Regrowing Indigenous Agriculture Could Nourish People, Cultures and the Land

European settlement, government policies and monoculture have nearly eradicated Native American farming practices. A growing movement is reclaiming them.

Christina Gish Hill

Dream of Wild Health farm manager Jessika Greendeer gives a soil lesson July 15 in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Dream of Wild Health

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

His­to­ri­ans know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanks­giv­ing, when Wampanoag peo­ples shared a har­vest meal with the pil­grims of Ply­mouth plan­ta­tion in Mass­a­chu­setts. And tra­di­tion­al Native Amer­i­can farm­ing prac­tices tell us that squash and beans like­ly were part of that 1621 din­ner too. 

For cen­turies before Euro­peans reached North Amer­i­ca, many Native Amer­i­cans grew these foods togeth­er in one plot, along with the less famil­iar sun­flower. They called the plants sis­ters to reflect how they thrived when they were cul­ti­vat­ed together.

As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that made Native farming practices impossible.

Today three-quar­ters of Native Amer­i­cans live off of reser­va­tions, main­ly in urban areas. And nation­wide, many Native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties lack access to healthy food. As a schol­ar of Indige­nous stud­ies focus­ing on Native rela­tion­ships with the land, I began to won­der why Native farm­ing prac­tices had declined and what ben­e­fits could emerge from bring­ing them back. 

To answer these ques­tions, I am work­ing with agron­o­mist Mar­shall McDaniel, hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist Ajay Nair, nutri­tion­ist Don­na Win­ham and Native gar­den­ing projects in Iowa, Nebras­ka, Wis­con­sin and Min­neso­ta. Our research project, Reunit­ing the Three Sis­ters,” explores what it means to be a respon­si­ble care­tak­er of the land from the per­spec­tive of peo­ples who have been bal­anc­ing agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion with sus­tain­abil­i­ty for hun­dreds of years. 

Gail Danforth, an Elder of the Oneida Nation in Northeast Wisconsin, explains “three sisters” gardening.

Abun­dant harvests

His­tor­i­cal­ly, Native peo­ple through­out the Amer­i­c­as bred indige­nous plant vari­eties spe­cif­ic to the grow­ing con­di­tions of their home­lands. They select­ed seeds for many dif­fer­ent traits, such as fla­vor, tex­ture and col­or.

Native grow­ers knew that plant­i­ng corn, beans, squash and sun­flow­ers togeth­er pro­duced mutu­al ben­e­fits. Corn stalks cre­at­ed a trel­lis for beans to climb, and beans’ twin­ing vines secured the corn in high winds. They also cer­tain­ly observed that corn and bean plants grow­ing togeth­er tend­ed to be health­i­er than when raised sep­a­rate­ly. Today we know the rea­son: Bac­te­ria liv­ing on bean plant roots pull nitro­gen – an essen­tial plant nutri­ent – from the air and con­vert it to a form that both beans and corn can use.

Squash plants con­tributed by shad­ing the ground with their broad leaves, pre­vent­ing weeds from grow­ing and retain­ing water in the soil. Her­itage squash vari­eties also had spines that dis­cour­aged deer and rac­coons from vis­it­ing the gar­den for a snack. And sun­flow­ers plant­ed around the edges of the gar­den cre­at­ed a nat­ur­al fence, pro­tect­ing oth­er plants from wind and ani­mals and attract­ing pollinators.

Inter­plant­i­ng these agri­cul­tur­al sis­ters pro­duced boun­ti­ful har­vests that sus­tained large Native com­mu­ni­ties and spurred fruit­ful trade economies. The first Euro­peans who reached the Amer­i­c­as were shocked at the abun­dant food crops they found. My research is explor­ing how, 200 years ago, Native Amer­i­can agri­cul­tur­al­ists around the Great Lakes and along the Mis­souri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse veg­etable products.

Dis­placed from the land

As Euro-Amer­i­cans set­tled per­ma­nent­ly on the most fer­tile North Amer­i­can lands and acquired seeds that Native grow­ers had care­ful­ly bred, they imposed poli­cies that made Native farm­ing prac­tices impos­si­ble. In 1830 Pres­i­dent Andrew Jack­son signed the Indi­an Removal Act, which made it offi­cial U.S. pol­i­cy to force Native peo­ples from their home loca­tions, push­ing them onto sub­par lands. 

On reser­va­tions, U.S. gov­ern­ment offi­cials dis­cour­aged Native women from cul­ti­vat­ing any­thing larg­er than small gar­den plots and pres­sured Native men to prac­tice Euro-Amer­i­can style mono­cul­ture. Allot­ment poli­cies assigned small plots to nuclear fam­i­lies, fur­ther lim­it­ing Native Amer­i­cans’ access to land and pre­vent­ing them from using com­mu­nal farm­ing practices. 

Native chil­dren were forced to attend board­ing schools, where they had no oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn Native agri­cul­ture tech­niques or preser­va­tion and prepa­ra­tion of Indige­nous foods. Instead they were forced to eat West­ern foods, turn­ing their palates away from their tra­di­tion­al pref­er­ences. Tak­en togeth­er, these poli­cies almost entire­ly erad­i­cat­ed three sis­ters agriculture from Native com­mu­ni­ties in the Mid­west by the 1930s.

Map of Great Lakes tribes c. 1600.
Native American tribes in the Great Lakes region pre-European settlement. Map courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum CC BY-ND

Reviv­ing Native agriculture

Today Native peo­ple all over the U.S. are work­ing dili­gent­ly to reclaim Indige­nous vari­eties of corn, beans, squash, sun­flow­ers and oth­er crops. This effort is impor­tant for many reasons. 

Improv­ing Native people’s access to healthy, cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate foods will help low­er rates of dia­betes and obe­si­ty, which affect Native Amer­i­cans at dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high rates. Shar­ing tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge about agri­cul­ture is a way for elders to pass cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion along to younger gen­er­a­tions. Indige­nous grow­ing tech­niques also pro­tect the lands that Native nations now inhab­it, and can poten­tial­ly ben­e­fit the wider ecosys­tems around them.

Members of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network explain the cultural importance of access to traditional seed varieties.

But Native com­mu­ni­ties often lack access to resources such as farm­ing equip­ment, soil test­ing, fer­til­iz­er and pest pre­ven­tion tech­niques. This is what inspired Iowa State University’s Three Sis­ters Gar­den­ing Project. We work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with Native farm­ers at Tsyun­hehkw, a com­mu­ni­ty agri­cul­ture pro­gram, and the Ohe­laku Corn Grow­ers Co-Op on the Onei­da reser­va­tion in Wis­con­sin; the Nebras­ka Indi­an Col­lege, which serves the Oma­ha and San­tee Sioux in Nebras­ka; and Dream of Wild Health, a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that works to recon­nect the Native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty in Min­neapo­lis-St. Paul, Min­neso­ta, with tra­di­tion­al Native plants and their culi­nary, med­i­c­i­nal and spir­i­tu­al uses.

We are grow­ing three sis­ters research plots at ISU’s Hor­ti­cul­ture Farm and in each of these com­mu­ni­ties. Our project also runs work­shops on top­ics of inter­ests to Native gar­den­ers, encour­ages local soil health test­ing and grows rare seeds to rema­tri­ate them, or return them to their home communities.

The monocrop­ping indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al sys­tems that pro­duce much of the U.S. food sup­ply harms the envi­ron­ment, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and human health and safe­ty in many ways. By grow­ing corn, beans and squash in research plots, we are help­ing to quan­ti­fy how inter­crop­ping ben­e­fits both plants and soil.

By doc­u­ment­ing lim­it­ed nutri­tion­al offer­ings at reser­va­tion gro­cery stores, we are demon­strat­ing the need for Indige­nous gar­dens in Native com­mu­ni­ties. By inter­view­ing Native grow­ers and elders knowl­edge­able about food­ways, we are illu­mi­nat­ing how heal­ing Indige­nous gar­den­ing prac­tices can be for Native com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple – their bod­ies, minds and spirits. 

Our Native col­lab­o­ra­tors are ben­e­fit­ing from the project through rema­tri­a­tion of rare seeds grown in ISU plots, work­shops on top­ics they select and the new rela­tion­ships they are build­ing with Native gar­den­ers across the Mid­west. As researchers, we are learn­ing about what it means to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly and to con­duct research that respects pro­to­cols our Native col­lab­o­ra­tors val­ue, such as treat­ing seeds, plants and soil in a cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate man­ner. By lis­ten­ing with humil­i­ty, we are work­ing to build a net­work where we can all learn from one another.

Christi­na Gish Hill is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy at Iowa State University.

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