Conservation and Community: Indigenous Land Management in Massachusetts

Conservation and Community: Indigenous Land Management in Massachusetts

Editor’s Note: The blog post below is by our Spring 2024 Community Engagement intern Jaelyn Carr. While MassEnergize does not focus on conservation, we think it’s crucial – as we pilot our new Environmental Justice initiative, Solar Para Todos – to look at and learn from the work of other EJ communities, and to view this history holistically. Indigenous conservation is at the foundation of environmental and sustainability work in our country, and as environmental leaders, we have a responsibility to recognize and acknowledge the work which has been – and continues to be – done by Native people. 


Massachusetts’ natural landscapes are more than just picturesque settings, they are potent reminders of the interactions between nature and humanity. Here, the meandering hills, dense temperate deciduous forests, and arcadian coastlines serve as the canvas for an intricate story of environmental conservation and historical heritage. For residents of this land, it is crucial to understand how our conservation intentions align with the legacy of Indigenous land management.

Before the establishment of protected areas in Massachusetts, Indigenous tribes such as the Abenaki, Eastern Pequot, Maliseet, Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag did not simply reside in these regions; they were actively engaged in various environmental management practices that contributed to the land’s fertility and biodiversity. These tribes employed controlled burns to manage forest undergrowth and promote new growth, practiced crop rotation, and used fish as fertilizer to enrich the soil. Additionally, they constructed fish weirs to facilitate sustainable fishing practices.

The effectiveness of these practices is evidenced through several sources. Archaeological findings, including unearthed fish weirs and agricultural tools, indicate a well-managed landscape. The continued diversity of flora and fauna in these historically managed areas suggests the long-term sustainability of these practices. Oral traditions of these tribes, supported by early colonial writings, provide narrative evidence of their deep ecological understanding and their direct involvement in enhancing the land’s productivity.

Today, there is a growing recognition within the conservation community of these historical Indigenous land management practices. Modern conservationists are seeking partnerships with Indigenous communities. For instance, in managing the Berkshire forests, conservationists are consulting with tribal elders to understand the historical presence and uses of native plant species. Along the Charles River (originally known as the Quinobequin), projects are being developed that utilize Indigenous fishing practices to inform sustainable fishery management.

This renewed recognition of Indigenous practices is leading to tangible changes in conservation policy and methodology. Conservationists are incorporating traditional knowledge into ecological management plans, ensuring that Indigenous perspectives are represented in environmental stewardship. This collaboration is evident in joint forest and river system management efforts, the integration of traditional ecological knowledge into environmental science curricula, and a growing number of restoration projects that aim to protect and revitalize nature using both scientific and traditional principles.

Despite this burgeoning appreciation within academic and conservation circles for the land stewardship practices of Indigenous tribes, the legislative framework has yet to catch up. Transforming new research and understanding into law is a lengthy process, often spanning years or even decades. This journey from academic theory to legislative reality involves rigorous research validation, public awareness campaigns, shifts in public opinion, and extensive legal review. Furthermore, creating new laws or amending existing ones to integrate Indigenous practices into environmental policy requires a consensus among lawmakers, a time-consuming and often contentious process.

Iconic areas such as Cape Cod National Seashore and the Quabbin Reservoir are now protected to preserve Massachusetts’ stunning natural beauty and biological diversity. While these efforts are commendable, they often overlook the profound connection local Indigenous communities have with these lands. These communities, once the primary caretakers, now find themselves marginalized, their ancestral lands cordoned off in the name of preservation.

The drive to protect and conserve nature often stems from a place of benevolence—a desire to safeguard the environment against the encroachment of modern life. However, this narrative challenges the belief that nature thrives only in the absence of human presence. It raises the question of whether our current approach to land management is the issue, rather than human presence itself. Are we ignoring the beneficial impacts of traditional, Indigenous land-management practices that have historically enriched these ecosystems?

In pursuit of a more inclusive approach to conservation, education emerges as a powerful tool. By learning about the history of these lands and the conservation practices of Indigenous tribes, we can foster a deeper respect for their cultural and environmental contributions. This knowledge empowers us to support conservation models that embrace Indigenous practices and leadership, weaving past wisdom into present policies.

The path forward includes both minor and major actions, from supporting local conservation initiatives that honor cultural heritage to advocating for the inclusion of Indigenous voices in environmental policy-making. Volunteering in conservation efforts that respect both ecological and cultural diversity is a practical step many can take. Listening to the stories of Indigenous communities enriches our understanding and promotes a more empathetic approach to conservation.

The landscapes of Massachusetts, imbued with the history of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Mohegan, and other tribes, present a unique opportunity to rethink our role in nature. Through an empathetic embrace of the past and a commitment to inclusive conservation, we can ensure these lands continue to tell a story of beauty, diversity, and shared heritage for generations to come.


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