Harvest Dream

Aug 15th, 1995 | By | Category: 7-2: Agriculture, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Buffalo Bird Woman "Waheenee" in her garden on the Fort Berthold Reservation in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of the North Dakota State Historical Society.

Fall. Harvest time. Images of a combine threshing the last row of wheat, silhouetted against the golden harvest moon. Where are the American Indians in this picture? According to popular mythology, if they farm at all, Indians are reluctant farmers, forced out of their natural, nomadic lifestyle and into an alien vocation. Until very recently, the prevailing view was that expressed in the early 1800s by French statesman and author Alexis de Tocqueville: “North America was inhabited only by wandering tribes, who had no thought of profiting by the natural riches of the soil; that vast country was still, properly speaking, an empty continent, a desert land awaiting its inhabitants.”

Why then would the Tribal College Journal devote an issue to agriculture? Long before Europeans arrived in North America, the inhabitants were farming the land, and they are still here. Lewis and Clark survived their winter on the Upper Missouri nearly 200 years ago due to the abundance of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara gardens. Some of the Pueblo tribes have farmed the same lands for thousands of years; archeologists only recently have recognized the extensive water storage and irrigation systems developed a thousand years ago by Puebloan ancestors, the Anasazi. Our Thanksgiving ceremonies hint at the sharing of indigenous crops with the European immigrants. Yet many non-Indians became aware of the cornucopia of American Indians’ contributions to agriculture only recently through books such as Jack Weatherford’s Native Roots.

Today Indian people participate in a great diversity of agricultural practices, as indicated by the “National Indian Agriculture Profile” published by the Intertribal Agriculture Council. They raise reindeer, chickens, bison, and cattle. They¬† farm fish, trees, wild rice, wheat, and alfalfa. Some have multi-million dollar operations, such as the Pima and Maricopa people’s Gila River Farms in Arizona, which produces premium Pima cotton as well as citrus fruit (Pima Gold and Pima’s Choice). Many are finding innovative ways to market their products, including Indian ranchers in Oklahoma who sell their cattle via satellite

Agriculture and human culture are intimately tied together, as Marcia Eames-Sheavly says in her booklet, “Three Sisters.” Europeans who perceived the continent as empty also had difficulty understanding the indigenous people’s foreign methods of “profiting” from the soil. Today there is growing interest in their traditional methods for sustainable, “organic” agriculture. In this issue, Emigdio Ballon explains the genius of crop diversity as practiced in his native Bolivia and in the American Southwest. Eames-Sheavly describes the curriculum she developed at Cornell University utilizing three time-tested crops to gain insight into the holistic culture of the Iroquois.

Yet, as Salish Kootenai College President Joseph McDonald describes in this issue, the continent’s first farmers have come close to losing the art of agriculture. Most reservations lack even the basic educational services that other rural communities take for granted–extension agents and 4-H Clubs. As the state land grant schools emphasized chemically-dependent methods, the old ways lost favor. Few Indian young people today dream of becoming farmers or ranchers.

Elsewhere in this issue, Greg Smitman of the Intertribal Agriculture Council describes many of the barriers to Indian agriculture. While theoretically the federal government wanted Indians to become farmers, federal policies continue to make it nearly impossible for anyone but the non-Indians to farm on Indian lands using Indian water. On many reservations, non-Indians own the majority of the land. Both Indian ownership and Indian usage continue to drop while leasing to non-Indians and idle acreage figures escalate. Unable to make a living off their land, tribes consider casinos and hazardous waste facilities which they otherwise might reject.

Nevertheless, McDonald is hopeful. Responding to the testimony of American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) President Margarett Perez, McDonald, and others, Congress agreed in October 1994 to designate the tribal colleges as land grant institutions (Tribal College Journal, Winter 1994, page 6). As this issue goes to press, funding to implement the law remains in jeopardy due to deep cuts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget. Prospects for the first $4.6 million installment of the $23 million endowment look favorable, according to Jason Gavin of AIHEC staff.

The land grant designation itself represents one of the first, important steps toward rebuilding tribal economies and Indian people’s health with tribal colleges at the vanguard. The tribal colleges have the motivation to address Indian agriculture, motivation that the federal government and state land grant universities have seemed to lack in the past. All but four of the tribal colleges are based on reservation land where they see daily both the agricultural potential and the non-Indian farmers enriched by that land.

The first problem is developing accurate statistics on the status of Indian agriculture today. The Bureau of Indian Affairs stated in 1986 that 33,572 Indian families and organizations earned their living through farming or ranching and an additional 45,000 had gardens. Yet the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) says when compared with other sources, the BIA figures for one state underestimated the number of Indian livestock by 50 percent and the number of Indian operators by 20 percent. Department of Agriculture statistics were even worse, counting a reservation as a big, wealthy ranch, without regard for the multiple land ownership there, according to IAC.

Such national statistics often ignore the viability of subsistence gardening, which a 1995 survey by Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute instructor Val Christianson found very much alive amongst the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico. Across the country, tribes are rediscovering traditional gardening as a tool for fighting their reservations’ diabetes epidemic.

While the state land grant universities initially were suspicious of tribal colleges’ efforts to gain land grant status, they eventually supported them. Now some have joined hands with their sister institutions, as described in another article. As the tribal colleges build their curriculum and their agricultural capacity, they will look not just to the older land grant institutions but to their own ranks for leadership. As described in this issue, Fort Berthold Community College has built a farm/ranch management degree program, which rises from the ruins of the Three Tribes’ historic gardens.

The Fort Berthold story exemplifies the importance of cattle ranching to Indian people. While they were often forced off the best farming lands, Indian cowboys starting in the early 1900s used ranching to reinforce their own cultural value systems, as described in a separate article by historian Peter Iverson.

The Journal would need many more pages to describe other agricultural education models–Crownpoint Institute of Technology’s veterinary assistant program, which placed 100 percent of its graduates last year; Oglala Lakota College’s organic agriculture degree program; the College of the Menominee Nation’s Sustained Development Institute, which prepares foresters for the tribe’s world-famous forest management enterprise; Northwest Indian College’s aquaculture and fisheries enhancement classes; and Little Hoop Community College’s bison range management curriculum.

With the land grant status came new impetus to explore the agricultural potential of reservation lands and tribal people. Under the tribal colleges’ leadership, the Indian people hope to rediscover how to fill the cornucopia, to feed their families with their own hands using their own lands. One day Indian young people will dream again of being gardeners, farmers, and ranchers.


Kyle Baker herding bulls on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Photo by Calvin Grinnell, 1995.

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