Native American Heritage Month Celebrates Contributions in Agriculture

There are over five million people in the U.S. who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. Since 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed a resolution for Native American Heritage Month, November celebrates Native American’s rich history and contribution to the fabric of this country.  Native Americans have also played an important role in the agricultural history of the U.S. and continue to play important roles as both growers and farmworkers. Unfortunately, like so many aspects of colonization, Native American agricultural history is marred by unjust and abusive practices by white settlers, which should not be forgotten.

American Indians have a long history of cultivating the land. While some indigenous people practiced agriculture long before colonization, others hunted and gathered until they were forced into farming by white settlers under policies of “assimilation.” Today, three percent of growers are American Indian and eight percent of farmworkers identify as American Indian or indigenous. These numbers may be inflated because the categories do not neatly separate American Indians from Latin American immigrants of indigenous descent.

According to historical accounts, the pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Colony in 1620 shared a feast with people of the local Wampanoag tribe after a successful harvest in 1621. The 1620 harvest had been disastrous, and the pilgrims’ survival largely depended on the help they received from the Wampanoag.

A Wampanoag man named Squanto had accompanied the pilgrims on their voyage from England to the New World. He taught the settlers to plant corn, beans, and squash and helped them make contact with local Wampanoag people to purchase food. At the Thanksgiving feast, Wampanoag joined the settlers and ate wild fowl, deer, among other dishes.

Although tribal nations such as the Iroquois Confederacy had practiced agriculture for centuries before colonization, settlers assumed indigenous people were all hunter-gathers. Whites believed that imposing an agrarian economy on American Indians would help to “civilize” them. Starting in the late 1700s, treaties stipulated the settlers would provide agricultural training, animals, and implements to indigenous communities. Oftentimes, however, the indigenous people knew more about farming than their teachers did.

The Dawes Act of 1887 split up Indian Territory, providing individual land allotments to families for them to farm. American Indians lost a tremendous amount of land as a result of the law. They were often displaced and allotted properties that were unsuitable for farming. Other tribal nations that had never farmed before did not have the expertise or resources to start, despite early treaties promising assistance. The Dawes Act was one of many policies that resulted in the impoverishment and isolation of indigenous people, conditions that persist to the present day.

Today, there are some areas American Indians still work in agriculture. Mi’kmaqs harvest blueberries in Maine each summer. Tens of thousands of tribe members work on farms and ranches across Navajo Nation. A survey of pesticide safety educators in 2004 identified twenty American Indian languages spoken among farmworker communities. AFOP member organization HELP New Mexico, in Gallup, provides services to many Native American farmworkers. Earlier this year, workforce development staff member Cristina Manuelito wrote about her experiences providing health and safety training to indigenous farmworkers:

“We service farmworkers who speak Zuni, Navajo, and the Keres languages of the Acoma and Laguna pueblo people(s). The use of an interpreter for the [heat stress] training was only positive. They made the training fun by using relevant stories. The participants giggled as they understood. The older people have labored outdoors in extreme weather situations, so they could relate.”

Farmworkers are a hard-to-reach population who are vulnerable to a variety of work-related health problems. American Indian farmworkers are even harder to reach. They have received little media coverage and few researchers, if any, have studied the population’s specific health needs. Hopefully they will receive more research and recognition in the future, so we can better understand and serve them.

We must recognize the important contributions of American Indians in developing agriculture in the U.S., not just during Native American Heritage Month, but year-round. It is partially because of them that we are able to enjoy meals together this holiday season.

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