Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Farming outside the lines: Why the history of Native American agriculture matters

I started this blog a year ago intending to post roughly once a week for at least twelve months, and while I haven't quite hit that target (some weeks are like that), it's been pretty close.  I'm planning to wrap up this first phase of the project's existence with my chapter-by-chapter discussion of the Ethnographic Landscape Study for Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, and then segue into something new in January--stay tuned for more about that shortly.

In my previous two posts, I surveyed the broad questions I was addressing in the study and the types of synergy I saw operating between food/farm history and historic sites.  Both of those posts, and the introductory chapter they were based on, centered around the issue of how we can find vital connections between knowledge about farming in the past and efforts to strengthen local and regional food and farm economies in the present.  As I go through the ethnohistorical and ethnographic chapters of the report, I'm going to focus directly on that question, and to ask, "What case can be made for bringing this particular piece of history into the crowded present-day dialogue about food and farms?"  Here goes with Chapter 2.

Columbia County's prime soils shown in green
Chapter 2 looks at Native American farming practices in the Hudson Valley up to about the early 17th century, when Dutch colonizers arrived.  As with most Native history, the written record is spotty and colored by misperceptions of many kinds.  It's clear, though, that the fertile river floodplains served the Mahicans as agricultural fields for perhaps centuries before the Europeans came on the scene, and that they contributed cultivated vegetables--particularly the "three sisters," corn, squash, and beans--to a varied diet that also drew on foraging, fishing, and hunting.  As has been very well documented by now, Native conceptions of land use and territorial boundaries were based on collective rather than individual ownership, long-term stewardship rather than short-term resource extraction, and a layered system of rights in which permission to work or use a piece of land could be granted to an outsider without removing it from an overall ancestral homeland.  The European "all-or-nothing" system of ownership very quickly came into conflict with this paradigm, diminishing the Natives' access to farm fields and hunting territories that had supported their  ecologically and agriculturally sophisticated occupation of the mid-Hudson Valley.

So what does this kind of (now generally known and accepted) knowledge contribute to contemporary food and farm debates?  To my mind, its principal utility may be in the way it helps us think about the cultivation of plants for food outside of the surprisingly limiting concepts of "farming" and "agriculture" per se.  However inaccurate it may be, when we think of "a farm" and "agricultural society," we tend not to think of Indians--farms and agriculture are things that came along with the Europeans.  And I think that's actually a good thing.

Urban projects like the Brooklyn Grange complicate farm definitions
I've been teaching a social theory class at Tufts this fall, and that has reminded me that one of the recurring themes in the history of anthropological thinking is how our own cognitive categories--what's okay and not okay to eat, what gender roles are supposed to look like, and so on--both structure and constrain our sense of reality and possibility.  Structuralist thinkers taught us that, and post-structuralists showed us how these categories of thought have often been battlegrounds for struggles over ideology and power.  Deeply value-laden definitional squabbles over farming--what counts as a farm, which states are "farm states" and which ones aren't and what kind of political power accrues to that, how we classify what's conventional or industrial or organic agriculture--have been going on for a long time in the U.S., and they can blind us to the much wider range of cultivation practices that have always existed alongside and in the interstices of what has become mainstream in American agriculture. 

As with so many other domains--for example, race, citizenship, and sexuality--challenging and shifting these farm-related concepts is an essential aspect of making real change.  So while there are a lot of reasons why the study of Native cultivation is important (knowledge about permaculture and intercropping, among many other things), I would point particularly to the way that it lets us escape a limiting set of concepts when we're thinking about growing food, so we can approach the whole subject with fresher eyes and minds.

Next up:  Dutch farmers in early America.

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