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American Indian Agriculture

Here's a short introduction to American Indian agriculture. As you know, there are many tribes in different climates so the systems used varied across the country. I took the liberty of generalizing the agricultural practices for simplicity sake in order to emphasize that early American agriculture protected soil quality.

A good website to refer is
It explains the theory of companion planting, how Native Americans laid out their fields and what traditional varieties were used.

In late spring, we plant the corn and beans and squash. They're not just plants- we call them the three sisters. We plant them together, three kinds of seeds in one hole. They want to be together with each other, just as we Indians want to be together with each other. So long as the three sisters are with us we know we will never starve. The Creator sends them to us each year. We celebrate them now. We thank Him for the gift He gives us today and every day.
Chief Louis Farmer (Onondaga)

With most tribes the bulk of food came from hunting and fishing. The gathering of wild plants also contributed to the diet. Many tribes, however, relied heavily on agriculture to supplement the food collected from hunting and gathering. Most tribes in the East and South were skilled agriculturalist.

Over a thousand different plants have been identified as food sources for Native Americans. This is not surprising given the great environmental differences that can be found across the country. Some of the plants that were gathered from the wild included acorns and mesquite beans, mostly ground and used as flour; wild rice; maple syrup; berries, including strawberries, blackberries and cranberries; wild artichoke, wild onions; apples, prickly pear, cherries and many other fruits, tubers, seeds and greens.

The plants that were cultivated before European contact included arrowroot, beans (green and dried), chili peppers, corn, cotton, tobacco, pumpkins and squash, melons, potatoes, tomatoes, and sunflowers. The most important crop for all the Indians that practiced agriculture was corn. It was the main food and was eaten at every meal. There were many varieties of corn – flint, dent, sweet, flour and popcorn in a range of colors - white, blue, yellow and red.

Some of the corn was dried to preserve and keep it for food throughout the winter months. Dried corn could be made into a food called hominy. To make hominy, the dried corn was soaked in a mixture of water and ashes for two days. When the kernels had puffed up and split open, they were drained and rinsed in cold water. Then the hominy was stir-fried over a fire. Corn was often ground into corn meal using wooden or stone mortars and pestles. Corn meal could be used to make cornbread, corn pudding, corn syrup, or could be mixed with beans to make succotash. A special dessert was made by boiling corn meal and maple syrup.

All parts of the corn plant were used. The husks were braided and woven to make masks, moccasins, sleeping mats, cribs, baskets, and cornhusk dolls. Corncobs were used for fuel, to make darts for a game, and were tied onto a stick to make a rattle for ceremonies.

Corn was grown with beans and squash. The Haudenosone of New York referred to these three plants as the three sisters. They were planted in small mounds, the corn in the middle would be planted first, the beans would grow up the corn and the squash would act as a ground cover between the mounds to suppress weeds and prevent soil erosion. The beans added nitrogen to the soil and a fish head would be buried in each mound to fertilize the plants.

The Eastern Indians established their crops mostly in wooded areas. Every 5-10 years they would clear new fields and so kept rotating the land that was used. They sometimes used fire to clear the fields, broke the ground with a digging stick, and tilled the ground with hoes. Some Indians made hoes from ash wood and the scapula of buffalo. Others lubricated their hoes and tools with bear grease. This gave off an odor, but kept bugs and weeds away and provided nutrients to the crops. The Southwest Indians used the same fields year after year, but the water they used for irrigation replenished the nutrients in the soil. The Anasazi used cobbles as mulch to reduce soil temperature and preserve soil moisture. An experiment at the New Mexico Plant Materials Center confirmed the theory that plants with cobble mulch produced bigger yields and survived dry spells significantly better than non-cobbled fields.

The Indians would carefully monitor changes in the weather, the migration of animals and the stages of the moon. When the weather began to change in the spring the soil moisture was tested by sticking one finger in the ground. If the soil was moist to one knuckle deep it was time to prepare the fields for planting. In some tribes it was the women who did all the planting, tending and harvesting of the crops. The women often sang to the crops and they believed that this singing practice was necessary for a good harvest. Studies with music have shown that soothing music produces healthier plants than plants grown with jarring music or with no music.

Crows and other birds were kept out of the fields with scarecrows. Some tribes would build a stage in the middle of the families’ fields. Little girls and mothers would sit on the stage for hours just to prevent the crows from feeding on the corn. When a crow would approach the girls would scream at the crows or throw rocks at them. In the Southwest the extended families would work as a group weeding and irrigating each other’s fields so that each field was weeded twice during a season.

Religious ceremonies were an important part of all agriculture activities. Prayers, feast days and dances were held to ask for blessings and to give thanks for the harvests. Tobacco and corn pollen were considered sacred and were an important part of these ceremonies. Agriculture is still an important part of Indian life and most of the traditional ceremonies are still observed.

"This is not about growing vegetables; it is about growing kids."
-Hopi Gardener

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” 
 -Native American Proverb