American Indian activism after 1945 was as much a part of the larger, global decolonization movement rooted in centuries of imperialism as it was a direct response to the ethos of civic nationalism and integration that had gained momentum in the United States following World War II. This ethos manifested itself in the disastrous federal policies of termination and relocation, which sought to end federal services to recognized Indian tribes and encourage Native people to leave reservations for cities. In response, tribal leaders from throughout Indian Country formed the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944 to litigate and lobby for the collective well-being of Native peoples. The NCAI was the first intertribal organization to embrace the concepts of sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural preservation—principles that continue to guide Native activists today. As American Indian activism grew increasingly militant in the late 1960s and 1970s, civil disobedience, demonstrations, and takeovers became the preferred tactics of “Red Power” organizations such as the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), the Indians of All Tribes, and the American Indian Movement (AIM). At the same time, others established more focused efforts that employed less confrontational methods. For example, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) served as a legal apparatus that represented Native nations, using the courts to protect treaty rights and expand sovereignty; the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) sought to secure greater returns on the mineral wealth found on tribal lands; and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) brought Native educators together to work for greater self-determination and culturally rooted curricula in Indian schools. While the more militant of these organizations and efforts have withered, those that have exploited established channels have grown and flourished. Such efforts will no doubt continue into the unforeseeable future so long as the state of Native nations remains uncertain.
Carlos Montezuma was one of the most influential Indians of his day and a prominent leader among the Red Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born to Yavapai parents in central Arizona, he was kidnapped by O’odham (Pima) raiders at a young age, and sold soon after into the Indian slave trade that for centuries had engulfed the US-Mexico borderlands. Educated primarily at public schools in Illinois, Montezuma eventually went on to be the first Native American graduate of the University of Illinois (1884) and one of the first Native American doctors (Chicago Medical College, 1889). Montezuma was a lifelong friend of Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and he firmly believed in the importance of Indian education. He insisted that educated Indians like himself must serve as examples of what Indians were capable of achieving if given the opportunities. He became deeply involved in the pan-Indian reform movements of the day and was one of the founding members of the Society of American Indians. Montezuma had a rocky relationship with the group, however, because many in the organization found his calls for the immediate abolition of the Indian Bureau and an end to the reservation system difficult to accept. From 1916 to 1922, he published his own journal, Wassaja, in which he relentlessly assailed the Indian Bureau, the reservations, and anyone who stood in the way of Indian “progress.” But Montezuma’s most important work was as an advocate for his own people, the Yavapais of Fort McDowell, Arizona, and other Arizona Indian groups. He spent the final decade of his life working to protect their water, land, and culture, and eventually returned to his Arizona homelands to die, in 1923. Although he was largely forgotten by historians and scholars in the decades after his death, Carlos Montezuma is now correctly remembered as one of the most important figures in Native American history during the Progressive Era.
The Catawba Indian Nation of the 1750s developed from the integration of diverse Piedmont Indian people who belonged to and lived in autonomous communities along the Catawba River of North and South Carolina. Catawban-speaking Piedmont Indians experienced many processes of coalescence, where thinly populated groups joined the militarily strong Iswą Indians (Catawba proper) for protection and survival. Over twenty-five groups of Indians merged with the Iswą, creating an alliance or confederation of tribal communities. They all worked together building a unified community through kinship, traditional customs, and a shared history to form a nation, despite the effects of colonialism, which included European settlement, Indian slavery, warfare, disease, land loss, and federal termination. American settler colonialism, therefore, functions to erase and exterminate Native societies through biological warfare (intentional or not), military might, seizure of Native land, and assimilation. In spite of these challenges, the Catawbas’ nation-building efforts have been constant, but in 1960 the federal government terminated its relationship with the Nation. In the 1970s, the Catawba Indian Nation filed a suit to reclaim their land and their federal recognition status. Consequently, the Nation received federal recognition in 1993 and became the only federally recognized tribe in the state of South Carolina. The Nation has land seven miles east of the city of Rock Hill along the Catawba River. Tribal citizenship consists of 3,400 Catawbas including 2,400 citizens of voting age. The tribe holds elections every four years to fill five executive positions—Chief, Assistant Chief, Secretary/Treasurer, and two at-large positions. Scholarship on Southeastern Indians focuses less on the history of the Catawba Indian Nation and more on the historical narratives of the Five Civilized Tribes, which obscures the role Catawbas filled in the history of the development of the South. Finally, a comprehensive Catawba Nation history explains how the people became Catawba and, through persistence, ensured the survival of the Nation and its people.
Carol L. Higham
Comparing Catholic and Protestant missionaries in North America can be a herculean task. It means comparing many religious groups, at least five governments, and hundreds of groups of Indians. But missions to the Indians played important roles in social, cultural, and political changes for Indians, Europeans, and Americans from the very beginning of contact in the 1500s to the present. By comparing Catholic and Protestant missions to the Indians, this article provides a better understanding of the relationship between these movements and their functions in the history of borders and frontiers, including how the missions changed both European and Indian cultures.
The Creek Confederacy was a loose coalition of ethnically and linguistically diverse Native American towns that slowly coalesced as a political entity in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its towns existed in Georgia, Alabama, and northern Florida, and for most of its preremoval history, these towns operated as autonomous entities. Several Creek leaders tried to consolidate power and create a more centralized polity, but these attempts at nation building largely failed. Instead, a fragile and informal confederacy connected the towns together for various cultural rituals as well as for purposes of diplomacy and trade. Disputes over centralization, as well as a host of other connected issues, ultimately led to the Creek War of 1813–1814. In the 1830s, the United States forced most members of the Creek Confederacy to vacate their eastern lands and relocate their nation to Indian Territory. Today, their western descendants are known as the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. Those who remained in the east include members of the federally recognized Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians who live in Alabama.
David S. Jones
Few developments in human history match the demographic consequences of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Between 1500 and 1900 the human populations of the Americas were traBnsformed. Countless American Indians died as Europeans established themselves, and imported Africans as slaves, in the Americas. Much of the mortality came from epidemics that swept through Indian country. The historical record is full of dramatic stories of smallpox, measles, influenza, and acute contagious diseases striking American Indian communities, causing untold suffering and facilitating European conquest. Some scholars have gone so far as to invoke the irresistible power of natural selection to explain what happened. They argue that the long isolation of Native Americans from other human populations left them uniquely susceptible to the Eurasian pathogens that accompanied European explorers and settlers; nothing could have been done to prevent the inevitable decimation of American Indians. The reality, however, is more complex. Scientists have not found convincing evidence that American Indians had a genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases. Meanwhile, it is clear that the conditions of life before and after colonization could have left Indians vulnerable to a host of diseases. Many American populations had been struggling to subsist, with declining populations, before Europeans arrived; the chaos, warfare, and demoralization that accompanied colonization made things worse. Seen from this perspective, the devastating mortality was not the result of the forces of evolution and natural selection but rather stemmed from social, economic, and political forces at work during encounter and colonization. Getting the story correct is essential. American Indians in the United States, and indigenous populations worldwide, still suffer dire health inequalities. Although smallpox is gone and many of the old infections are well controlled, new diseases have risen to prominence, especially heart disease, diabetes, cancer, substance abuse, and mental illness. The stories we tell about the history of epidemics in Indian country influence the policies we pursue to alleviate them today.
N. Bruce Duthu
United States law recognizes American Indian tribes as distinct political bodies with powers of self-government. Their status as sovereign entities predates the formation of the United States and they are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution as among the subjects (along with foreign nations and the several states) with whom Congress may engage in formal relations. And yet, despite this long-standing recognition, federal Indian law remains curiously ambivalent, even conflicted, about the legal and political status of Indian tribes within the U.S. constitutional structure. On the one hand, tribes are recognized as sovereign bodies with powers of self-government within their lands. On the other, long-standing precedents of the Supreme Court maintain that Congress possesses plenary power over Indian tribes, with authority to modify or even eliminate their powers of self-government. These two propositions are in tension with one another and are at the root of the challenges faced by political leaders and academics alike in trying to understand and accommodate the tribal rights to self-government. The body of laws that make up the field of federal Indian law include select provisions of the U.S. Constitution (notably the so-called Indian Commerce Clause), treaties between the United States and various Indian tribes, congressional statutes, executive orders, regulations, and a complex and rich body of court decisions dating back to the nation’s formative years. The noted legal scholar Felix Cohen brought much-needed coherence and order to this legal landscape in the 1940s when he led a team of scholars within the Office of the Solicitor in the Department of the Interior to produce a handbook on federal Indian law. The revised edition of Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law is still regarded as the seminal treatise in the field. Critically, however, this rich body of law only hints at the real story in federal Indian law. The laws themselves serve as historical and moral markers in the ongoing clash between indigenous and nonindigenous societies and cultures still seeking to establish systems of peaceful coexistence in shared territories. It is a story about the limits of legal pluralism and the willingness of a dominant society and nation to acknowledge and honor its promises to the first inhabitants and first sovereigns.
Carolyn Podruchny and Stacy Nation-Knapper
From the 15th century to the present, the trade in animal fur has been an economic venture with far-reaching consequences for both North Americans and Europeans (in which North Americans of European descent are included). One of the earliest forms of exchange between Europeans and North Americans, the trade in fur was about the garment business, global and local politics, social and cultural interaction, hunting, ecology, colonialism, gendered labor, kinship networks, and religion. European fashion, specifically the desire for hats that marked male status, was a primary driver for the global fur-trade economy until the late 19th century, while European desires for marten, fox, and other luxury furs to make and trim clothing comprised a secondary part of the trade. Other animal hides including deer and bison provided sturdy leather from which belts for the machines of the early Industrial Era were cut. European cloth, especially cotton and wool, became central to the trade for Indigenous peoples who sought materials that were lighter and dried faster than skin clothing. The multiple perspectives on the fur trade included the European men and indigenous men and women actually conducting the trade; the indigenous male and female trappers; European trappers; the European men and women producing trade goods; indigenous “middlemen” (men and women) who were conducting their own fur trade to benefit from European trade companies; laborers hauling the furs and trade goods; all those who built, managed, and sustained trading posts located along waterways and trails across North America; and those Europeans who manufactured and purchased the products made of fur and the trade goods desired by Indigenous peoples. As early as the 17th century, European empires used fur-trade monopolies to establish colonies in North America and later fur trading companies brought imperial trading systems inland, while Indigenous peoples drew Europeans into their own patterns of trade and power. By the 19th century, the fur trade had covered most of the continent and the networks of business, alliances, and families, and the founding of new communities led to new peoples, including the Métis, who were descended from the mixing of European and Indigenous peoples. Trading territories, monopolies, and alliances with Indigenous peoples shaped how European concepts of statehood played out in the making of European-descended nation-states, and the development of treaties with Indigenous peoples. The fur trade flourished in northern climes until well into the 20th century, after which time economic development, resource exploitation, changes in fashion, and politics in North America and Europe limited its scope and scale. Many Indigenous people continue today to hunt and trap animals and have fought in courts for Indigenous rights to resources, land, and sovereignty.
The issue of genocide and American Indian history has been contentious. Many writers see the massive depopulation of the indigenous population of the Americas after 1492 as a clear-cut case of the genocide. Other writers, however, contend that European and U.S. actions toward Indians were deplorable but were rarely if ever genocidal. To a significant extent, disagreements about the pervasiveness of genocide in the history of the post-Columbian Western Hemisphere, in general, and U.S. history, in particular, pivot on definitions of genocide. Conservative definitions emphasize intentional actions and policies of governments that result in very large population losses, usually from direct killing. More liberal definitions call for less stringent criteria for intent, focusing more on outcomes. They do not necessarily require direct sanction by state authorities; rather, they identify societal forces and actors. They also allow for several intersecting forces of destruction, including dispossession and disease. Because debates about genocide easily devolve into quarrels about definitions, an open-ended approach to the question of genocide that explores several phases and events provides the possibility of moving beyond the present stalemate. However one resolves the question of genocide in American Indian history, it is important to recognize that European and U.S. settler colonial projects unleashed massively destructive forces on Native peoples and communities. These include violence resulting directly from settler expansion, intertribal violence (frequently aggravated by colonial intrusions), enslavement, disease, alcohol, loss of land and resources, forced removals, and assaults on tribal religion, culture, and language. The configuration and impact of these forces varied considerably in different times and places according to the goals of particular colonial projects and the capacities of colonial societies and institutions to pursue them. The capacity of Native people and communities to directly resist, blunt, or evade colonial invasions proved equally important.
Sean P. Harvey
“Race,” as a concept denoting a fundamental division of humanity and usually encompassing cultural as well as physical traits, was crucial in early America. It provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land, the enslavement of American Indians and Africans, and a common identity among socially unequal and ethnically diverse Europeans. Longstanding ideas and prejudices merged with aims to control land and labor, a dynamic reinforced by ongoing observation and theorization of non-European peoples. Although before colonization, neither American Indians, nor Africans, nor Europeans considered themselves unified “races,” Europeans endowed racial distinctions with legal force and philosophical and scientific legitimacy, while Natives appropriated categories of “red” and “Indian,” and slaves and freed people embraced those of “African” and “colored,” to imagine more expansive identities and mobilize more successful resistance to Euro-American societies. The origin, scope, and significance of “racial” difference were questions of considerable transatlantic debate in the age of Enlightenment and they acquired particular political importance in the newly independent United States.
Since the beginning of European exploration in the 15th century, voyagers called attention to the peoples they encountered, but European, American Indian, and African “races” did not exist before colonization of the so-called New World. Categories of “Christian” and “heathen” were initially most prominent, though observations also encompassed appearance, gender roles, strength, material culture, subsistence, and language. As economic interests deepened and colonies grew more powerful, classifications distinguished Europeans from “Negroes” or “Indians,” but at no point in the history of early America was there a consensus that “race” denoted bodily traits only. Rather, it was a heterogeneous compound of physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics passed on from one generation to another. While Europeans assigned blackness and African descent priority in codifying slavery, skin color was secondary to broad dismissals of the value of “savage” societies, beliefs, and behaviors in providing a legal foundation for dispossession.
“Race” originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term—which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species”—to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.
John P. Bowes
Indian removals as a topic primarily encompasses the relocation of Native American tribes from American-claimed states and territories east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century. The bill passed by Congress in May 1830 referred to as the Indian Removal Act is the legislative expression of the ideology upon which federal and state governments acted to accomplish the dispossession and relocation of tens of thousands of Native American peoples during that time. Through both treaty negotiations and coercion, federal officials used the authority of removal policies to obtain land cessions and resettle eastern Indians in what is known in the early 21st century as Kansas and Oklahoma. These actions, in conjunction with non-Indian population growth and western migration, made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any tribes to remain on their eastern lands. The Cherokee Trail of Tears, which entailed the forced removal of approximately fourteen thousand men, women, and children from Georgia starting in the summer of 1838 until the spring of 1839, remains the most well-known illustration of this policy and its impact. Yet the comprehensive histories of removals encompass the forced relocations of tens of thousands of indigenous men, women, and children from throughout the Southeast as well as the Old Northwest from the 1810s into the 1850s.
The history of American slavery began long before the first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619. Evidence from archaeology and oral tradition indicates that for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years prior, Native Americans had developed their own forms of bondage. This fact should not be surprising, for most societies throughout history have practiced slavery. In her cross-cultural and historical research on comparative captivity, Catherine Cameron found that bondspeople composed 10 percent to 70 percent of the population of most societies, lending credence to Seymour Drescher’s assertion that “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” If slavery is ubiquitous, however, it is also highly variable. Indigenous American slavery, rooted in warfare and diplomacy, was flexible, often offering its victims escape through adoption or intermarriage, and it was divorced from racial ideology, deeming all foreigners—men, women, and children, of whatever color or nation—potential slaves. Thus, Europeans did not introduce slavery to North America. Rather, colonialism brought distinct and evolving notions of bondage into contact with one another. At times, these slaveries clashed, but they also reinforced and influenced one another. Colonists, who had a voracious demand for labor and export commodities, exploited indigenous networks of captive exchange, producing a massive global commerce in Indian slaves. This began with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495 and extended in some parts of the Americas through the twentieth century. During this period, between 2 and 4 million Indians were enslaved. Elsewhere in the Americas, Indigenous people adapted Euro-American forms of bondage. In the Southeast, an elite class of Indians began to hold African Americans in transgenerational slavery and, by 1800, developed plantations that rivaled those of their white neighbors. The story of Native Americans and slavery is complicated: millions were victims, some were masters, and the nature of slavery changed over time and varied from one place to another. A significant and long overlooked aspect of American history, Indian slavery shaped colonialism, exacerbated Native population losses, figured prominently in warfare and politics, and influenced Native and colonial ideas about race and identity.
Although often attributed to the Odawa ogima, or headman, Pontiac, the conflict that bears his name was the work of a large and complicated network of Native people in the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Mississippi Valley. Together Native Americans from this wide swath of North America identified their collective dissatisfaction of British Indian policy and, through careful negotiation and discussion, formulated a religious and political ideology that advocated for the Britons’ removal. In 1763, these diverse peoples carried off a successful military campaign that demonstrated Native sovereignty and power in these areas. Although falling short of its original goal of displacing the British, the coalition compelled the British Empire to change its policies and to show, outwardly at least, respect for Native peoples. Many of the peoples involved in the struggle would wage another such pan-Indian campaign against the United States a generation later.
In many ways, the anti-British campaign of 1761–1766 mirrored another anti-imperial campaign that followed a decade later. Like the American Revolution, the anti-British advocates of Pontiac’s War developed an ideology that specifically critiqued not only British policy but often questioned imperialism altogether, built an unstable and delicate coalition of diverse and sometimes antagonistic peoples, and sought to assert the participants’ independence from the British. However, the participants in Pontiac’s War were sovereign and autonomous indigenous nations, only recently and nominally allied to the British Empire, not British colonists, as in the American Revolution. Together these anti-British activists mounted a serious challenge to the British presence in the trans-Appalachian West and forced the British Empire to accede to many of their demands.
Lisa T. Brooks
King Philip’s War (1675–1678) was both a colonial war and an Indigenous resistance movement, which erupted in the summer of 1675 in Wampanoag country and in Plymouth Colony, but quickly spread throughout coastal and interior Native homelands and New England. While sometimes regarded as a singular moment of conquest in the birth of New England, it also was known as the “first Indian war.” Thus, conflicts over land and jurisdiction among New England colonists and Native nations continued not only until the end of King Philip’s War in 1678 but through nearly one hundred years of warfare and diplomacy, in which Native people in the Northeast sought to adapt to colonization and draw settlers into Indigenous protocols and networks.
C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa
As the Civil War ended and U.S. leaders sought ways to reconstruct a devastated nation, many turned to westward expansion as a mechanism to give northerners and southerners a shared goal. Simultaneously, though, the abolitionists and activists who had fought long and hard for an end to slavery saw this moment as one for a new racial politics in the postwar nation, and their ideas extended to include Native communities as well. These two competing agendas came together in a series of debates and contestations in the late 19th century to shape the way the federal government developed policies related to Native landholding and assimilation. Far from a unified and direct movement across the 19th century, from removal to reservations to land allotment, Indian policy after the Civil War was characterized by intense battles over tribal sovereignty, the assimilation goals, citizenship, landholding and land use, and state development. During this era, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) became a meeting ground where policymakers and reformers debated the relationship between the federal government and its citizens and wards.
Malinda Maynor Lowery
The Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, including approximately 55,000 enrolled members, is the largest Indian community east of the Mississippi River. Lumbee history serves as a window into the roles that Native people have played in the struggle to implement the founding principles of the United States, not just as “the First Americans,” but as members of their own nations, operating in their own communities’ interests. When we see US history through the perspectives of Native nations, we see that the United States is not only on a quest to expand rights for individuals. Surviving Native nations like the Lumbees, who have their own unique claims on this land and its ruling government, are forcing Americans to confront the ways in which their stories, their defining moments, and their founding principles are flawed and inadequate. We know the forced removals, the massacres, the protests that Native people have lodged against injustice, yet such knowledge is not sufficient to understand American history. Lumbee history provides a way to honor, and complicate, American history by focusing not just on the dispossession and injustice visited upon Native peoples, but on how and why Native survival matters. Native nations are doing the same work as the American nation—reconstituting communities, thriving, and finding a shared identity with which to achieve justice and self-determination.
Since the late 19th century, Lumbee Indians have used segregation, war, and civil rights to maintain a distinct identity in the biracial South. The Lumbees’ survival as a people, a race, and a tribal nation shows that their struggle has revolved around autonomy, or the ability to govern their own affairs. They have sought local, state, and federal recognition to support that autonomy, but doing so has entangled the processes of survival with outsiders’ ideas about what constitutes a legitimate Lumbee identity. Lumbees continue to adapt to the constraints imposed on them by outsiders, strengthening their community ties through the process of adaptation itself. Lumbee people find their cohesion in the relentless fight for self-determination. Always, that struggle has mattered more than winning or losing a single battle.
James Taylor Carson
The European invasion of the continent to which we now refer as North America unfolded in several different ways, each with its own particular implications. Yet no matter their differences, each colonial effort drew upon the same moral, intellectual, and material premises necessary to justify and enact the dispossession of the land’s first peoples. From religious arguments about Christianity extirpating “savage devils” from New England or Jamestowners’ obsession with finding gold and precious minerals to the introduction of new species of plants and animals across the continent and imperial assertions of sovereignty, the European invasion of America touched every facet of the lives that had brought first peoples and colonizers together. Examining how first peoples represented their land and how European invaders and their later American successors countered such mapping practices with their own cartographical projections affords an important way to understand a centuries-long process of place-making and place-taking too often glossed as colonization.
Nicolas G. Rosenthal
An important relationship has existed between Native Americans and cities from pre-Columbian times to the early 21st century. Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, indigenous peoples developed societies characterized by dense populations, large-scale agriculture, monumental architecture, and complex social hierarchies. Following European and American conquest and colonization, Native Americans played a crucial role in the development of towns and cities throughout North America, often on the site of former indigenous settlements.
Beginning in the early 20th century, Native Americans began migrating from reservations to U.S. cities in large numbers and formed new intertribal communities. By 1970, the majority of the Native American population lived in cities and the numbers of urban American Indians have been growing ever since. Indian Country in the early 21st century continues to be influenced by the complex and evolving ties between Native Americans and cities.
In the years following the US Civil War, the federal government implemented a campaign to assimilate Native peoples into an expanding American nation and a modernizing American society. As policymakers and social reformers understood it, assimilation required a transformation in Native gender roles, and as a result, Native American women were the targets of several assimilationist initiatives. Native women navigated federal interventions strategically, embracing what was useful, accommodating what was necessary, and discarding what was not. As mothers, grandmothers, and healers, women provided stability for families and communities enduring disruption and coerced change. In the 20th century, Native women embraced new economic and political roles even as they adapted long-standing customs. Many began working for wages; although often confined to menial labor such as domestic service in other women’s homes, growing numbers of Native women also pursued white-collar occupations in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later in tribal governments. As tribal governance evolved over the course of the century, some women obtained positions on tribal councils and tribal courts. Native women have also made intellectual contributions—as tribal members and ultimately as American citizens—to modern understandings of democracy, citizenship, sovereignty, and feminism. Since the late 20th century, Native women have been at the forefront of movements to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures.
Adam M. Sowards
For more than a century after the republic’s founding in the 1780s, American law reflected the ideal that the commons—the public domain—should be turned into private property. As Americans became concerned about resource scarcity, waste, and monopolies at the end of the 19th century, reform-minded bureaucrats and scientists convinced Congress to maintain in perpetuity some of the nation’s land as public. This shift offered a measure of protection and an alternative to private property regimes. The federal agencies that primarily manage these lands today—U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—have worked since their origins in the early decades of the 20th century to fulfill their diverse, competing, evolving missions. Meanwhile, the public and Congress have continually demanded new and different goals as the land itself has functioned and responded in interdependent ways. In the mid-20th century, the agencies intensified their management, hoping they could satisfy the rising—and often conflicting—demands American citizens placed on the public lands. This intensification often worsened public lands’ ecology and increased political conflict, resulting in a series of new laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws strengthened the role of science and the public in influencing agency practices while providing more opportunities for litigation. Predictably, since the late 1970s, these developments have polarized public lands’ politics. The economies, but also the identities, of many Americans remain entwined with the public lands, making political standoffs—over endangered species, oil production, privatizing land, and more—common and increasingly intractable. Because the public lands are national in scope but used by local people for all manner of economic and recreational activities, they have been and remain microcosms of the federal democratic system and all its conflicted nature.