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This is a quamash (camas) meadow. You can see the life-giving camas plants as the violet-blue flowers. The major tree species are the sacred oak (Quercus alba and other spp.) and madrone (Arbutus menziesii). Mostly, the landscape is dominated by quamash, sea blush, (the pink flowers, Plectritis speciosa) larkspurs, (Delphinium spp.) various forbs, mosses, rushes, bunchgrasses. This landscape was typical across the lowlands of the Willamette Valley, from what is now Eugene, north to Portland, and across the Columbia River in what is now Vancouver. Were you to judge by all the douglas fir trees around. you wouldn't believe that the area once looked like a 'sea of lakes'--blue camas meadows.

Today, 99% of the northern Willamette's camas meadows are gone--forever--drained, bulldozed, or buried in concrete. Fish & Wildlife has classified some of these species of wildlife, including the pale larkspur, as endangered. Many of the native animal dwellers were eliminated from the area a century ago.

How did these meadows come about? What interactions did native people have with them? In American Indian cultures, it is essential to understand human beings as part of natural systems as much as the bear, deer, trees and streams.  These landscapes did not exist and persist in spite of humans, but because of humans: because of American Indians.  Humans actively managed our ancestral lands for thousands of years, practicing the scientific disciplines we now call forestry and range management.

Concepts and Background

The land management history of the preceding four centuries:

You're not going to find a lot of forest in Indiana or Delaware today.  But what did these forests look like?  If you go hiking in your nearest forest in the 48 contiguous states, you will probably see a lot of closed-canopy. The spaces will likely be quiet or close to silent as far as animals. You may or may not recognize it, but the forest is probably settled--possibly a large area of the canopy or undergrowth--by invasive plants.

The forests in 1492 did not tend to look like that where American Indians lived.  And there were a lot of American Indians, possibly millions of them, meaning that there were not so many truly isolated areas. Not so many areas where trees grew without human interference. One reason we know this is that bison ranged from the Great Basin* (correction) to New England, and down into Appalachia--and bison do not live in thick, closed-canopy forests.  These were open-forests, more biodiverse forests. Paradoxically, there were more ancient trees. And I do mean ancient. Groves over a thousand years old were not uncommon.  

Indians managed land for practical purposes: wood, food, settlement.


Prescribed fire was a major land management system.  Fire is an essential element of the ecology across most of North America.  Regular fires cleared underbrush to allow for movement, and some species depend on fire for their seeds to germinate--including redwood trees. Fires were extremely efficient, keeping in mind the three major objectives.  If you depend on the branches of woody shrubs and small trees, like serviceberry (Amelanchier arnifolia) for your bows, the baskets you use for food, and even goods like fish-hooks, you need healthy shrubs.  As forests mature and the canopies close, the shade thins out undergrowth.

But didn't I just say fire was used to clear out undergrowth? Yes--thick undergrowth. Undergrowth in secondary forests--the kind we usually will see now--inhibits eyesight and human movement.  It's harder to see game with dense, leafy young trees in the way.  It's also harder to chase them. Bear in mind that these chases could be quite long; Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca described young native Texan hunters chasing deer through the scrub all day long without tiring.  Fire was also used by deer hunters as far away as Kalapaya land in western Oregon.  Regular, small fires in areas with taller trees would often leave the ancient trees intact.

In this way, a diversity of human-altered landscapes appeared. Ancient forest land, shrubland, grassland and wetlands were often in close proximity depending on the amount of settlement. Because selected shrubs like serviceberry or salmonberry would remain in the cleared forests, rodent, ungulate, and bird populations alike flourished.

Other Technology

Traditionally, American Indian forestry was done without steel, which meant that tools of stone or even shell were used. Harvesting timber could take a long time and tools would not last long.

The concept of rotation was critical to land management. Fires were used to clear areas used for settlement. But settlements in many Indian cultures, especially tropical, were not typically permanent and changed with succeeding generations.  Balance with the landscape was an important guide for behavior.  Leaving for three or more generations allowed the soil fertility and game species to replenish.

Pruning, Pollarding

By pruning back branches or topping the older shrubs, (known as pollarding) a process known as reiteration occurs. Plants grow upwards at the apical meristem, a node. This is necessary because light is the primary energy for the plant. The higher it can grow, the more advantage it will have in harvesting light.  If that apical growth is cut by whatever means, it can trigger outward, lateral growth in previously dormant buds. But the new growth, even on secondary branches, can mimic the growth of the original stem--reiterating its pattern.  This is ideal for the sort of long woody stems used in bows.

Were a food tree devoting a lot of resources to a lateral (horizontally-oriented) or sick branch that wasn't producing much, it would be sheared.


Many Indian tribes traditionally harvested root or seed crops seasonally. In the inland northwest, it's a camas and wapato (Indian potato) season. This area includes the Portland/Beaverton region, home to the Multnomah, a Chinookian people, and the Kalapaya, a band of Atfalati, among others. In the Klamath Basin, (Klamath and Modoc peoples) it's the woca lily in the ponds and wetlands.  Among California peoples including the Pomo, Hupa and Shasta, the crop season centered on acorns. Keeping lowlands moist and open allowed for an abundance of crops--and so much was needed that labor devoted to processing camas and acorn and wocas was the chief economic activity during about a fourth of the year, in preparation for the long, chilly winters.

In tropical regions, slash-and-burn is traditional agriculture, even more efficient than in hunter-gatherer societies.  Burning the trees kills the shade trees that inhibit crop growth, frees the organic nutrients, clears out weeds underneath, and kills pests and pathogens in the surface layer of soil.  

Example: the Maya people as depicted in Apocalypto seem to be hunters running around in treacherous jungles that threaten to kill them at any moment.  In reality, the Spanish found vast, garden-like jungles, where medicinal plants were spread discriminately through fire and other human behavior. This made the heart-of-palm and other food sources widespread.  

As part of their genocidal campaign in the conquest of Central America, the Spanish destroyed heart-of-palm trees.  The Indians of the area not only ate the heart of palm, but they actually depended on the fruit as an important source of fat. (In tropical areas, fat and protein are scarce resources.) Additionally, tropical forest plantings attracted the ungulates and other game animals that hunters needed. In effect, the forest plantings of generations past sustained future generations of indigenous Americans during times of war and chaos... as long as those food plants persisted. The destruction of the landscape led to the starvation of thousands and with it, the moral and political defeat of the native peoples.

Ancient Traces

In the northwest, where there was more intensive timber construction due to the cold, rainy weather, there were two particularly interesting uses for large trees that I'll mention.  

Firstly, ancient cedar trees would be targeted for building planks.  Climbing high above the ground--often a hundred feet--a harvester would drive a wedge into the timber. Down below, the wood was similarly split; in doing so the tree could have a whole plank of woody tissue removed without killing the individual. Traditionally, cedars are regarded as special and sacred. Its woody tissue also resists decay strongly, repelling decomposing organisms.

Secondly, along major waterways the tribes would secure canoes and boats up in trees. With time, these trees would become candelabra-shaped as the branches grew out laterally, even attaining great age and size in this shape.

In our last old growth forests, a few trees still exhibit the plank cuts and the warping from the boats.  The Octopus Tree north of Netarts, Oregon, is a mark of Indian people on the land.

Tropics Today

There is a strong negative association with forest health and the assimilation of Indian peoples.  That is, the less assimilated the people, the more diverse and healthy the forest tends to be.  

Wet tropics are not naturally inclined to having strong fires.  What's happening now, on a global scale, is that impoverished descendants of the colonial ethnic groups--especially in Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia--are moving into the "virgin forests" and trying to practice logging and slash-and-burn. Because they are not generationally tied to the land, and typically have no legal claim to it, they have no incentive to worry about forest health.  The forest cannot support the intensive use, the frequency of burning and extraction, and the rate of resource usage per capita with such high population densities.  In time, wet tropical forests can dry out without trees--this is not global warming but more mundane climate modification.  

These changes contribute to why the Amazon is now burning on its own and in the eastern parts turning into permanent savannah. The Amazon is a significant contributor to global oxygen release. It is not only one of the most diverse places as far as animal species, but also culturally. A great share of native languages and the last uncontacted peoples are within the Amazon region.

Originally posted to Native American Netroots on Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 01:11 PM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots and Sustainable Food and Agriculture.

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