Study: Loss of Historical Lands Creates Climate Risks for Indigenous Nations

Dispossession of tribal lands by European settlers had a hidden consequence for Native Americans, new research shows: increased vulnerability to climate change.

Image of Monument Valley from the Hunt's Mesa at sunset
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino / Getty Images

In Native American culture, nature and the environment are sacred. It seems a cruel twist of fate, then, that indigenous nations now find themselves in the lethal crosshairs of a changing climate.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly where they are, suggests a new study by researchers at Yale University, Colorado State University, and the University of Michigan. Published this month in the journal Science, the first-of-its-kind analysis attempts to quantify the loss of historical lands by Native American tribes since the arrival of European settlers in North America—and in so doing, reveals a harsh reality about the current and future risks that indigenous peoples face from climate change.

“Everyone who’s read history—or a true version of it—knows this story,” Yale School of the Environment Professor Justin Farrell, the study’s lead author, said in a news release. “But this is the first scholarly study that has looked at the full scope of change and tried to quantify it, to systematically geo-reference it at scale.”

Indigenous nations across the United States have lost 98.9% of their historical land base, according to Farrell and his co-authors, who say Native American tribes’ landholdings on average are just 2.6% the size of their estimated historical area. What’s more, more than 40% of tribes from the historical period possess no federally recognized land at all.

But it’s not just the quantity of land that European settlers took from Native Americans. Also, it’s the quality of the land. For instance, researchers found that nearly half of the tribes are more vulnerable to wildfires on their current lands than they were on their historical lands. Also, tribes’ current lands face more extreme heat and less precipitation. One tribe, for example—the Mojave tribe, which traditionally resided on the lower banks of the Colorado River in what is now Arizona and California—on average experiences 62 more days of extreme heat per year than it did on its historical lands.

“Obviously, the top-line finding is that, because of systematic land dispossession and forced migration under settler colonialism, native peoples are exposed to much higher vulnerability due to climate change,” says Paul Burow, a doctoral candidate at Yale School of the Environment and a co-author of the paper, which also highlights the economic consequences of land dispossession: The oil and gas mineral value potential of modern lands is less than historical lands, researchers found.

To arrive at their findings, Farrell, Burow, and their colleagues spent seven years examining historical records, including indigenous nations’ archives and maps, as well as federal records and digitized treaties. The information they collected is now publicly available via the Native Land Information System, an online data repository that researchers hope will spawn continued analysis by other scholars—including Native American scholars, whose membership in indigenous nations gives them unique insight into land dispossession and environmental justice at the local and tribal levels.

“While this gives us a very broad understanding of climate impacts, the work really opens opportunities to derive a more nuanced understanding of effects at the local level,” Burow continues. “This is the beginning of a long-term, comprehensive research program that will let anybody drill down on how different climate dynamics are touching specific indigenous peoples and the places they live.”

Researchers hope that increased analysis of Native Americans’ past and present land holdings will spawn increased action to strengthen Native Americans’ future quality of life.

“The research confirms what Indigenous leaders have been calling out for years,” says report co-author Kyle Whyte, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “The U.S. still has not addressed the land dispossession and the suppression of indigenous territorial governance that are at the root of why indigenous peoples face disproportionate vulnerability to climate change impacts.”

Echoes Farrell, “There is a violent legacy that persists today, and it remains critical that we try to understand it at large-scales. This not only for historical clarity around land dispossession and forced migration, but for concrete policies moving forward: How can we use this information so that day-to-day, lived experiences of indigenous peoples are improved—so that the existing inequities are righted and future risks mitigated?”

View Article Sources
  1. Farrell, Justin, et al. "Effects Of Land Dispossession And Forced Migration On Indigenous Peoples In North America." Science, vol. 374, no. 6567, 2021, doi:10.1126/science.abe4943