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What Native Americans Teach Us About Sustainability

When white European settlers came to America they saw a land rich in natural resources. They looked at the land and saw many things that could be harvested and sent back to Europe to sell. Trees, wildlife skins, tobacco were all in great demand across the ocean.

However, what they often overlooked was the rich history of sustainable and well-managed care of those resources. The white man came and said this is mine and I will dominate and use the resources. We all know the sad ending of this story. A land and people were conquered and dramatically changed forever.

In this blog, we will discuss how the Native Americans were the first environmentalists on American soil and how their practices can benefit the world today.

The First Environmentalists

While many different Native American cultures lived in very different geographic areas in what would become the USA, they had a common collective wisdom. They recognized and understood that all parts of an ecosystem are connected. That humans, animals, plants, and even rocks, were dependent upon each other for survival and the well being of the ecological niche they lived in.

We have a rich history of environmental activism. Dina Gilio-Whitaker explores that history and where we should go from here


Everything that we do as humans effects the environment in some shape or form. This fundamental belief put the Native American human on equal footing with the animal they hunted for food or the berries they took from the bush.

They understood their lives made an impact. And because of this knowledge, they treated nature with a level of respect and admiration that is often dismissed in modern cultures.

That does not mean they didn’t hunt deer for food. It does mean that they hunted in fall after baby season and that they gave thanks and respect to the animal for their contribution to their lives.

Native Americans did change their ecological niches to some extent. They cleared areas for houses and fields. These changes were on a small scale and when the tribe moved to a new location the land reclaimed itself in a short time. Archaeological digs find remnants of there communities but those places did not damage the environment.

Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than birds or squirrels.”
— John Muir

This way of working with nature brought them into a great deal of conflict when white settlers invaded America who had very different views of land management. The early groups such as the Pilgrims viewed the land as something to be conquered. They often expressed fear of this strange new world and its inhabitants (not just the people) in their diaries and letters.

Today Native Americans, Whites, and other Americans from diverse cultural heritages are working to bring back traditional earth management systems. When we see ourselves as one with the system we tend to be more respectful in how we treat the planet. A popular political answer is to blame others - other politicians, other countries, the guy down the street…

This attitude puzzles me and others of Native American heritage. Blame gets us nowhere. We all must step up to the plate and work together as a team to conquer the blame game and to learn to live with nature.

The First Thanksgiving, a painting by American painter Jean Louis Gerome Ferris. While the painting is fanciful and not necessarily realistic it is a compelling tribute to the peace asnd comaderie of that early feast.

The First Thanksgiving, a painting by American painter Jean Louis Gerome Ferris. While the painting is fanciful and not necessarily realistic it is a compelling tribute to the peace asnd comaderie of that early feast.


Self Restraint

Self Restraint was an interesting concept within many Native American cultures. The concept of self-restraint comes from the existence of communal living in addition to living in a natural world that may bring unexpected changes. The practice of self-restraint benefits a communal society where the strength of the community equates with survival.

By preventing over-consumption of natural resources the native peoples limited damage to the lifestyles of future generations to come. They left something for the next generation. Repeat: The did not savage the earth for their own means.

The Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy had a philosophy called the Seventh Generation which “mandates that tribal decision-makers consider the effects of their actions and decisions for descendants seven generations into the future.”

If you live in a small town you may understand this level of accountability. Small town discipline often rides on the “I’ll tell your mother” philosophy which honestly works very well! I’ve seen that play out in small courtrooms in my own hometown.

Native American culture had this system of accountability. To tell a Native American that it’s all India’s fault that the oceans are polluted with plastics is a moot point. We all contribute to environmental harm. We all must stand to alleviate that harm.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy government dates back in written form to 1142 AD and was admired by Benjamin Franklin who based parts of the Constitution on its practices. This system is about relationships - human, animal, and environmental relationships - that affect the quality of our lives and for future generations.


Climate Change

Climate change is a BIG issue and one that affects the entire world. However, we see many American communities looking towards Native American wisdom in dealing with these issues.

The Houma Nation of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast has seen the effects of climate change ravage the coastal regions. Erosion, damages from the oil industry, and deliberate destruction of an ecosystem. For hundreds of years, they have lived in the marshlands and along coastal areas making a livelihood by fishing, shrimping, and other subsistence practices.

The effects of climate change and development have caused massive erosion on the Louisiana coast. The landscape has changed quickly, islands no longer exist and pollution has killed off fish and crustaceans. The Houma can no longer teach the next generation their livelihood because it has been destroyed.

Coastal marshlands are an important breeding ground for many fish and crustacean species. Traditionally coastal indigenous groups managed these ecosystems by planting marsh grasses and trees.

This promoted a natural cycle where fry (baby fish) thrived. Oil companies and commercial fisheries have often cut canals into these lands destroying this unique waterway and seriously limiting the amount of fish reproduction.

Native American corn

Photo by Holly Deckart

Agriculture

We don’t often think of Native Americans as being the first farmers. The stereotype is the brave riding a horse and living in a teepee on the Great Plains.

However, as history tells us the famous story, the first Native Americans met farmers. By Tisquantum teaching the pilgrims farming techniques we know they had many agricultural skills.

Many cultures had well-developed sustainable agriculture techniques and were proficient in growing crops for large numbers of people. The Cherokee were raising a minimum of 15 varieties of maize before European settlement that they had bred and were cultivating.

Spirituality also greatly influenced growing food. For the Iroquis the Three Sisters were the crops maize, beans, and squash. Today we still follow their gardening practices of planting these three crops together in a companion and beneficial grouping.

The Three Sisters were also spirits of young women that collectively were referred to as Our Life. Prayers and offerings of gratitude were expressed to the Three Sisters in order to show appreciation and thankfulness for the crops.

This thankfulness is an important part of sustainability. One many of us in modern cultures lack.

The Wampanoag, the tribe that famously kept the Pilgrims alive that first year, taught them many organic farming strategies. They used nature to support nature.

Plants like animals need food and the Wampanoag used wood ashes and fish remains in order to support this growth. These natural farming techniques did not harm the land but enriched it.

You can read about the natural products I recommend for organic gardening on our Garden Resources page.

Permaculture and Regenerative Agriculture

Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are farming methods that seek to focus on being natural and holistic. Many farmers in the USA are Native Americans and a high proportion of them are women. In fact in Arizona, one-half of the farms are owned by Native Americans or tribal nations.

The Hopi specializes in dryland farming. This ancient method of agriculture works with the acrid climate of the southwest. Modern Hopi farmers plant seeds deeper than conventionally taught and irrigation is minimal.

Ramona Farms, one of the larger Native-owned commercial farms in Arizona is owned by the Button Family of the Akimel O’odham family (River People, Pima) from the Gila River Indian Community. In addition to raising commercial crops such as alfalfa and cotton, they resurrected many older heirloom plants traditionally grown by tribes of the southwest.

They now grow the bafv a type of tepary beans that grow well in drought conditions. This is just another example of working with your environment, with your land, and with your cultural history.

A great cooking video from Ramona Farms featuring traditional foods.

Foraging

Foraging is a great way to get in touch with nature and add to our food stores by gathering plants in the wild. I wrote about Foraging For Wild Mushrooms in an earlier blog. When we look for wild foods we can appreciate all that nature provides for us and the hard work that went into providing substance for all members of the group.

Indigenous groups teach us that when we forage we don’t deplete the crop. We harvest up to a third of the crop and allow the rest to continue to grow and reproduce. This ensures that there will be plenty for future generations and the next foraging trip.

Foraging was an important skill among Native Americans as well as early American colonists. Not only did it provide food and seasoning ingredients but medicine for sickness. Iroquis records show that over eighty wild foods were gathered.

Hunting and Fishing

Hunting and fishing were important ways to add protein to the diet. Using all parts of the animal harvested was important. Waste was not an option.

Native American tribes often had celebrations to honor the harvest - those for growing crops and for hunting.

The first year I was on my farm in Falmouth, KY I saw the importance of not wasting and appreciating the animal’s gifts. I purchased my farm in October of 2006. That first hunting season I was not yet living at the farm (nor able to protect it while I was gone).

Local hunters came and killed three bucks. They removed the rack and the haunches and left the rest of the animal to rot. I was shocked at the waste and obvious disrespect for the white-tailed deer who had given their life.

Religion and Spirituality

By living with nature, Native Americans had learned not to struggle against nature. This was evident in their culture. Native American religions professed inner connectivity with their natural creator(s).

As we learned from the Iroquois Confederacy, Native Americans have understood that our actions on the earth affect generations. Their ancestors relied solely on what the land freely gave them and we must honor that relationship.

Like their ancestors before them, they, too, want to provide a sustainable future for their descendants. 

“Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other Indigenous peoples have a long tradition of living sustainably with the natural world by understanding the importance of preserving natural resources and respecting the interdependence of all living things.”
— Native American Rights Fund (NARF)

Scientists and Native American Tribes Must Work Together

There is often conflict when scientists go to tribal lands to study the effects of the physical or economic world on cultures. The scientists want to study how climate change or Coronavirus are affecting a population.

However, scientists must remember to respect the people and not discount them as being uneducated or not understanding. This is a joint effort. One where both parties hope to have a positive outcome.

Together we can restore sustainable practices to everyday living.

Author, Ame Vanorio has Cree and Italian ancestors, 28 years of experience living off-grid, is a certified science teacher, and is the director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center. Ame teaches classes locally and online about organic gardening, herbs, homesteading, Native American Spirituality, and wildlife conservation.