Indigenous peoples, environmentalism and ‘wilderness.’ Part one – North America and Australia

‘Wilderness’ is a word that features very strongly in the vocabulary of environmentalists and conservationists around the world. In the United States the Wilderness Society, which currently has over 300,000 members, was founded in 1935 by Aldo Leopold and others to “bring to bear our scientific expertise, analysis and bold advocacy at the highest levels to save, protect and restore America’s wilderness areas.” The Wilderness Society (TWS) of Australia sees its mission similarly, as being one of “protecting, promoting and restoring wilderness and natural processes across Australia for the survival and ongoing evolution of life on Earth.”

So just what do we mean when we speak of ‘wilderness’?

My old Chambers Dictionary (1983) defines wilderness as “a region uncultivated and uninhabited: a pathless or desolate tract of land” and the Merriam-Webster online dictionary provides a very similar definition; although it drops the “desolate” bit, the key ideas of “uncultivated” and “uninhabited” remain. The conservation organisations mentioned above add to these definitions with language that could almost be described as devotional: ‘majestic solitude,’ ‘stunning landscape,’ ‘inspiration,’ ‘irreplaceable, iconic refuges,’ ‘silent vastness,’ and so on.

The Yosemite Valley, instituted as a National Park in 1864, is described by Simon Schama as “the first and most famous American Eden”, a wilderness venerated by many writers and artists but perhaps most famously by photographer Ansel Adams. As Schama relates, it turns out that this apparently pristine wilderness is partly a creation of its original Ahwahneechee inhabitants whose fire clearances of brush had fashioned the supposedly untouched “dazzling meadow-floor” of the valley. The Ahwahneechee are gone, of course, hounded out by the Mariposa Battalion protecting mining camps in the western Sierra Nevada in the early 1850s, and the myth of Eden prevailed for a long time afterwards for the visitors who came there. However, the cold reality of human habitation always dwelt in the Miwok placename Yo-che-ma-te: “some of them are killers.”

Jenny Pickerill has investigated how Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians understand the concept of wilderness. The use of the word to describe vast tracts of the Australian continent immediately connects with the European colonial designation of the land as ‘terra nullius.’ One of Pickerill’s Indigenous interviewees, Gary Foley, says that by using the term wilderness “you’re maintaining the argument that we don’t exist – there never was a wilderness in Australia – it was an inhabited landscape” (p.97).

And indeed it has been for tens of thousands of years. But, as Pickerill relates, the early years of non-Indigenous settlement “was explicitly about taming the wilderness and consequently rendering the land ‘civilised’, ordered and productive,” in other words, “a very British vision of what constituted nature and landscape” (p.98). Nowadays, as we have seen, the idea of wilderness features strongly in the appeals to western environmental values. However, the use of the word by environmentalists still carries an implicit rejection of Indigenous identity because it entirely ignores the cultural significance of an inhabited country, and the “intertwining of kinship, ancestry and responsibility … that is intimately linked into Indigenous identity” (Pickerill, p.99).

In Australia the concept of terra nullius was overturned in 1992 in the Mabo decision. There are positive signs that environmentalists’ attitudes are now changing accordingly. The TWS is trying to find a way to incorporate the Indigenous perspective into its work, though the society’s name does seem to be a rather large part of the problem. Meanwhile, as Pickerill also notes, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is seeking to develop a bicultural approach to environmental issues, beginning with an acknowledgement that

Indigenous people have never relinquished their sovereignty over Australia and therefore have the right of political independence;

as a result, the non-indigenous occupation of Australia amounts to an illegal dispossession of Indigenous people for which they should be compensated on fair and just terms;


Indigenous people have the right to self-determination.

In part two of this article I’ll take a look at how the idea of wilderness has been used in Aotearoa New Zealand.


Jenny Pickerill (2008 ) From wilderness to WildCountry: The power of language in environmental campaigns in Australia. Environmental Politics, 17(1), 95-104.

Simon Schama (1995) Landscape and memory. London: Harper Collins.


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