for nearly a quarter of the planet’s land, including 80% of global biodiversity.  

These two threads are starting to knit together. The stereotypical idea that Indigenous peoples have an inherent harmony with the natural world that others can’t understand has begun to fall away. In its place has grown a recognition of Indigenous wisdom rooted in tens of thousands of years of trial and error. 

“Indigenous peoples have mastered the art of living on the Earth without destroying it. They continue to teach and lead by example,” Jon Waterhouse, Indigenous peoples scholar at the Oregon Health and Science University, told National Geographic in 2018. “We must heed these lessons and take on this challenging task, if we want our grandchildren to have a future.”

The stakes are clear: Some 300,000 square miles of the world’s forests have disappeared since 1990, and many scientists believe we are in the midst of a sixth extinction event. But the global conservation community is finding new hope for the future as it begins to welcome Indigenous communities as partners. 

Several seeds of that shift are evident in our most recent print issue. In our cover story, Indigenous groups join woodlot owners and community organizations in a collaborative effort to save Canada’s forests. Our Points of Progress roundup highlights examples of Indigenous guardianship in California’s Mendocino County and in Venezuela’s Imataca Forest Reserve. And our In Pictures photo feature touches on the inclusion of Native American communities in 150th anniversary programming for Yellowstone National Park.

I encourage you to think about how Indigenous communities have helped to shape your own region. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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