Researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Oklahoma set out to showcase how modern technologies like GIS impact non-traditional Western societies, specifically the lands managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The authors state that GIS development at the BIA was done so in the colonial manner with which the U.S. government had dealt with Native Americans in the past. They indicate the transgressions that occurred with GIS and BIA land include: creating dependency by establishing obligatory control points, imposing bureaucratic procedures and policy decisions as well as denying services based on federal land tenure systems already in place. The BIA, originally the Office of Indian Affairs, was created in 1824 for the purposes of assimilation, and by the 1930s the governing structure had come to operate seemingly at the command of the U.S. Congress.
The authors indicated three eras of the use of GIS within the BIA: in the 1970s, ‘80s and finally the ‘90s to present day. Under federal law in 1975, it was designated that Indians were to receive training in all things that would benefit them as a people, including the use of GIS for timber management, mapping and construction of roadways. The timber industry has always been significant on BIA lands, and the local people were often exploited by not being given the right to do further refining and production operations such as milling. In the 1970s, the BIA oversaw 5.5 million acres of commercial grade timber, but there were less than two dozen sawmills on or near reservations.
By 1987, only ten reservations across the U.S. were generating over $1 million dollars in revenue. These reservations were predominately in the northwest, with the Yakama Reservation bringing in the biggest purse at $20 million annually. A report cited in the article indicated that the BIA consistently was better at managing their timber production, from seed to sale, than the U.S. government. Accompanying these findings were that Indian timber workers were paid exceedingly less than their white counterparts on similar tracks of land by a margin of 58%. This led to the reservation’s residents’ desire to have greater control over their land and distribution, and the use of GIS played a big part in that. No small part in this was the discord that existed between the BIA and Native Americans in general, who typically saw the BIA as doing the U.S. government’s bidding.
In 1990, the reservations were able to spur Congress into passing the National Indian Forest Resource Management Act, which led to the allocation of federal resources directly to each reservation and its council as opposed to going directly to the BIA. With these funds, reservations were able to assess resources at a more local level, and allowed for better management practices resulting in higher revenue in the timber industry. The use of GIS was instrumental in understanding property lines, as well as locating service mills for peak efficiency.
And while the study focused primarily on the institutionalization of GIS in a government agency, the researchers stated that there is need for further research in the management of lands at the inter-tribal level; and also how private contracting has affected management practices since its earliest inception. The article is as much rooted in history as it is in advancing the cause of GIS to liberate people from improper governmental constraints.