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Natural Resource Management: Altering the Environment

By Anjelica Gallegos, M.Arch.1 2021

The needs and priorities of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages vary. This section explores the current framework for engaging Indian Country for built projects and historic preservation, including future implications and the potential for architectural works to advance tribal values. 

Read about how U.S. policy has altered the architecture of Indigenous peoples here >

The National Bison Range in Montana, now managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Photo: Dave Fitzpatrick, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The National Bison Range in Montana, now managed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Photo: Dave Fitzpatrick, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Architecture is one of the most significant ways Indigenous peoples altered the natural environment. From the Oneida longhouse in the temperate woodlands of the northeast, to the Mojave wickiup of the temperate valleys of California, Indigenous structures reflected the surrounding landscape and available resources and were an extension of land stewardship practices. Architecture was regarded as part of a greater system of human, and non-human, members within the natural world. Like the stewardship and management of the natural environment, Indigenous buildings were also altered and cared for, often seasonally or in cycles.1 Architecture was not erected at the significant detriment of others. Instead, the foundational principles for built structures were achieving harmony with the site and acknowledging the mutual interdependence of actors within the greater ecological system.

Land and natural resource management were part of this mutual interdependence, as tribes utilized traditional knowledge and practices to enhance natural infrastructure and influence ecological and animal behavior to ensure the continuation of their lifeways.

For example, in New England, several tribes practiced methods of prescribed burning to encourage the growth of oak, hickory, and pine forests for their food, canoe and architectural resources for longhouse or wigwam structures, and for animal forage.2 On the west coast, the Swinomish built rock wall gardens at low tide to cause the build-up of sedimentation, making the slope of the beach gentler and expanding the area for clams to live, grow, and be harvested.3 Many tribal peoples considered their responsibility the welfare of natural environments and animals, building up a millennia of Indigenous ecological knowledge that was improved upon for generations.

Building on intergenerational ecological knowledge, Indigenous futurism reveals different visions for environmentally healthy and harmoniously sustainable societies. Today, sustainable tribal projects and collaborations on resource management and climate solutions are burgeoning across the U.S. and Canada. As part of their 2010 tribal climate change initiative, the first such “climate plan” in the United States,4 the Swinomish are reviving their traditional garden structures.With fish species like salmon heavily declining due to climate change and other factors, the reintroduction of the clam gardens will continue to provide traditional food for the community.

As part of The Atlantic’s “Who Owns America’s Wilderness” series, David Treuer proposed returning America’s national parks on ancestral lands to their respective tribal peoples.5 The parks would be managed, protected, and preserved for all Americans by land stewards who have known these lands the longest.

While society and the natural environment are increasingly in a state of unrest, the loss or disregard of Indigenous ecological knowledge is a crisis that affects everyone. Acknowledging the unique and enduring relationships that exist between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories of lands and waters is a vital first step towards reconciliation, support, and growth. Land acknowledgements highlight the ongoing stewardship by Indigenous peoples, uplift Indigenous voices, and allow everyone to consider how to advance and contribute toward the connected communities we live in. While climate scientists have started working side by side with Indigenous communities to innovate climate change solutions while revitalizing and protecting Indigenous landscapes, so too can architects expand and improve their practices by exploring Indigenous knowledge sourced from a millennia of ecological experience.

1. Lewis Henry Morgan, Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines, Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. 4, Department of the Interior, U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1881.
2. Abrams, Marc. Don’t Downplay the Role of Indigenous People in Molding the Ecological Landscape. Scientific American. 5 August 2020.
3. Jones, Nicola. How Native Tribes Are Taking the Lead on Planning for Climate Change. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Climate Change. 11 Feb 2020.
4. Jones, Nicola. How Native Tribes Are Taking the Lead on Planning for Climate Change. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Climate Change. 11 Feb 2020.
5. Treur, David. Return the National Parks to the Tribes – The jewels of America’s landscape should belong to America’s original peoples. Who Owns America’s Wilderness?. The Atlantic. May 2021.

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