Boarding schools, where the U.S. government sent Native American children to assimilate to Euro-American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, were one attempt to erase Indigenous culture. The boarding-school push followed decades of government moves to take away Native American lands, separating people from traditional farming practices.
In 1851, Congress enacted the Indian Appropriations Act, which moved Native Americans––many from the Great Plains states and farther west—to reservations. The Dawes Act of 1887 allotted 160 acres of land to the head of each Native family. The remaining Indigenous land—90 million acres, mostly in the Great Plains—was sold to non-Natives.
Christina Gish Hill, a professor of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, said, “The repercussions of allotment are enormous. First of all, you’re dividing extended family groupings as you’re dividing the land. Instead of people having access, say to river bottoms, where they would grow as extended families or as clans, now officially they only have access to their 160 acres.
“Then you have non-Native people buying the land in between each of these plots, and they are growing using Euro-American agricultural practices on those lands. Ultimately, through more policies that followed, a lot of people ended up losing their allotments, so they essentially became landless, having no land of their own where they can grow.”
Around the same time that these policies were enacted, the U.S. government organized the slaughter of millions of bison, a staple food for the Blackfeet people. Tatsey said there were fewer than 20 bison on the Blackfeet Nation toward the end of the 1800s.
“In order to take the power from tribal nations, they had to take away their food source,” Tatsey said. “That was the only way they could expand across the west of the United States.” Carolyn Merchant supports Tatsey’s claim in her book, American Environmental History: An Introduction. She writes that in 1867, one member of the U.S. Army commanded his troops to “kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
These policies severed Native Americans from their food sources. Fillmore said that when the Washoe people were displaced from much of the land where they cultivated food, they were alienated from traditional practices.
The U.S. government actively suppressed Indigenous farming practices, according to Carter, who works for Native Seeds/SEARCH. Case in point: In 1819, Congress established a government fund to hire non-Native people of “good moral character to instruct Indians in the mode of agriculture suited to their situation,”—meaning Euro-American agriculture. This law was highlighted in a 1997 article in the University of Nebraska’s American Indian Quarterly.
For Carter, who is based in the Southwest, the current revival of traditional agriculture and Native seeds provides clear evidence that, despite the U.S. government’s attempts to eliminate Indigenous agricultural practices, their efforts did not completely succeed. The farming practices continue as they have for 4,000 years.
In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes that Native American agriculture began in 2100 BCE in the Sonoran Desert of present-day Arizona.
“For those outside of the Southwest, it does not seem like an area where there’d be thriving agriculture due to scarcities of water and a sparseness of vegetative life, and yet you find this immensely rich agricultural tradition and extremely productive and yet sustainable agriculture system that was traditional to the peoples of the region,” Carter said.
Cultivation Oriented to the Local Climate
What has helped many Native peoples in the Southwest flourish as agrarian communities, according to Carter, is the way they have cultivated and culled various seeds based on the local climate. In addition, their development of irrigation canals and floodplain cultivation and use of Three Sisters agriculture, composting, and intercropping, or growing two or more crops in close proximity, aided with their productivity.
Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation who is an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Geography, Development & Environment, said the return to traditional agriculture for Navajo people in the Southwest is not just a continuation of traditional practices but also incorporates new, sustainable technologies, such as drip irrigation and wells. Nonetheless, Curley said that some Navajo farmers still practice industrial agriculture, using fertilizers and pesticides.
The return to traditional foods and agricultural practices is not confined to a single geography. Bison were reintroduced to the Blackfeet Nation starting in the 1990s. Today they have more than 700 bison, said Tatsey, whose research focus is soil nutrients and carbon dioxide in bison and cow pastures.