Indigenous people in the United States have lost nearly 99% of the land they historically occupied, according to an unprecedented new data set. The data set—the first to quantify land dispossession and forced migration in the United States—also reveals that tribes with land today were systematically forced into less-valuable areas, which excluded them from key sectors of the U.S. economy, including the energy market. The negative effects continue to this day: Modern Indigenous lands are at increased risk from climate change hazards, especially extreme heat and decreased precipitation.
“It’s an airtight article,” says Deondre Smiles, a geographer at the University of Victoria and a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who was not involved in the study. By wrangling many disparate sources into one quantitative data set, the work “is going to represent a paradigm shift” for studies of U.S. colonialism and its effects.
Starting in the 17th century, European settlers pushed Indigenous people off their land, with the backing of the colonial government and, later, the fledging United States. Indian removal policies intensified in the 19th century, including the forced migration of tens of thousands of people in the U.S. southeast to Oklahoma, known as the Trail of Tears. Indigenous people have always understood the devastating effects of these policies, Smiles says. But most of their stories existed only in qualitative historical records, including hundreds of treaties, or oral histories. “The pushback you get in academia is that qualitative narratives are not robust. [Scientists often ask,] ‘Where’s the data? Where’s the hard science?’” Smiles says. “It’s right here, in this article.”
The new data set spans 300 years and includes nearly 400 tribes. For information about where tribes used to live, researchers spent 5 years scouring multiple archives for treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, which often included coercive agreements to cede some or all of their land. The researchers also searched U.S. legal documents chronicling decades of land disputes, tribes’ own public archives, and other historical records. They then compared those records with U.S. census data about present-day tribal lands. (To focus on people who had experienced similar colonial policies, the researchers excluded Alaska and Hawaii, and tribal lands that extended into modern Canada and Mexico.)
The researchers found that Indigenous people across the contiguous United States have lost 98.9% of their historical lands, or 93.9% of the total geographic area they once occupied, they report today in Science. (The first figure is higher because the same land was sometimes occupied by multiple tribes before colonial boundaries were imposed.) Some tribes suffered even more complete dispossession: Forty-two percent represented in historical records have no recognized land today. For the tribes that still have land, its average present-day size is a mere 2.6% of their historical lands. In addition, present-day tribal lands can be far from their original sites: On average, tribes were forced to move 241 kilometers. One of the longest forced migrations in the data set was experienced by the Modoc people, who were moved from the Klamath Basin of California and Oregon to Oklahoma, 2565 kilometers away.
The consequences of land dispossession and forced migration continue to affect tribes today, says co-author Kyle Whyte, an environmental justice scholar at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The data set shows present-day tribal lands are more at risk from climate change than tribes’ historical areas, as they experience more extreme heat and less precipitation. “It’s not just that Indigenous people happen to live in areas that are disproportionately impacted in negative ways by climate change,” Whyte says. They were often forcibly relocated to land that settlers considered less valuable, and those lands are more at risk from climate change hazards today.
Present-day Indigenous lands also have 24% fewer oil and gas resources than did historical lands, the data set shows. That means tribes have had less opportunity to participate in the energy economy, which was built on fossil fuels, says Justin Farrell, a sociologist at Yale University who was also an author on the paper. It’s possible some tribes wouldn’t have exploited those resources in the same way settlers did, he says. But they never had a choice.
“It’s not correct to talk about ‘historical’ colonialism,” as if it were something that happened in the past and is now over, Whyte says. “Colonialism and land dispossession are present factors that increase vulnerability and create economic challenges for tribes.” For example, his tribe, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, was forcibly relocated twice from its home in the Great Lakes region: first to Kansas, and then to Oklahoma. “[Today], we’re facing a number of climate change issues tied to drought and heat,” Whyte says. “This paper is trying to account for stories like my tribe. We basically had to start from scratch in the 19th century and completely rebuild our society.”
As striking as their findings are, the team says they are likely to be an understatement. That’s because, when it comes to Indigenous history, U.S. government records are inherently incomplete. The data set can and should be expanded, the researchers say, and they invite tribal members and others to submit additions. “We view this [paper] as the beginning,” Farrell says.
Correction, 28 October, 4:15 p.m.: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the relative length of the Modoc people’s forced migration.