Indigenous Resource Access

Access to resources is critical for upholding tribal relationships to the nonhuman world (Middleton 2011). In most cases, traditional use entails sustainable harvesting practices that are vital to the well-being of the resource; in turn, the transmission of such practices to younger generations ensures the sustained relationship that a people has with a particular plant or animal (Maffi 2001b; Kimmerer 2013). Research on tribal resource access can inform tribal policy and management and thus contribute to both resource- and relationship-based approaches to tribal environmental governance. For example, Cherokee elders stress that, when seeking plant medicine, one should not uproot the first identified plant; rather, one must pass over at least four plant individuals before commencing to gather. This ensures that one does not inadvertently remove the last remaining plant of that species in that specific area, and thus fosters its continued flourishing. How might impeded resource access affect such a principle? Does it intensify, as one might expect in a situation of limited resources? Or is the principle compromised in cases when an individual only has access to two or three plants of the desired species? Could tribal resource managers help address these issues by targeting specific areas for conservation?

Political ecologists Ribot and Peluso (2003) outline a theory of access, which illuminates the complex and multifaceted nature of community access to natural resources for subsistence purposes. This work has opened up new ways of thinking about resource access that account for more than rights-based legal mechanisms or the ownership of property. Beyond a singular view of resource access as the right to benefit from resources, Ribot and Peluso assert that access (or lack thereof) also entails the ability to benefit from resources (see also Ribot 1998). The authors show how power relations embedded in technology, capital, markets, labor, knowledge, authority, identity, and social relations have a direct effect on the ability of communities to benefit from local resources. Further, Sikor and Lund (2009) highlight the relationship between power and authority on the one hand, and access and property on the other. Their work underscores the “organizing practices” (see Nuijten 2003: 12) that concern the distribution of resources, which can effectively limit access even while legitimizing property claims. They assert that “the ‘grey zone’ between what people have rights to and what they merely have access to is terrain worth exploring” (Sikor and Lund 2009: 2).

This study proposes to inform and enhance theories of access through an in depth analysis of Cherokee communities that have been severely impacted by arguably one of the most complicated and devastating colonial land policies: The General Allotment Act of 1887. The Allotment Act broke up many American Indian landbases that were formerly communally owned, and forcibly replaced them with a system of private property. The policy was intended to assimilate American Indians into an agrarian way of life via Euro-American notions of industriousness and private land ownership. The Act disregarded former tribal property law, and in many cases marked the near obliteration of tribal sovereignty (Leeds 2000). Each head of household received a 160-acre plot; lands that were not allotted to individuals were declared “surplus” lands, and were sold and opened to non-Indian settlement. The allotment policy ultimately resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of land for the Cherokee Nation due to “surplus” sales, land swindlers, and a foreign system of property taxes (Debo 1940).

Today, both rural communities and tribal resource managers must contend with the legacy of this era of federal Indian policy in the form of limited access to resources and limited jurisdiction within historical tribal boundaries. Sparse tribal lands inhibit access to natural resources like medicinal or nutritional plants, and complicate tribal systems of resource management that must balance granting tribal citizens access to land with the conservation of limited resources (Carroll 2014a). The legacy of allotment has also created severe impediments to tribal land conservation and environmental governance. Fractionated lands pose an obstacle for the creation of consolidated conservation areas without bisecting ecosystems or plant population locations. My ongoing work in the Cherokee Nation has also revealed concerns about hostile neighboring landowners, whose presence creates tensions and doubts surrounding the effectiveness of such tribal conservation enclosures. These issues call for a more complete understanding of resource access in rural Cherokee Nation communities, and an assessment of where the Cherokee Nation tribal government could best direct its energies toward ameliorating current conditions for resource access.


Carroll, C. (2014). Shaping new homelands: Environmental production, natural resource management, and the dynamics of Indigenous state practice in the Cherokee Nation. Ethnohistory, 61(1), 123-147.

Debo, A. (1940). And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Leeds, S. L. (2000). The burning of blackacre: A step toward reclaiming tribal property law. Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, 10, 491-503.

Maffi, L. (Ed.). (2001). On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Middleton, B. R. (2010). A political ecology of healing. Journal of Political Ecology, 17, 1-28.

Nuijten, M. (2003). Power, Community and the State: The Political Anthropology of Organisation in Mexico. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

Ribot, J., & Peluso, N. L. (2003). A theory of access. Rural Sociology, 68(2), 153-181.

Ribot, J. C. (1998). Theorizing access: Forest profits along Senegal’s charcoal commodity chain. Development and Change, 29(2), 307-341.

Sikor, T., & Lund, C. (2009). Access and property: A question of power and authority. Development and Change, 40(1), 1-22.