The Environmental Transformation of America by the Native North American Inhabitants

The Native North American inhabitants had the opportunity to come to a virgin land and create a life a unique environment. With settling in a new land there were many discoveries to be made and each different area of America offered a different challenge. The Native North American Indians took these challenges and embraced them, transforming America into what we live in today.

The Origins of the Native North American Inhabitant

The first inhabitant’s of America were believed to have crossed into North America in the area of the Bering Strait during the ice age. The earliest Americans came to the New World during a time when large amounts of water froze, the sea level dropped. This made it possible to cross via a thin bit of land which was revealed when the sea fell between America and Siberia. This was known as a "land bridge." (Pictured below) It is believed that the first inhabitants of North America were hunting and followed the animals across.

"Land Bridge"
"Land Bridge"
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Map showing the approximate location of the ice-free corridor and specific Paleoindian sites (Clovis theory).

These settlers were very adaptable. They had to survive sub freezing temperatures by building fires, making heavily insulated housing, and creating warm clothes out of furs and hides. The first Americans quickly spread across North and South America. This movement was done due to population pressure. These people were hunters and gatherers and that required a large amount of territory to support themselves. The settlers are classified into the following areas: Arctic, Northeast, Southeast, The Plains, Southwest, The Great Plains, California, The Northwest Coast, and the Plateau.

Transformation of Environment by the Native North American Inhabitant

The environment hugely affected the Native American Indian in many different ways. This is because of the way in which the Indians used the environment and the surrounding land. The Indians were very close to nature, and so that meant that any changes to nature would be changes to the Indians.

The earliest North American Indian’s hunted large mammals. These mammals included, but are not limited to, bison, caribou, oxen and mammoths for food and clothing. They used stone tipped spears and dart throwers, known as atlatis. However, between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago, many large animal species became extinct. This caused the Indians to alter their way of life. Indians had to start to gather plant foods, fish and hunt smaller animals. In order to hunt small game and fish, Indians created new weapons, including spears with barbed points, the bow and arrow, and nets and hooks for fishing. This era was known as the Archaic period. Following this period was the Formative period, in this period some foragers started to domesticate wild seeds. (example picture below) Corn was being grown by some groups of Southwestern Indians. This allowed them to have permanent settlements.

Photo of Native Americans
Photo of Native Americans
Paiute woman grinding seeds in doorway of thatched hut, small boy in foreground.
Photographed by John K. Hillers, 1872.

Indians were the first people to cultivate the world’s most important agricultural crops: chocolate, corn, long-staple cotton, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, rubber, quinine, tobacco, and vanilla. The Indians also built large cities, established forms of government, and created some of the worlds greatest art and architecture.

Indians lived all over America, in many different environments including the flat lands, the forest, the mountains, the deserts, the prairies, on the coast, and even in the arctic. All these environments affected the Indians in different ways, so the different Indians evolved over time. An example of one kind of village pictured below,

Photo of Native Americans
Photo of Native Americans
The village of Pomeioc, N.C. Artwork by John White, 1885.
American Indian Select List number 177.

What Outcomes Did They Achieve

The earliest groups of Native North American Indians were hunters and gatherers that moved from place to place, using what plants and animals they could. Food and resources were supplied by the environment so they could survive. When agriculture started to supplement their needs, they no longer need to move in search of food. Communities were formed and permanent villages were established. Most settlers constructed their houses with local materials.

The native North American Indians were some diverse people. They spoke between 300 and 350 distinct languages, and their societies and ways of living varied greatly. The Indians grew their own food or they hunted or fished. They lived in family groups, but had loyalties to a clan. Some formed alliances called confederacies for the purpose of keeping peace between neighbors and making war on outsiders. The Indians answered to their village chief which ruled by consent of his people.
Even though the Native American Indian achieved much in their survival and settlement of a new land, they suffered heavily when the Europeans came to America. Due to their isolation, they had not learned about the use of iron, gunpowder, and domesticated animals. They were helpless against the European conquerors. They were also against the diseases that were brought by the invasion. It is estimated that 90 percent of the Native American people died in the first century of contact.

Counter Argrument
It could be agrued that the Indians only had a small part in "transforming" America from a virgin land to one filled with millions of people and industry and that the Europeans had a bigger part in doing so. After all, it was the Europeans who came to America and cultivated large portions of untouched soil, cut down millions of trees from forests, brought over numerous diseases as mentioned earlier (which spread amongst animals and humans) and disposed of their waste improperly. They continued on to build railroads on untouched grounds and built large communites that not only took away animal's natural habitats but also brought pollution into the air. In addition to all that, the Europeans created conflicts and caused wars which affected the land greatly. Have not all those actions by the Europeans altered the original environment of America drastically? Of course they did!

But despite the viewpoint that Europeans had a bigger impact in transforming America's environment, in all actuality the Native North American Indians were the ones who had the upperhand hand in altering this virgin land. This is because the Indians habituated the land long before and European did and it was them who made the first changes to America far drastic than European did. As Louis S. Warren (2003) wrote, " erosion and deposition therefore accompanied intensive land use by huge primative populations [...] and had gone far toward devestation of the country long before the white man arrived" (p 13). With this quote, Warren is explaing that the Indians ruined America's land far before any European did. Throughout his book he gives proof as to how this is true. He describes how Indians extremely modified the rain forests with burning, swiddens, and manipulation of the land. Or how they "overkilled" on some animals because there were so many Indians that needed food and clothing. Warren also mentions how some land recovered after Indian depletion occured whichs proves that the Indians did make severe changes to the enviroment.

When the Native North American Indians decided to settle on America land, they were taking on a big challenge. With inhabiting a new land, many discoveries were to be made by them which brought forth many challenges such as figuring out uses for their new discoveries, how to adapt to the land, and what animals should be hunted etc. In spite of all the unknowns, Native North American Indians embraced these challenges which consequently had a the biggest impace on transforming America's environment into what we live in today.

Counter Argument Post
Native American transformations to the North American landscape were gradual and minimal compared to the affects of the Europeans that conquered this land. Indians inhabited land all over the country but the land use was for survival. Two prime examples of Indians living off the land without dramatically changing it are the Indians of Illinois who lived in the Starved Rock area and the Indians who inhabited the area of the Cahokia Mounds.

There is evidence dating back 5000 years that Indians were living in the Starved Rock area. The Illiniwek Indians were discovered by Louis Joliet in the 1600's. These Indians would travel upland to the upper prairie to hunt, but they mainly concentrated on what animals were local to the area and the farming village that they established along the river basin. The Indians used this land for survival with little impact on the cliffs, woods, river and prairie that make up this area. When Starved Rock was turned into a state park in 1911, it took 70 short years to wear the top of Starved Rock down 18 inches by visitors. By 1981 a wood platform and stairs had to be built to protect the rocks from more human erosion. Indians used the land for 5,000 years and they didn’t make that kind of impact(Hike).

Another example of Indians who lived on the land without extreme impact were the Indians of what is the present day Cahokia Mounds Historic Site. To build the mounds of Cahokia, Indians filled 15 million baskets of dirt and move it by hand over 300 years(Cahokia). In less than 50 years Indiana and Illinois were deforested or cultivated and turned into farmland by westward expansion(America). When that land wasn’t enough, pioneers headed west for more land. But as the resources depleted for the Cahokia Indians, the population declined. Climate changes also affected the crops and the animal population, which made it difficult for the Indians to survive(Cahokia). Instead of altering the environment or relocating, the population slowly faded away, leaving the mounds to grow grass, not the concrete of the Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate that skewers the ancient city(Hodges).

The Indians’ relationship with the land was more like a partnership. Indians viewed themselves as an extension of the earth. They would coexist with land, take only what they needed and fade away when the land couldn’t provide for them anymore.
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Works Cited:

"Native American Voices" 06 Mar 2011

"The Effects of Removal on American Indian Tribes" 28 Feb 2011

"Native American History" 03 Mar 2011

"Pictures of Native Americans in the United States" 06 Mar 2011
"Native Americans in the United States" 06 Mar 2011

Warren, Louis S. (2003). American Environmental History. Blackwell Publishing.

America: The Story of Us. Ex Producer, Jane Root. 2010. History and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. DVD.

Hike Into History. Retrieved April 16, 2011, from Starved Rock State Park website: . Source: Illinois
Department of Natural Rescources

Hodges, Glenn. (2011, January). If they ever build a Wal-Mart at Machu Picchu,
I will think of Collinsville Road. National Geographic, 132-145.

Welcome to Cahokia Mounds. Retrieved April 16, 2011, from Cahokia Mounds
State Historic Site website: