This article from the fall 2020 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, is part of a series of works on the subject of environmental justice and Indigenous communities in the United States, curated by Raymond Foxworth of the First Nations Development Institute. You can read others here and here, and after that, join us this Thursday on October 15 for a webinar on the topic featuring three of the authors, hosted by Senior Editor Steve Dubb.
Indigenous people have been growing food, creating complex systems of agriculture, gathering, and practicing land stewardship long before the formation of any discipline, area of study, or social movement describing the relationships between environments and humans. Violent colonization and willful ignorance of these Indigenous land stewardship systems have led to the destructive replacement of the Indigenous relationships with our environment with parasitic, extractive systems, which now urgently need to be corrected.
Ironically, many of the movements (including current ones) that call for better understandings of and relationships with our environments have not included participation of Indigenous people. From its beginnings, the environmental movement broadly has excluded Indigenous peoples, ideologies, and practices worldwide; in many ways has justified the inhumane treatment of Indigenous peoples—removal, forced assimilation, continued aberrations of cultural practice in our own homelands; and has often been the strongest advocate for extinguishing Indigenous land rights.1 As hard as it may be to acknowledge and accept the truth of this reality, it is necessary in order to create better options and strategies that include Indigenous people and communities—for the balance of the environment and social health of society.
Regenerative agriculture holds great promise for the formation and direction of Indigenous inclusivity. Traditional agriculture and the environmental movement are rooted in the same Western anthropocentrism, in that they both start with timelines and definitions that often do not include Indigenous peoples, practices, and worldviews—and, further, are fiercely opposed to their inclusion. But regenerative agriculture, still in its infancy, has the power to be more than another oppressive movement. We have an opportunity now to create longevity that begins with Indigenous inclusion, which has much to teach through historical examples of where other fields of study and production have gone wrong. In this way, regenerative agriculture can actually generate change and socio-environmental balance.
The Violent Birth of the U.S. Environmental Movement
The environmental movement in the United States has roots in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, the birthplace of the Sierra Club. In the mid- to late 1800s, California attracted men like Alexander von Humboldt, Josiah Dwight Whitney, and John Muir and Joseph Le Conte (cofounders of the Sierra Club)—“explorers”/scientists who studied, wrote about, and dedicated their lives to the protection of nature’s sublimity, in a time of growing national industrialization that required extractive industries to fuel its progress. They would become the foundation of the new discipline of environmental conservation and, generally, environmental science.2
When California became a state, in 1850, these men were in a frenzy to protect California’s natural landscapes, threatened largely by the discovery of gold, but even before that, by the extractive industries of California’s other rich resources—from oil to plants and trees to silver. They wrote incessantly about California’s natural beauty, consistently omitting California’s Indigenous people from their writings. This created the protocol for Indigenous omission thereafter—not only in the environmental movement conversation and land conservation policy development, but also in science; many of these early writers became founders of important scientific institutions, such as the California Academy of Sciences and, eventually, the University of California. Indeed, as Zachary Warma writes in “The Golden State’s Scientific White Supremacist,” Le Conte “spent the entirety of his life advocating and advancing the cause of white supremacy”3 —and Muir was a proponent of eugenics.4
As Muir, Clarence King, Whitney, Le Conte, and others were writing about the natural beauty of what is today called California, they never mentioned the ongoing campaign to violently eradicate Indigenous peoples from their land. Even before the California Gold Rush, the Spanish had created a mission system across California to indoctrinate and forcibly convert Indigenous people to Catholicism. They also introduced systems of indentured labor that dispossessed many Indigenous peoples of their land, which was then granted to Spanish settlers. This essentially created massive homelessness among Indigenous nations, whose people then returned to the missions.
This cycle of forced Indigenous labor lasted until around 1835, and the traditional lands became permanent land holdings in the American transfer from Mexico. After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which officially put an end to the Mexican-American War, American occupation of California began with the ceding of Spanish land holdings to the Americans.
Between 1846 and 1873, while the U.S. government upheld grandiose ideas of freedom and liberty, California Indigenous people suffered unprecedented loss of life and land. This was often justified by Western science, including the popular eugenics movement and the newly formed environmental science movement, which regularly sought to create national parks in locales populated by Indigenous villages (sometimes directly on top of villages, as in Yosemite), gathering areas, and homelands. Some of the most prominent national parks—from Yosemite to the Redwood Forest National Park and the Sequoia National Park—were Indigenous homelands, cared for and stewarded over thousands of years. These places were—and are—spectacular because of Indigenous stewardship.
These coveted lands only became “available” when they were no longer occupied by the Indigenous people. Government-sponsored militias, who were paid as little as $1 per head, and U.S. military regiments sent under the guise of “surveying” would ultimately eradicate entire communities, sometimes at one time. While government-sponsored bounties on Indian body parts were alive and well, many Indigenous people continued to return to their homes, fight for their lands, and seek out allies