This week we’ll focus on a natural cross-over between what we typically discuss on this blog forum – living sustainably – and those who have lived the “farm to table” lifestyle for generations, and have led this modern movement since the beginning of agriculture in America.
We’ve looked at this topic plenty of times on our blog previously – just check out those posts here:
However, today’s blog post will explore the origins of this lifestyle and their early introduction on and in American soil. I am of course talking about Native Americans.
There are several documented cases of Native American agriculture, however as English writing styles had not been widely adopted until colonization enforced them, there are even more cases that have gone unpublished or lost to history. Thankfully however, some of the ancestral knowledge of this land was passed down through word of mouth, journals and drawings, and eventually made its way into historical texts and non-fiction writing that transports us back to that time and allows us to learn more about what types of agricultural practices people were engaged in during the early days of American life.
For example, while doing some research I came across a book called Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation by “nature writer, agrarian activist and ethnobiologist” Gary Paul Nabhan (https://www.garynabhan.com/). In his book, he discusses some of the earliest recorded agricultural findings from North America and how they shaped the diet, culture, and livelihoods of people who lived there at the time. Check out a couple of excerpts below describing the encounter of Native Americans by Cabeza de Vaca’s contingency as they explored what is now Texas (pages 49-50):
The beauty of learning more about learning more about native plant species and practices for cultivating them is that they have a neutral longevity and thus are highly sustainable. So, though this seems to be a current fad sweeping across the globe, the practice of living sustainably has more longevity than any other practice we humans could possibly engage in because it’s how we survived for centuries before modern technology gave way to industrial farming.
As outlined in this Washington Post article – which in my opinion is a fascinating segue between ancient practices and modern technology and trends – the practice of sustainable farming is certainly not new:
“Indigenous peoples have known for millennia to plant under the shade of the mesquite and paloverde trees that mark the Sonoran Desert here, shielding their crops from the intense sun and reducing the amount of water needed.
The modern-day version of this can be seen in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, where a canopy of elevated solar panels helps to protect rows of squash, tomatoes and onions. Even on a November afternoon, with the temperature climbing into the 80s, the air under the panels stays comfortably cool” (“Native Americans’ farming practices may help feed a warming world”, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/interactive/2021/native-americans-farming-practices-may-help-feed-warming-world/).
The article goes on to describe the current research being done in the Sonoran Desert on growing native crops that require little water, and the work being done to re-build and preserve the Native American practices that make this practice even possible.
“The Tohono O’odham have farmed in the Sonoran Desert for several thousand years. Like many Indigenous groups, they now are on the front lines of climate change, with food security a paramount concern. Their expansive reservation, nearly the size of Connecticut, has just a few grocery stores. It is a food desert in a desert where conditions are only getting more extreme,” (“Native Americans’ farming practices may help feed a warming world”, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/interactive/2021/native-americans-farming-practices-may-help-feed-warming-world/).
If you’re looking for more on the subject, additional sources aren’t hard to find. Just check out the incredible list of North American crops on sciencedirect.com to see what I mean – the article had this to say regarding the varied plant species discovered in North America originally:
“It is estimated that about 60% of the current world food supply originated in North America. When Europeans arrived, the Native Americans had already developed new varieties of corn, beans, and squashes and had an abundant supply of nutritious food. The foods of the Native Americans are widely consumed and their culinary skills still enrich the diets of nearly all people of the world today” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352618116300750).
So, why on earth during Black History Month are we focusing on Native American cuisine? For the simple reason that you cannot fully appreciate American history, and more specifically American cuisine, without a base set of facts regarding what grew here originally, and how Native Americans helped to cultivate the land for modern-day agriculture. Follow along in tomorrow’s blog post to learn about the next phase in American agriculture and beyond.