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Environmental Awareness Programs in The Us and Canada: from Native Americans to Boy Scouts

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Native Americans had a significant influence on the farming practices of the early European immigrants into North America. Some of the agricultural practices, foods, and forms of land use that Native Americans used are still used today even though they have been improved to match the mass production and efficiency demands of contemporary society. By the time of the mass settlement of Europeans in the Americas beginning from the 14th and 15th centuries, indigenous American Indians already had some of the most advanced agricultural and land-use systems in the world. Although European society was already far more advanced in the use of tools, native Americans were much more advanced in understanding the interdependence of biodiversity and the importance of sustainable use of natural resources. Their system of agriculture cannot be viewed as a food production mechanism only but also as a component of the larger incorporation of environmental practices that promoted sustainability.

Anthropologists estimate that Native Americans had begun domesticating plants for food by 3500 BC. The first plants to be domesticated include squash, amaranth, and sunflower. Maize corn was later domesticated by 1000 BC and became a major economic product by 1000 AD. Maize corn was first primarily grown within the Mississippi River basin region due to the supportive climate, soil, and water availability. Other native Indian tribes in more hostile places such as the southwest struggled with the domestication of maize corn up to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They gradually managed to resolve the aridity challenge in the southwest by innovating dams and runoff irrigation. For example, the Anasazi used these irrigation innovations to expand their agricultural produce including maize corn, cotton, beans, squash, and pepper. However, as the degree of aridity became increasingly intolerable in the 13th century, southwestern tribes such as the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam had to reorganize their social setups into smaller settlements to fit available agricultural supplies. The irrigation techniques of these traditional native Indian tribes are the foundation of modern irrigation. Moreover, maize is still a major staple food product across the world for both humans and animals.

As the first inhabitants of the North American subcontinent, Native Americans are responsible for the discovery and spread of various foods that are widely consumed globally. Food is a primary marker of a people’s culture alongside the accompanying food production practices. According to the US census of 2010, Native Americans account for only 1.6% of the US population. The remaining 98.4% is mostly composed of immigrants from Europe, Africa, and Latin America who have adapted to a distinctly American way of life that is different from their original places of origin. This distinction is also present in the contemporary culinary practices of Americans such as the common foods in the US and farming practices. Some of the foods discovered or originally cultivated by Native Americans have become staple food products in various parts of the world, for example, maize corn, which is not only a human food product but also a major ingredient in the production of animal fodder. In the absence of maize corn, and holding all other factors constant, a majority of the world’s population, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, would be in a constant food insecurity crisis. Regarding farming practices, Native Americans introduced the first European settlers to revolutionary methods such as crop rotation and the use of fertilizer. For example, Native Americans are known for their use of surplus commodities such as fish to fertilize their farmlands.

Conservation was deeply rooted in Native American cultures from ancient times. The conservationist values of American Indians are based on their spirituality which demands protection of the earth’s biodiversity and the need to consume resources efficiently. Native American culture requires that every individual only uses the resources that befit their needs and that it is wrong to accumulate excessive material wealth. This is also reinforced by their beliefs in the virtues of sharing and generosity. According to the spirituality of Native Americans, everything is connected including living and non-living things and all nature is sacred. Consequently, nobody or thing is above the other in nature. Everything has a purpose for its existence and something to teach humanity. Therefore, our actions towards nature have consequences on ourselves in one way or another.

Environmental education and awareness developed into a scholarly field in the 1950s and 1960s as western society began to realize the negative environmental consequences caused by the industrial revolution and the two world wars. Scholars may present the meaning and goals of environmental education in different ways, the general agreement is that environmental education is a scientific field whose purpose is to advance knowledge about the biophysical environment, its processes, challenges, solutions, and ways of motivating the public to counter challenges and implement solutions. While there are several events such as the establishment of youth scouting that cumulatively led to the rise of environmental education, its origin can be traced to the cultural practices of American Indians. Scientists began to realize that economic development and prosperity were not the answer to overall societal wellbeing. Rather, there is a need for humans to pursue economic development in a manner that ensures the controlled use of environmental resources.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) movement had a substantial influence in the establishment of early environmental awareness programs in the US and Canada. The formation of BSA was inspired by the founding of the Boy Scout movement of England in 1907 which attracted the interest of Earnest Thompson to create an American equivalent based on the practices of Native Americans. BSA borrowed from the militaristic discipline of the English Boy Scouts movement with the American Indian naturalist practices to develop generations of quintessential and patriotic American boys. BSA observed American Indian principles in their activities including through their costumes, living in the outdoors, and play. Some chapters of the BSA also adopted other American Indian practices such as the use of their imagery, art, and ceremonial honors.

To emphasize the environmental roots of BSA, the movement mostly held and still holds most of its activities outdoors such as in week-long forest hiking and camping accompanied by various native Indian practices such as songs, dance, and games. Over time, BSA nurtured a parallel Girls Scouts movement. Although BSA and its Girls Scouts outfit have been modernized over time and have abandoned some of the original practices in order to comply with the demands of modern political correctness, they played a huge role as the pioneers of the formalization of outdoors and environmental education. The American Indian practices that inspired BSA are still recognizable in the programs and guides that were adapted from the movement into modern environmental education.

Native Americans had a significant influence on the farming practices of the early European immigrants into North America and modern-day agricultural practices. Anthropologists estimate that Native Americans had begun domesticating plants for food by 3500 BC. The important plants that Native Americans domesticated and which have had lasting implications include maize corn, squash, amaranth, and sunflower. Studies into the traditional agricultural practices of Native Americans show that the runoff farming method was a major development in their culture and allowed them to live in both wet and arid regions in North America. One of the outcomes of these studies is the development of organic farming methods that promote the production of healthy food products at a minimal cost to the environment as associated with commercial fertilizers. The traditional agricultural practices of Native Americans were also accompanied by advanced land-use systems that encouraged environmental sustainability.


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