by Maison Allen
What if Europeans never settled in North America? Would the land in this country have remained unharmed? Would the environment be in better condition than it is today?
Unlike colonists, the Native people did not treat the Earth as a consumable good.
While there is no way to answer these questions, taking a look at the way Indigenous people lived suggests that the Earth would be in much better condition. Native Americans have a long history of living a sustainable life and treating the Earth with great respect. Historically, the Indigenous people of this country used the land’s resources in order to live. The Earth is sacred to them and they think of themselves as connected to the land. Unlike colonists, the Native people did not treat the Earth as a consumable good and they were (and still are) respectful of nature. Even today, Native Americans continue to be conscious of the Earth and the human race’s place on it. Ever since the Europeans came here and stole this land from the natives, our environment has suffered immense damage. And with the damage toEarth, also came the damage to the Native Americans who lost all they had because of the colonists. Colonialism was, undoubtedly, devastating to both the Indigenous tribes and the land alike.
Colonialism was… devastating to both the Indigenous tribes and the land alike.
Colonialism is “the practise of invading other lands & territories, for the purpose of settlement and/or resource exploitation.” This is what the European settlers did centuries ago when they came to America. Unfortunately, it is still discussed with a select narrative that diminishes the importance of what occurred. When learning about the 13 colonies and the beginnings of a new country, “colonialism” may not seem like a bad word, because at face value, it just means that settlers came to live on the new land. But as the colonists continued to expand westward, they also displaced Native American tribes.
Colonialism is a “war for territory:” the widely ignored war fought on this land long before the colonists demanded freedom from England. Europeans fleeing religious persecution built settlements here is a sugar-coated version of history. But truly, a war was fought here in order for Europeans to steal this land. It manifests itself in historical events such as the Trail of Tears and the Black Hawk War. And the settlers’ sense of entitlement to this land continues to be prevalent today. The ramifications of colonialism continue to leave Indigenous people with no acknowledgment of the past as well as no justice for the future.
It’s speculated by historians that the colonists feared the Native Americans and there was even some officials who wanted to “civilize” them. During his presidency, George Washington took initiative to teach tribes to practice Christianity and learn English in order to “civilize them,” and then when that didn’t work, sent troops to destroy them. Southern colonists also frequently removed the tribes from their territory because they wanted the land for cotton farming. They even went as far as to set fire to the Native Americans’ crops. Along with this, Andrew Jackson led the brutal crusade to take land from the Indians. Of course, there were laws in place, stating that territory treaties had to be done willingingly and peacefully between both parties. And yet, Jackson used military force and violence to remove them, sending them down the Trail of Tears. Nationally, colonists were violently stealing land from them as they expanded this country westward, and the Indigenous tribes were pushed to the corners of this land, losing resources and lives in the process.
In the United States, even though colonialism began about three centuries ago, Indigenous people are still facing the ramifications of losing their land. Their treaties are being ignored and they’re losing rights to the small amount of land they were pushed onto. The most recent example is in Standing Rock, North Dakota. The government and oil companies were pushing plans to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through their reservation. Since the beginning of 2016, Native Americans have been peacefully protesting the construction while police forces spray them with tear gas and fire hoses. Many feared that the pipeline would cause contamination to the water supply in Standing Rock, since pipeline leaks are a common occurrence. It is a massive environmental concern that seems to be ignored by those in favor of it. Despite this legitimate concern, pipeline construction proceeded and, in November 2017, the pipeline leaked an estimated
210,000 [subsequently revised to about 450,000] gallons of oil, making it South Dakota’s largest oil spill to date. But still today, the Native Americans have no rights on the land they were forced onto.
Some people are trying to correct the wrongdoings of our ancestors. Some people have started active initiatives to combat this institutional racism by land acknowledgement. The idea of land acknowledgment is a bold and necessary one. We need to make conscious efforts to give recognition to the Indigenous people that came before us. At public affairs and rallies, many have began their events by taking a moment to pay tribute and respect to the Indigenous people that were here before us. So rather than trying to hide or erase the history of this country, some have sought to recognize it and make conscious efforts to bring it to light. Hopefully, this can help bring more recognition to colonialism and start conversations about how Indigenous people are treated today.
In order for our communities to truly be sustainable in every since of the word, we need to start respecting the Indigenous people who were here before us. We can never eradicate the past and the turmoil the Native Americans faced because of colonialism. But we can start to heal the wound by making conscious efforts to acknowledge their struggles and working for justice. We need to celebrate their culture, rather than shove it into the corners of this country. Maybe we could even learn something about land conservation and environmentalism from them.
Maison is a junior at Moravian College, where she studies Communications and Social Influence.
(A version of this post was published as an essay in the 2018 Sustainable Lehigh Valley booklet)