Celebrating the Native American Heritage

Celebrating the Native American Heritage

Totem Pole

They were the first Americans, and they lived lightly on the land. Divided into three major linguistic groups, from east to west, were the Athabascan/Algonquin, Hokan/Siouxan, and Aztec/Tanoan. Before the white man settled, they numbered between 15 million to 40 million people, or close to the population of the Netherlands (depending on whose estimate seems most logical). This population fit nicely on the North American continent, with vast empty spaces between the tribes and more than sufficient room to take a good living from the land and water except in the very worst years of winter snow, summer drought and the occasional devastating flood in the Mississippi/Missouri River flood plain.

In spite of their wars and skirmishes, and a legacy that taught touching an enemy was equal in bravery to killing him, they all shared a similar take on life. Native Americans believed (and still believe) that living a “good life” was the penultimate achievement. But the term does not mean the same as it does in Western minds, where living good is having everything one desires, at any cost, and dying wealthy with the “most toys.”

Among the continent’s first settlers – ranging from Iroquois Six Nations in the East to Chumash and Cahuilla tribes in central and southern California – these peoples were sophisticated enough to trade across the span of the entire continent, providing sea shells and salt to the Central Plains Siouxan tribes, and sacred red pipestone from Minnesota to the Aztec tribes in the far Southwest.

Some, like the Six Nations Iroquois, were agrarian, planting crops yearly and harvesting the results. Many of their methods of cultivation were highly eco-conscious. Many times, rather than tearing up an entire acre to grow their crops, Native Americans carved out three-foot areas of prairie sod and planted seeds in that. By the end of the season, the prairie grasses and flowers would have reclaimed the land, and the communal hillocks of corn, beans and squash – a planting method called the Three Sisters, because it results in the highest levels of nutrition in each species – would be harvested.

This no-till farming is kindest to the soil and all the beneficial things that call it home, from bacteria and microbes to worms and grubs. As practiced today, it is markedly different from Native American agriculture, primarily because the Indians didn’t have tractors, insecticides or fertilizers. Unlike the white man, they relied on the prairie to take care of itself, including an occasional conflagration whose heat opened the seedpods of puccoon and sturdy prairie grasses. The white man, who has for most of recorded time acted as though he knew better than nature, is only now beginning to understand the benefits of no-till farming.

In taking game for meat, they were equally as careful, killing only what they would eat and preparing or preserving it almost the same day. To achieve that end, the entire tribe would travel to hunt the buffalo, or deer – a communal effort which saw the women cutting meat into strips and drying it over campfires for winter use.

Every part of the buffalo or deer was used, the very finest bones for needles, the organs for nourishment, the fat for pemmican (mixed with wild chokecherry or cranberry and dried pounded meat), the fur for clothing, including the tiniest leftover scraps, which went either for baby moccasins or were embroidered with porcupine quills and sewn on teepees or clothing as decoration.

They also used native clay to make their own pots and jars, and wove willow, sweetgrass or hammered soft-wood saplings to make baskets which held everything from wild berries to harvested corn to the cattail heads from which they made environmentally-friendly, biodegradable diapers and feminine pads.

We probably can’t go back to those times – and possibly wouldn’t survive if we did – but we can try to make our footprints almost as light on the earth .

If you are a gardener, try planting corn, beans and squash in a single hillock, without the use of fertilizer or pesticides, and eat your harvest. You might be surprised at how good food can taste.


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