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American Indian cultural perspectives on non- wood forest products in North America

American Indian philosophy toward nature
Indians' relationship with forests

Rober B. Tippeconnic
USDA Forest Service


American Indians are indigenous people of the United States of America. American Indians include Alaska Natives and American Indians. The Alaska natives include not only Indian people but two other separate indigenous groups found only in Alaska, the Aleuts and the Eskimo. Today the United States Government recognises 547 Indian tribes. The largest tribe is the Navajo Nation whose lands total more than 6 million hectares within the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Indian tribes own approximately 23 million hectares. Additionally, Alaska Natives have 18 million hectares of land. The 1990 census identified just under two million American Indians. Thus, they are a true minority within their own country.

Indian people greeted the arrival of the English and European people with hospitality and respect, but that changed quickly. The Indian people began to lose population due to warfare, diseases and the incoming immigrants' desire for land. This created conflicts, dislocations, and general imbalance in the relationships that Indian people had with place, land and resources. Many tribes today reside in areas that were not aboriginal and this relocation continues to cause imbalance and disharmony in people's lives.

The dominant culture in the United States today is non-Indian. Many Indian tribes, however, have maintained their culture, language, ceremonies, beliefs and practices, while others have lost their culture, lifestyles or beliefs.

An important feature of the Indian tribes is that they have a unique relationship with the United States Government. As sovereign governments, recognized by the United States Government, Indian tribes have much to say about the welfare of tribal members and the management or use of tribal lands and resources. There is also a special trust relationship between the Federal Government and the Indian tribes which requires the Federal Government to advocate, protect and preserve the assets of the tribes. Some tribes, in ceding their lands to the United States Government, reserved the right to hunt, fish, gather, place temporary shelters or even graze domestic livestock. In these special situations, the reservation of these rights is law and requires the respective agency to consult with the Indian tribes concerning the exercise of and preservation of their rights. Additionally, some tribes are currently asserting claims to land and the right to undertake certain activities. These claims have yet to be fully resolved.

The circumstances of Alaska Natives are unique. Most native lands are held by Alaska Native corporations which are incorporated by the State of Alaska. These lands are assets of the stockholders (native people) and are the collateral for the ventures of their corporations. Rural Alaska Natives are entitled to subsistence from the land.

Alaska Natives living in remote rural villages are almost totally dependent upon subsistence activities to feed and clothe their families. A majority of the food consumed by rural natives is gathered through subsistence activities including hunting fishing, berry picking, canning, drying and smoking of fish, collecting and processing of plants, and the manufacturing of art and handicrafts. Without the forests or lands providing these multiple products or values, the rural Alaska Natives would not survive.

American Indian philosophy toward nature

Indian people have always had a relationship with place, the land and resources. Indian people generally foster a special relationship with earth as one with "Mother Earth." This means that the Earth nourishes, sustains and provides life for all found upon it. All plants, animals, birds, fish, soil, and water are recognised as interdependent and necessary to sustain life. Indian people also recognise that it is important to respect, love and care for all found upon the Earth so that present and future generations of people will be sustained.

The beliefs and subsequent behaviors of Indian people upon the land, and within the forest, are unique. Traditionally, if some product, plant, or animal were removed from the land for food, clothing or shelter, it was done with prayer as thanks and appreciation to the Creator. It was also done with respect for the matter taken or removed because Indian people understand the relationship of all life and matter and all that supports life. Conservation was, and is, a practice. If a plant or animal is removed, blessing is made and another item is sometimes left in its place. Thanks is given regularly to the Creator and "Mother Earth" for all life and matter.

American Indians have a history of living in balance and harmony with the ecosystem. There may have been some imbalance and disharmony in Indian history, but it was limited compared to what occurred after colonists began arriving from Europe. The beliefs, behaviors and practices of Indian people, and their low population, sustained balance and harmony within the ecosystem. Indian people were disciplined to behave in ways respectful of all life and respectful of the ways of the tribe, band, clan or people.

In recent times, many Americans have challenged the way public and state forests and are managed. They are championing values other than those which promote the harvest of timber for wood products. These proponents of nature have, in many cases, expressed the values long held by American Indians. Indian people regard the ecosystem, or forest, in a holistic manner. All parts of the ecosystem are to be respected and valued. This philosophy is now also being espoused by many non-native Americans. Additionally, some of the latter are suggesting setting aside areas that possess special attributes. This has been endorsed by the United States Congress and the President. Today, many areas are reserved by public law. For example, there is a national wilderness preservation system and many areas have been classified by law as wilderness areas. These areas are valued for their natural qualities and are to have limited visitor use.

Indians' relationship with forests

Indigenous people of the world share many values of the forest which go beyond basic economics. American Indian people have a spiritual relationship with the ecosystem or forest. Even though many tribes have been socialised and dominated by western culture, tribal culture and Indian people have survived. There is presently increasing interest and support by Indian people for their culture, language, traditions, values and beliefs. This is being heard and responded to by landowners and public land agencies, and even the President and Congress of the United States. As an example, discussions on the harvesting of northwest timber in Washington, Oregon and California have provided the opportunity for Indian people and Indian tribes to express their values and concerns.

To Indian people, forests provide many forms of life. All these forms of life are interdependent and essential to each another. If one value in the forest is featured over another, the forest becomes unbalanced, and unable to sustain the productivity of other life forms found within the forest.

Forests must also be regarded for their psychological, therapeutic or spiritual values. They have healing and calming effects on the mind and spirit of all life. These assets can be eliminated or destroyed in a forest if they are not considered valuable when forestry projects or other activities are being planned.

Many Indian people promote the wisdom that a natural forest or ecosystem provides. If we walk, observe, listen and learn from the forest or ecosystem, we begin to understand the interdependence and value of all found within the forest. If we do not evaluate and understand the forest, we will likely practice poor or less sustainable forestry.

Indian people generally do not promote the exclusion of people from the forest, but rather a balance within the forest. Indian people have, from time immemorial, found food, shelter, and clothing from the forest, as well as spiritual and mental health. It is important, therefore, to understand the need communities continue to have for gathering materials for food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and baskets or cooking utensils. It is important to remember too, that people visit the forest or ecosystem for spiritual and mental well-being as well. Traditional Indian people will urge that the cultural activities and uses of the forest be given priority in the management or use of products from an ecosystem or forest.

These days, Indian people are being asked more and more to provide their perspective of balance and harmony with "Mother Earth" and "Father Sky." Many non-native Americans are seeking Indian perspectives as they become more environmentally conscious and recognise the need for better management of forests. As a result, Indian values and perspectives are gaining ground within the dominant American society as public land and resource agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior, seek to sustain healthy forest ecosystems.

Indian people have long been dependent upon the forest for medicines or plants for healing or ceremonial use. These plants are often limited in number and location. Indian people consider that these special plants and plant locations need special reverence and protection. Unique plants can disappear so quickly. The health or survival of societies or communities may even be at risk without access to these materials.

It must also be said that there are very special places in the forest or ecosystem where spiritual renewal occurs, or where wisdom and knowledge are gained. These places require identification, and special protection. Sometimes Indian people leave items on sites which others find and sell. These actions are considered very disrespectful by Indian people and may even cause them to relocate their spiritual or special learning activity. Most Indian people do not like to disclose these special sites for fear of vandalism or observation of their special activities.

Over time, Indian people have visited special areas for varied reasons. Some visits have been for the beauty of the site, or the good feelings that occur when you camp, eat a meal or visit an area. These places afford special interpretation and managed access or use. They may be considered as tourist sites if agreement is obtained from the respective Indian tribe or people who ceded the area to the United States. In some cases, these special places are now on privately-owned land and it is difficult for Indian people to gain the support of owners to use, protect or access the special sites.


Tribes are increasingly being provided with research and technical assistance by different Federal agencies and through partnerships with private groups or states. These relationships support the sharing of information and skills in joint ventures such as forestry and other resource activities.

As support grows for planning which considers the whole ecosystem, Indian tribes will become more active partners in the planning process because they reside within many of the special ecosystems or have tribal rights within them. Indian people consider themselves as an important part of these ecosystem dynamics, and not only want to be consulted, but also want to be a partner in efforts to sustain the health of the ecosystems.

Although each Indian tribe has a unique culture, values, behaviors, and lifestyles, a common consideration is their holistic view toward "Mother Earth" and "Father Sky." American Indians are proud of this traditional view toward nature and are appreciative of others' efforts to work together to achieve long-term stability of ecosystems.

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