The History of Native American Agriculture

Agriculture is and always has always played a huge role in the wealth, health, and prosperity of Native American peoples.  Early on Native Americans progressed from hunting and gathering towards farming.  Often planting some of the wild edibles they harvested in their own  gardens.  Native Americans in North America are given credit for the domestication of many crops we know today such as corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, as well as several types of berries.  These people had a great knowledge of the land and soil health and were the first ones to practice the idea of sustainable agriculture.  Using food scraps and wastes as fertilizers and organic materials, they rotated crops and farmland, used no-till practices and used intercropping methods such as the three sisters.  Planting squash to shade out weeds, beans to fixate nitrogen, and corn for the beans to climb.  It has often speculated that Native American corn yields were far greater than the European wheat yields in the same time periods.  Not only did they grow crops, some Natives even domesticated animals such as wolves and turkeys.

Upon European contact, Natives taught colonists many of there agricultural practices and traded grain, fruit, and animals with them.  Europeans took many things back to Europe with them such as tobacco, corn, and turkeys and adopted many of their cultivation practices such as the Three-sisters.  The Natives also received crops and livestock from the colonists such as wheat, horses, cattle, and hogs.

The Eastern and Western peoples lived in harmony for a short time until the eastern colonists started the age old tradition of biting the hand the fed them. They started pushing the Natives west, and after the United States were formed broke up tribes and tried to eliminate Native traditions.  By doing so they also forced the European practices of farming on the Native peoples.  Pushing them away from no-till and intercropping, towards plowing and row crops.  Flooding many of there agricultural lands through dams and some Native novelty crops that would be lost forever with it.  This continued to modern day, with continual lack of support from the colonists.  They would push the practices on them without giving them the tools and technologies necessary for them to efficiently use these “modern practices”.  They broke up Native agricultural lands into sections and gave individuals the titles, that they often sold or leased to white farmers because they did not have the education and technology necessary to commercially farm.  Thus, moving whole Native populations that were known for farming to none of them farming at all.  However, in recent years certain government grants and acts have been implemented to try and encourage Natives to farm once again.

One Reply to “The History of Native American Agriculture”

  1. I am a Norwegian professor of Sámi literature, and I do have a question related to the agriculture of the Native north Americans (the Scandinavian Sámi population was historically not occupied in farming – given the Polar climatic environments). When the Eastern Europeans started to push the Natives away from their crops in the early 16th century – would this have a measurable effect on the foresting of the continent? In fact, in so alarming measures that it affected the growing absorption of CO2, and thus actually brought on the so called Minor Ice Age (1700-1860)?

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