This Thanksgiving, many in the United States gather for a shared meal of traditional foods. Although regional variations exist, typical foods include turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pecans, green beans, and cranberries. Perhaps more interesting than the menu itself is North America’s history of traditional foods, and the agricultural practices that keep us fed, up to the present and into the future.
Native American and First Nation Agriculture
At a very general level, Native Americans were hunters and gathers, but also developed farming practices. Depending on the local ecosystem and distinct tribal practices, Native Peoples in North America domesticated corn, tomatoes and potatoes. They hunted local game, or gathered tubers, greens, berries and shoots. Practices included cultivating according to the season, rotating crops, or using “slash-and-burn” techniques. What is common across the diversity of Native practices is a longstanding “sacred value” of sustainable traditions and respect of the land. Indigenous environmental management practices of the Menominee in modern day Wisconsin, British Columbian coastal tribes, the Lakota People of the Dakotas, and the sprawling confederacy of the Iroquois People are discussed in a 2010 book “The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature”.
Dr. Nancy Turner, an ethnobotanist in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria (Canada) studies indigenous agriculture along the coast of British Columbia. She describes the perennial cultivation practices of early Native Peoples as the foundation of modern day permaculture. Early practices included harvesting bark and wood from living trees, taking only a small amount and leaving the tree health and alive. The same approach to stewardship applied to cultivation of salmon and clam beds along the coast. Permaculture, the practice of sustainable and self-sufficient agriculture, has seen renewed interest among young urbanites, but the value of its necessity is buried deep in indigenous knowledge.
The Lakota People of Standing Rock are situated in the Dakotas and border the Missouri River. Prior to the 1960s, the Lakota collected different species in the plain and along the river throughout the year. In the Spring, box elder maples were tapped for syrup. Collection of biscuit root, wild strawberries, currants, juneberries, cattail shoots, and acorns followed though the year, into the winter months. Eating with the seasons allowed for a sustainable and dependable food source.
An account of one of the Lakota practices reveals a clever and sustainable tradition. Prairie voles tunneled along underground, collecting the underground Hog-peanut (a legume) seed. Prairie voles then cached the big seedpods underground. Lakota women found the caches with a stick and removed the seeds, but always left a gift such as dry berries, animal fat or corn. In thankfulness, they would sing, “You have helped sustain my children during this coming winter, and we will not let your children go hungry.” This practice abruptly ceased in the early 1960s when the 200,000 acres of Lakota land was flooded by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer dam. After the flood, the plant no longer existed in that area, and the cultural practice died along with it. Additionally, the Lakota people were relocated and removed from their food source and practice. Amazingly, the species and practice stands to resurface due to the work and research of an ethnobotanist working in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
The most well known indigenous practice recognized today as modern agriculture is the maize, bean and squash cultivation of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois People are a sprawling powerful group of tribes spanning the areas known today as the Northeast United States and Canada. Although they hunted and gathered, their main diet came from farming of the De-oh-ha-ko (Maize, Bean and Squash). These crops are grown strategically and are a core beginning practice for present day permaculture students. In a beautifully balanced planting plot, the cornstalks grow tall, the bean vines use the stalks to climb, and the shade of the low-growing squash inhibits weeds and traps needed soil moisture.
Urban Agriculture Today
The practices of urban agriculture and permaculture are undergoing an urban revival. But, growing food for sustenance and sale is not new to city dwellers. As early as the late 1800s Buffalo, NY and Detroit established agricultural programs to address unemployment and hunger following an economic recession. But shifting planning and societal attitudes in the mid twentieth century’s industrialized food craze removed agriculture as a permitted land use in urban areas, trading food production for other types of land use.
Today, urban agriculture represents a trend for some of the changing landscape and raised rents. For others, urban cultivation remains a tactic of resistance and reclaiming of blighted vacant land. New immigrants and a diversity of people undertake urban agriculture to reconnect with native foods or as a community-building opportunity. Rooftop gardens, community spaces, and retrofitted garages in the United States host small-scale, local efforts. Large scale, city wide efforts to create a sustainable food system is gaining ground in cities such as Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Madison, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. But, it is still a rare animal. RUAF is one example of a not-for-profit organization raising awareness, knowledge, capacity and aiding in the planning and implementation of urban agriculture. A recent RUAF magazine features agricultural strategies in West Africa, community-led policy in the U.S., and a case study of how to scale up an urban agriculture project.
What does urban agriculture look like? For Nature Sacred, it often takes the form of small community gardens in inter-city spaces. Places that provide food in a concrete desert, a place to rest among spring daffodils and emerging carrot tops, and a place to rebuild after a devastating storm. Modern day practices of permaculture include food forests, hügelkultur, rainwater harvesting, or sheet mulching. Principles of integrated system thinking guide the practice.
In Madison, Wisconsin the presence of urban agriculture is emerging but not widespread. The Gardens Network facilitates the stability of 60 existing community gardens and the creation of new ones. Some gardens, including a large 5 acre urban farm, sells produce at the local CSA market. Like in other U.S. cities, the commitment to supporting urban agriculture is situated within a bigger issue of the growing, food-insecure , lower-income group who need access to healthy, affordable food.
Supporting local food systems and practices, such as buying a community supported agriculture share, is one way to invest in native foods, practices, local business, and healthy food all at once. Local Harvest provides information and links to find your local options. It is likely possible today to supply a Thanksgiving dinner with completely local and fresh food.