Beyond ‘Trail of Tears’: Tracing Indigenous land dispossession in US

Matthew Brown/AP
Smoke from a wildfire obscures a stand of trees on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, near Ashland, Montana, on Aug. 11, 2021. A new study finds that Indigenous tribes’ present-day lands are on average more exposed to climate change risks and to wildfires than their historical lands.

As a number, 98.8% is pretty huge. According to new research, that’s the share of land once inhabited by Indigenous tribes that they no longer possess, in the present-day contiguous United States.

Using tribal, settler, and government records, researchers have for the first time pulled together a broad dataset to trace the patterns of land dispossession that Native Americans experienced since the arrival of European settlers, according to a study published today in the journal Science.

Many Indigenous tribes no longer exist. Those that do possess on average 2.6% as much land as their tribe once did, find Justin Farrell of Yale University and other researchers who did an intensive seven-year study. In addition, Native peoples were forcibly moved an average of 150 miles away from their original territories, divesting them of land suitable for agriculture in the process. 

Why We Wrote This

The story of how Indigenous people in the present-day U.S. were dispossessed of their land is known in part. But new research is offering a fuller picture of the history – and its lasting consequences.

The findings not only tell the story of people being displaced, but also show how today’s tribes live in places that are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change, says Professor Farrell, a sociologist at the Yale School of the Environment. 

Scientists say the overall research has relevance for present-day issues like economic development, justice in policymaking, and climate adaptation.

Referring to the latter, Professor Farrell says, “I think the big picture takeaway ... is to not look at this only as a story of past harm done – of unspeakable violence, of genocide, or land theft and displacement – but an ongoing story about climate change and [its current and future] risks.” 


“Effects of land dispossession and forced migration on Indigenous peoples in North America,” Justin Farrell, et al., Science 374

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Beyond ‘Trail of Tears’: Tracing Indigenous land dispossession in US
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today