Thanksgiving is just around the corner, calling to mind Pilgrims, Native Americans, and a bountiful feast of food harvested from the land. However, our modern rituals are far from the gathering that is said to have occurred between Native Americans and Pilgrims in 1621. In fact, the original story of the first Thanksgiving is largely just that: a story. The holiday itself officially began in 1789 as a day of prayer and thanksgiving, with nothing to do with Native Americans. In the late nineteenth century, the tale of the first Thanksgiving was designed to set forth an image of peace and unity while clearly defining “Americanism” for the new European immigrants (Sherman, 2019). That being said, many of the foods traditionally served during this U.S. holiday, such as pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and cranberry sauce, did originate from crops grown by Native Americans (Park et al., 2016).
Did you know that Native Americans developed a complex agricultural system with practices that would be beneficial to follow today? While historically many Native American tribes obtained much of their food from hunting animals, such as bison, and foraging for wild edibles, such as nuts and berries, they also depended on growing food for a portion of their diet. Native Americans are widely known for their domestication of one of the world’s most consumed staple crops, maize (corn), which was used as a main ingredient in a variety of indigenous foods, such as corn bread and succotash (see recipe below). In fact, Native American maize farmers in east-central North America produced three to five times as much grain per acre as European wheat farmers during the same time period (Tenenbaum, 2012).
A majority of Native American agriculture revolved around three crops, known as the three sisters – corn, beans, and squash. Instead of dividing fields into sections containing just one plant as is typical on today's farms, Native Americans used companion planting in rows of mounds in which they planted the corn, beans, and squash together. This created a mutually beneficial relationship between the three plants. The corn stalks provided a pole for beans to climb, and the shade from the corn benefited squash that grew under the leaves. The beans provided nitrogen for the corn and squash. Finally, the shade from large squash leaves held moisture in the ground for all three plants (Park et al., 2016). Modern-day agriculture often consists of large monocrops, but the Native Americans’ three sisters agricultural system demonstrates the advantages of increasing crop diversity in agricultural fields. On CEI's new farm, one of the first things we planted was a three sisters garden. It thrived even during this summer's drought and the children in our Roots & Wings program had a wonderful time harvesting and popping the Dakota Black popcorn that was grown.
Native American growing practices were sustainable in their respect for the land. Since they did not deplete the soil, farmers did not need to create new fields by burning forest (Park et al., 2016). Much of indigenous agriculture consisted of permanent crops (perennials) which do not require replanting each season. Additionally, Native Americans did not traditionally plow or till their soil (Tenenbaum, 2012). It has become standard practice to till and plow farm land, but this disturbs the soil, leading to increased erosion, poor water absorption, the release of sequestered carbon, and the depletion of organic matter in the soil. Traditionally, Native Americans also rotated their fields instead of fertilizing in order to maintain crop productivity (Agriculture, American Indian, 2019). Crop rotation decreases land degradation and increases soil fertility and nutrients. Disregarded by large scale, industrialized agriculture, practices such as no-till farming, planting with perennials, and crop rotation have started to gain traction again with those interested in practicing regenerative agriculture. CEI is putting these practices into place on our new farm with gratitude for the wisdom Native American communities have long held for how to live in respectful, healthy relationship with the natural environment.
This year, let’s take the time to learn more about the true story of Thanksgiving, recognize and honor the Native American people who live(d) on and care(d) for the land on which we live, give thanks for the opportunity to enjoy delicious foods cultivated by the indigenous peoples of this land, and commit to practices that help us to live in greater balance and harmony with the natural environment on which we depend.
Recipe from Park et al.
"Agriculture, American Indian." Dictionary of American History. Retrieved November 20, 2019 from https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/agriculture-american-indian.
Park, S., Hongu, N., & Daily III, J. W. (2016). Native American foods: History, culture, and influence on modern diets. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 3(3), 171-177.
Sherman, S. (2019, November 11). Since the Thanksgiving Tale Is a Myth, Celebrate It This Way. Retrieved from https://time.com/5457183/thanksgiving-native-american-holiday/.
Tenenbaum, D. J. (2016, January 22). Farming, Native American style. Retrieved from https://whyfiles.org/2012/farming-native-american-style/index.html.
Article by Faith Haney