Indigenous Natural Farming & What It Can Teach Us About Sustainability

It’s no secret that the relationship modern Americans have with the land is in stark contrast to the relationship Native peoples had before North American colonization. Things are a bit out of sync, from trash littering the most beautiful natural areas to industrial farming dumping petrochemical fertilizers by the ton.

The penalty for littering in nature: receive it at home | Animal World Blog

Fortunately, there are several bastions of hope. The environmental and “back to the land” movements of the 1970s have gained traction over the last half-century, giving way to a slow creep of environmental consciousness in the United States. Subsequently, legislation has improved on the environmental front, and we may be seeing the pendulum swing in the other direction (but some may justly argue not quickly enough.)

The internet has also leveled the playing field for sharing information about sustainability and natural farming practices the world over including the many thousand-year-old traditions of Korean Natural Farming.

While education has primarily led this shift, it’s fundamentally tied to the history of this land and its original custodians’ practices. The truth is that Native peoples were nearly perfect co-habitual keepers of nature, while our country’s modern inhabitants have a mostly inverse relationship.

This has many causes, but also many solutions. If you follow my posts on social media, you know I think there are some small things everyone can do, like composting, that reduce your personal impact on the environment. For me, this includes using living soil and Korean Natural Farming techniques. I also champion making one’s own inputs with locally sourced materials when possible, rather than buying bottle after bottle of things or mediums that are one use.

Foraged New England Moss with Cannabis clone

In my pursuit of growing cannabis as naturally as possible, I’ve researched several North American Native people’s farming practices (in addition to others around the world), and today, I want to share some practices of the Native groups most commonly associated with Thanksgiving due to their early interactions with the Pilgrims. I think it’s an important historical fact that the Pilgrims in no way would have survived in “the new world” without mastering farming practices kindly shared by Native peoples. In fact, the colony at Jamestown had a period called “the starving time” from 1609-1610 due to colonizers’ ineptitude with the new world’s biology, flora, and fauna.

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Approximate territory 1600s

Fortunately for the pilgrims, the Wampanoag and Pawtuxet people’s agricultural knowledge was through due to their deep understanding of their environment. The Pilgrims learned these practices via Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto.

Side note: Tisquantum spoke English due to previous enslavement. In 1614 he and other members of his tribe were captured by an English sea captain named Thomas Hunt before being sold into slavery in Spain. Later, he made his way to England, then secure passage back home to Massachusetts in 1619. Unfortunately, he found that his tribe had been decimated by smallpox, tuberculosis, or possibly some other disease contracted through their contact with Europeans.

So what did Tisquantum teach the Pilgrims exactly? Natural farming.

The Wampanoag had mastered symbiotic farming by growing three crops in unison they referred to as the “Three Sisters”. Corn, squash, and beans were a perfect combo for sandy soil that doesn’t retain nutrients or water and these three plants work together to create fertile soil. Beans are nitrogen fixers (meaning they pull nitrogen from the air) and with the help of soil microbes, turn nitrogen into plant food. The corn provides the beans support on which to grow and the squash helps in water retention and with weed control.

Three Sisters Garden - How to Plant Corn, Squash & Beans Together
Three Sisters

The Wampanoag also utilized fish and wood ash as plant fertilizers. Wood ash contains a bunch of trace minerals in addition to calcium. It also makes for a good PH adjuster, further optimizing soil. Furthermore, wood ash contains potassium and smaller amounts of phosphorous and other nutrients.

Adding amendments like this made the tough local soil viable for a single harvest and continuously for years to come. These practices weren’t limited to coastal Massachusetts, of course. By 1614 the Dutch were arriving in Connecticut while Native peoples like the Algonquin were farming the Connecticut River’s length or what they referred to as “long tidal river”.

In Western Massachusetts, where I grew up, the colonial farmland taken from the Algonquin is still farmed using the traditional organic agriculture techniques and utilized the river’s seasonal flooding to this day.
1800’s New England, but still much unchanged from 1600’s New England farming

Using animal products like fish as a fertilizer was also a common practice by many of the Native peoples of New England and beyond, providing further nutrients and amino acids to help in plant growth. In my living soil compost teas, I add fish emulsion for these same benefits (in addition to the beneficial bacterial it provides).

Long story long, Native American farming practices helped save Pilgrims from starving to death. I and other living soil and Korean Natural Farming practitioners still use many to grow everything from organic spinach to fire weed.

In November 1621, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims celebrated the colonists’ first successful corn harvest, and today some celebrate this as Thanksgiving.

While I think a day dedicated to reconnecting with friends and family while being mindfully thankful is dope, I also think that it’s an even better time to celebrate Native cultures and all they’ve contributed to the world.

Further reading on why Thanksgiving is BS: New York Times

Feel like giving back to those who gave so much to us?




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