Indigenous Agriculture: It’s Not the How, It’s the Why

Chris Newman
Jan 17 · 5 min read
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For fans of Braiding Sweetgrass, the following understated excerpt is probably the most important in the entire book;

“English is a noun-based language, somehow so appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30% of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70%.”

This statement alone captures a good 80% of what that book had to teach.

Wade Davis’ “The Wayfinders” begins with a long chapter about the rapid extinction of languages effectively being bred out of existence in favor of the efficient economic language of English, like in engineered corn displacing the rich genetic multitudes of heritage xàskwim.

With the death of each language goes an entirely different way of looking at the world, bringing us ever closer to the English-based nightmare of a world of “things” — rather than a world of relationships, actions, and stories that’s more typical of verb-heavy indigenous languages. Wisdom Sits In Places (K. Basso) gives a good overview of the interrelationship between language and places among the Apache, and is a worthy read for anyone that wants to understand what we — Indian and otherwise — are losing as our languages are spoken for the last time.

A mostly ignored Instagram post of mine last year went into detail about the various places on the farm that I’ve given names in my language. Most people’s eyes glazed over at the long consonant heavy words and kept right on scrolling. But the names of these places evoke stories, values, memories; they beg questioning from young people and invoke opportunities to teach. “Where the farmer forgot the apple trees” is the name of a place I’ve talked about recently, that entire series of stories wrapped up in a Unami/Lepane name that even I can barely pronounce.

But for the sake of walking and balance on this place I’m responsible for, these names are worth taking a very long time to say. They’re a reminder of who I am as the “thing” obsessed culture of the colonizer — which one must participate in in order to survive — pulls me away from my Indianness with the gravity of a collapsing star.

And as the world burns, we watch the solutions that result from the consequences of a thing-based language. It’s largely oriented around the things we consume or don’t; Keto, vegan, grass-fed, Zero Waste, plastic-free, plant-based, organic, carbon neutral. All descriptors of the things consumed or not bearing incredible specificity.

People ask with the best of intentions for book recommendations on indigenous agriculture, failing to realize that the nucleus of our sustainability ethic is in how we look at the world, not in specific planting or husbandry techniques. A person can take indigenous methods and with the wrong worldview, destroy the whole world.

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Source: Grist

For example, xàskwim monocultures are not a white invention. In fact, my own ancestors planted them. First-contact colonizer accounts describe in detail cornfields that stretched for miles and miles to feed what was called Nacotchtank, the bustling city that’s now called Washington DC. Ancient DC was a wetland with incredibly rich soils that produced two important staples — pehpastek (river rice) and xàskwim — sustaining one of the largest civilizations in the pre-invasion mid-Atlantic. But these fields weren’t planted every year, only as often as necessary. Dried corn keeps well; titanic monocultures would be planted providing enough food for years, set between managed forests, the fallow fields becoming game paths. There were no “grain fields,” there were places that served a purpose for a time with a careful ethic of not taking too much even when a vast monoculture was involved.

Those monocultures were a part of a broader, collectively managed ecosystem that carefully considered their relationship to aqueous staples.

Game, which was generally driven in great herds along fire and harvest paths and hunted collectively (contrary to the popular “lone Indian in the woods” stereotype).

Fish and shellfish harvested from weirs that spanned whole rivers and purpose-made middens and fruiting, semi-wild plants coaxed into productivity with abundant forest edges and open understories.

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Wild Rice growing in Minnestoa (MPR News)
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Source: Outdoor Life
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Spawning shad (Kramer Gone Fishing)

Colonizers, however, with a jaundiced and extractive worldview, based on private property, personal enterprise, individualism, and consumerism, takes xàskwim monoculture and creates…

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Which is why when white people ask me for books on Indian agriculture I point them instead to books on Indian and indigenous worldview.

They get disappointed with recommendations to “The Wayfinders” “Look to the Mountain” “Wisdom Sits In Places” “Dispossessing the Wilderness” “1491” “Braiding Sweetgrass” “Custer Died for Your Sins,” “Lines from a Mined Mind,” etc.

Because without the proper ethics and view of the world, people will take things like xàskwim and turn them into the Corn Belt, take ecosystem farming and draw borders around it, neuter its transformative power in the name of small farms (another vaunted colonizer concept) and call it permaculture.

People get very destructive when borrowing the body and mind of our ways without the accompanying spirit and emotion- a thing Kimmerer alludes to in the chapter that inspired this story.

Eat less meat, or more meat, forego plastic and travel, or whatever it is you feel the need to do to walk in balance with the Earth.

But always remember that viewing the world exclusively in that way, through what you consume is poisonous… no amount of things you buy will save this land from forgetting the indigenous ethics that made it whole.

Work every day to decolonize mind and try best you can to see your place through the eyes of its first and best stewards. And challenge the assumptions in everything you’re taught by masters of the white ways of doing things (best indicated by the suffix PhD).

Expertise is important, but remember the Corn Belt is a lesson and what happens when technical proficiency and logic are unencumbered by spirit and emotion.

Learn to speak the language of sustainability, which dear friends, ain’t English.

Not close enough to support our work with a food purchase? Keep us writing about democracy and indigenous values in food & agriculture with a contribution through Venmo @sylvanaquafarms. Read more at our website.

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

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