Farming, Native American style

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Planting season — old style

As farmers north of the equator get ready to plant their seeds, we’ve started wondering about agriculture before Columbus. Conventional wisdom says Native Americans were mostly hunters and gatherers. When they did farm, their slash-and-burn techniques exhausted the soil, forcing them to clear new fields.


Man standing in foreground of a mountain landscape holds a cane in one hand and a root in the other

Courtesy Nancy Turner, University of Victoria
In British Columbia, Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwaxsistalla) holds “xukwem” (riceroot), a traditional food of the first inhabitants of Canada’s northwest coast.

Although Native Americans domesticated corn, tomatoes and potatoes, their farms were generally unproductive, and most of their plant food came from gathering tubers, greens, berries and shoots.

But as we learned at a series of talks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this picture needs editing:

* Three centuries ago, corn-farming Indians in today’s New York State were out-producing European wheat farmers

* The lack of plows in the Americas was not a hindrance but rather helped sustain soil fertility

* Stable, sophisticated food-gathering systems in parts of the Great Plains succumbed not to careless farmers but were drowned by dams on the big rivers

* Natives in British Columbia used a sophisticated permaculture to harvest the same plants year after year

The provision of permaculture

Until the 1960s, the government of Canada enforced assimilation of First Nation children at boarding schools that banned ancestral languages and practices. The goal was to homogenize Canada’s population, but suppressing culture also squelched knowledge of the traditional methods for raising and gathering food.


Row of bright green lettuce between  dark brown dirt and tall grass.

Lettuce grows in soil containing powdered charcoal. This traditional technology improves soil fertility and yield, and helped the Amazon basin support a large population before 1492.

When the police boats arrived in British Columbia in the 1930s, to take children to boarding schools, Adam Dick (tribal name Kwaxsistalla) escaped, and went to live in secluded locations with his grandparents for about a decade.

Dick, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly Kwakiutl) tribe, has become a link to a vanishing past. “His people have learned from him, they all benefit from his teaching,” says Nancy Turner, in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria (Canada).

Turner, who has spent a career studying indigenous agriculture, says knowing what to look for is key to understanding native agriculture on the coast of British Columbia. “They used perennial cultivation. ‘Keep it living’ was part of their philosophy, and it shows the way they value other life. A lot of perennial plants were being cultivated, but outsiders saw this as random plucking.”

People in the First Nations of British Columbia ate 35 species of roots, 25 greens, berries, even the inner bark of some trees, Turner says.


Green bush with red berries; rocks visible on ground in bottom right.

Photo: ulalume
Salmonberry was a traditional food along the Northwest Coast, where people also tended and ate red huckleberry, high bush cranberry and crabapple.

Overall, coastal people used 250 species of plants for food, tea, fuel, construction, fiber, canoes, dye and glue, Turner says.

When the natives harvested bark and wood from a living tree, they took what they needed without killing the tree. “They believed trees have sentient life, and called these ‘begged from’ trees,” Turner says. “‘We have come to beg a piece of you today.'”

“Gardens” in the water

The same attitude of “stewardship and caring” also applied to aquatic food, Turner says, especially the all-important salmon. “The salmon streams were carefully tended, and even cleaned. If the stream changed course, Adam and the others were taught by the elders to transplant [salmon] eggs to the new stream channel.”

Similarly, she says, people moved rocks to “create the most productive clam beds on the coast.”

Springbank clover (Trifolium wormskioldii)

Courtesy Nancy Turner.
Small plots of springbank clover (Trifolium wormskioldii), about to blossom in British Columbia produced “immense quantities” of roots that were “regarded as indispensable to good health,” says Turner. In this permaculture, the harvesters replanted segments of the roots for another crop.

This was more like farming and harvesting than hunting-and-gathering, Turner insists. But the colonists, more interested in survival and profit than the people they were displacing, “were blind to these practices. They had in mind Mr. McGregor’s garden, with a fence and rows you can harvest. They looked at these things, but they did not see them.”

Restoring the foods

Most cultures give a central role to the production, preparation and consumption of food. What happens when the land that grew traditional foods is drowned by dams?

That’s the conundrum facing Linda Different Cloud Jones, an activist and student from the Lakota Sioux Nation. “The loss of biodiversity is the greatest challenge on traditional lands,” she told an audience in March at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “and the loss of one culturally important species has significant impact.”

The Lakota people “are stereotyped as the people of the plains,” says Jones, “but we are also people of the river, or were a people of the river, until, in the 1950s and ’60s, when dams built in the Pick-Sloan project changed the way of life for the Lakota forever.”

Standing Rock, the Lakota reservation, is sandwiched between the Dakotas, and borders the Missouri River. “Overnight, hundreds of thousands of acres of native land was underwater,” said Jones. “All the plant and animal species in the riparian cottonwood forest were gone.”

The underground seedpods of the hog peanut (AKA mouse bean), were collected by prairie voles. These small mammals, which the Lakota called “mice,” cached the big seeds underground.

Lakota women found the caches with a stick and removed the seeds, Jones said, but “They always left a gift, dry berries, animal fat or corn. They would sing, ‘You have helped sustain my children during this coming winter, and we will not let your children go hungry.’ Their song echoed from the trees, and it seriously breaks my heart that my young children will never see that.”


Map of rivers and completed tributary reservoirs of the Missouri River Basin, western U.S.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers1
The Pick-Sloan Program, enacted in 1944, built a series of large dams and reservoirs on the Missouri River and its tributaries.

A sustainable yield?

The song revealed that “an entire world view and behavior went along with this one plant species,” Jones said, and both suffered when dams flooded the forest. “We haven’t eaten these for 50 or 60 years. With the death of this one plant was the death of a little piece of our culture.”

The hog peanut was part of a larger cycle, Jones says. In spring, “We would tap box elder maples for syrup, then collect biscuit root, wild strawberries, currants, juneberries, cattail shoots, and acorns in December. Nothing was ripe at exactly the same time. When the plants are no longer there, the cycle is broken.”


Man bends and looks through thick stand of small plants

Hog peanuts make seeds both above and below ground. The Lakota Sioux people ate their seeds until a dam on the Missouri River flooded the forest and extirpated the plant.

Jones, a Ph.D. student at Montana State University, is attempting to grow the hog peanut as a form of “ecocultural restoration.” “Research for the sake of research was not what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to change the world for my people, to make their lives better.”

Millions of people made a living for thousands of years in the New World, she says. “Everyone always thought that when European people colonized the Americas, they were coming into a pristine place, but we were managing the landscape for thousands of years.”

Iroquois corn

Corn is an indisputable triumph of Native American agriculture. The plant, domesticated thousands of years ago in Mexico and Central America, was a staple of the American diet and is now the largest crop in the world (global production in 2009 was 819 million metric tons).

Although natives also invented the highly productive “three sisters” companion-cropping technique, their agricultural prowess has been underestimated, says Jane Mt. Pleasant, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University.


Garden, with beans and corn emerging from squash leaves

Photo: Musgrave Research Farm, Aurora N.Y., courtesy Jane Mt. Pleasant, Cornell University.
Native Americans grew many variations of the “three sisters” — a mound with squash, maize and beans. Beans climb the maize and add nitrogen to the soil; squash blocks sunlight, retarding weeds and keeping soil from parching. Maize produces a lot of carbohydrate calories, and forms a complete protein when combined with beans.

Although the Native Americans had transformed a weed into the phenomenally productive crop maize, “There are claims by scholars, archeologists, geographers and historians that native agriculture was predominantly shifting cultivation… largely marginal, not too productive,” Mt. Pleasant says.

In “shifting cultivation” (a politically correct locution for “slash and burn”), farmers move to new plots as they exhaust their soil. According to this logic, native farmers in North America “sowed the seeds of their own destruction through environmental degradation,” says Mt. Pleasant, who directs the American Indian Program at Cornell.

But Mt. Pleasant says this is bunk. Rather, she contends that:

* Much indigenous agriculture was permanent cropping

* Maize farmers in east-central North America produced three to five times as much grain per acre as European wheat farmers

* Indigenous cropping was often sustainable and since it did not deplete the soil, farmers did not need to create new fields by burning forest

The soil should be the starting point for understanding agriculture, says Mt. Pleasant. While many soils on the Eastern Seaboard are not great, large parts of upstate New York had good soil that still supports productive farms.


Mounds of dirt separated by shallow water hold about 8 small green sprouts

Courtesy Jane Mt. Pleasant
Native Americans grew corn on mounds to keep the roots dry during wet springs in the Northeastern United States.

About 300 years ago, the Iroquois Confederacy, a union of five (later six) tribes, lived in the area, and evidence for their farm productivity comes, ironically, from armies that sought to destroy them. “The quantity of corn which we found in store in this place, and destroyed by fire is incredible,” wrote the governor of New France in 1687.2

The French attacked the Iroquois, who were allied with France’s great enemy, Great Britain.

Slash ‘n burn, or sustainable agriculture?

Then in 1779, a soldier sent by General George Washington reported that his unit had destroyed at least 200 acres of Iroquois corn and beans that was “the best I ever saw.”

“This was not backyard gardening, not primitive farming,” Mt. Pleasant says. “They were dynamic, producing farmers on really good soils.”

In modern tests of corn varieties believed to resemble those grown by the Senecas, one of the Iroquois tribes, Mt. Pleasant got yields of 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre (45 to 54 bushels per acre or 2,800 to 3,400 kilograms per hectare).

This was far above the 500 kilograms per hectare of wheat grown in Europe.


Bar graph comparing wheat and maize production over three yield levels. Maize is higher in every case.

Based on table from The Paradox of Plows and Productivity3.
In experiments replicating agriculture from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Iroquois corn out-produced of European wheat. One bushel of shelled corn weighs 56 pounds; 1 pound per acre is 1.12 kg/hectare; error bars indicate ranges in the data.

Turner calculated that the Iroquois could support roughly three times as many people on an acre as contemporaneous Europeans could with their wheat crops.

Part of the advantage, she says, comes from maize’s inherent productivity. But observers have long wondered how this production could have occurred with neither plow nor draft animals, usually deemed the hallmarks of agricultural progress.

Plows, however, are now viewed as mixed blessing by many soil scientists. Although they prepare a good seedbed and bury weeds, they expose soil to the air, which encourages oxidation of humus, the organic content that supports essential microorganisms.


Rows of corn on hillside in foreground and mountains and valleys in distance

Photo: Universidad la Molina, Peru, Universidad la Molina
Maize (called “corn” in the United States) can tolerate a wide range of tropical and temperate climates.

Although, after plowing, the humus briefly releases a burst of nitrogen, the depletion of organic matter and increased erosion continue for decades.

And thus on balance, Mt. Pleasant says the lack of the plow was an advantage, because planting with hand tools saves soil organic matter.

“If you are not tilling, and start with good soil, you are not going to lose fertility,” Mt. Pleasant says. “The system is stable as long as the crop yields are moderate and there is no plowing.”

But without plowing, there was no need for slash and burn.

Overall, Mt. Pleasant says, the new data provide a “quite different” perspective on agriculture. “Who were the primitive farmers? This is sustainable agriculture at its highest level.”

Rethinking agriculture

This type of revelation changes our view of the origin of agriculture, says Eve Emshwiller, an assistant professor of botany at UW-Madison who organized the seminar on native agriculture and who studies oca, a root crop grown in the Andes. “We have always talked about hunter-gatherers as if one day they were gathering food and noticed a plant growing from seed and thought, ‘We could gather seeds and start farming,’ as if this brilliant idea happened all of a sudden.”


Woman in hat sitting on ground, surrounded by plants and digging up roots pauses to smile

Courtesy Eve Emshwiller, University of Wisconsin-Madison
A woman in Peru’s highlands harvests oca, the white tubers in her hand.

Aside from historical curiosity, why worry about how native Americans grew their crops? One reason is the growing interest in sustainable agriculture, says Emshwiller. As agriculture faces the challenge of feeding more people without further damaging soil and water, older traditions could contribute.

Looking at other ways to grow and gather food will broaden our perspective, Emshwiller says. “There were a lot of people who were not considered agriculturalists, who were [supposedly] just gathering from the wild. But if you really understand what they were doing, there is not a sharp line between gathering and farming. There is a huge continuum of ways that people manage resources and get more from them.”

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Molly Simis, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II, sec. IV (18 December 1992), p. 233. Publication #EP 870-1-42
  2. The Paradox of Plows and Productivity, Jane Mt. Pleasant, Agricultural History Society, 2011; DOI: 10.3098/ah.2011.85.4.46
  3. “The Paradox of Plows and Productivity: An Agronomic Comparison of Cereal Grain Production under Iroquois Hoe Culture and European Plow Culture in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” the Agricultural Historical Society, 2011, by Jane Mt. Pleasant.
  4. Feast to celebrate the traditional harvest
  5. What is biochar?
  6. Permaculture princiles
  7. Map: First Nations Peoples of British Columbia
  8. Genetic history of maize
  9. History of the Missouri River Project
  10. Planting a Three Sisters garden
  11. Nature’s Way: Hog peanut