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  • Anna Zefferys

Embracing Ancestral Wisdom to Navigate Modern Challenges

In a world increasingly challenged by climate change and a scarcity of resources, the enduring agricultural practices of Indigenous peoples offer a window into sustainable living that is both ancient and urgently relevant. Across the diverse landscapes and rich tribal cultures of the American West, a quiet but powerful movement is gaining momentum, aiming to reconnect with traditional Indigenous methods of farming and ranching that have survived despite historical efforts to suppress them.


Native corn growing in a demonstration garden in Santa Fe, N.M. USDA

At the heart of this resurgence is a commitment to practices that respect the land and its cycles, embodying a wisdom that has sustained Indigenous communities for generations. For example, in Gardnerville, Nevada, the Washoe Tribe's community garden thrives under the care of Herman Fillmore, who cultivates squash, corn, and beans. These "Three Sisters" plantings, a method where each plant supports the growth of the others, symbolize the profound relationship between Indigenous culture and agriculture—a symbiosis where each element enhances the collective, much like the communities themselves.


This movement isn't confined to a single approach or crop: It is a combination of efforts that span from cultivating traditional crops like blue corn in Utah to the regenerative grazing practices reminiscent of the ancestral management of bison in Montana. It's a testament to the resilience and innovation of Indigenous peoples, adapting age-old practices to meet contemporary environmental challenges.


Educators like Terri James in Utah are at the forefront, integrating Native farming practices into the curriculum, thus bridging generational gaps and ensuring that knowledge and respect for the land are passed down. In Montana, Latrice Tatsey's work with bison and cattle ranching draws from the deep well of Indigenous knowledge, demonstrating that sustainable practices are not only about preserving the past but are vital for the future.


This resurgence is not merely a return to traditional agriculture; it's a reawakening to a way of life that views the land as a living, breathing entity that sustains and is sustained by the people. It's about healing not just the land but the community and individuals, addressing the health crises brought on by the disconnection from traditional diets and ways of living.


As noted in Arizona's federal Agriculture Department’s annual census, the increase in Indigenous farm operators signals a broader recognition of the value and resilience of Indigenous agricultural practices. This movement, grounded in the wisdom of the past, offers insights into creating a more sustainable and healthful future, demonstrating essential strategies for survival in our changing world.


As this movement grows, it challenges us to reconsider our relationship with the land, food, and each other. It reminds us that regeneration, sustainability, and health are not just concepts to be applied but lived experiences deeply rooted in the knowledge and practices of Indigenous peoples. The efforts of the Washoe Tribe, Terri James, and Latrice Tatsey, among others, are not just preserving traditional ways of farming and ranching; they are leading the way toward a more sustainable and interconnected world.


Watch "Soil to Soul Awakening," The Spirit Farm Documentary about a Navajo farm in New Mexico utilizing Indigenous farming wisdom.


Source: "Native Agriculture Never Went Away, Now It's on the Rise." Stanford University & the West, Anna McNulty, Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee. January 21, 2022

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