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

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms
Published in
5 min readJan 17, 2020

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…

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms

Building a new, accessible, open, and democratic food economy in the Chesapeake Bay region @ Sylvanaqua Farms