Indigenous ways of living in balance.
By Michael Caduto
Some years ago, while I was conducting research for a book called Native American Gardening, I studied for two growing seasons with some Wampanoag gardeners who were knowledgeable in the ways of traditional horticulture. While sharing at length their experience and wisdom about planting and tending a Wampanoag garden, they patiently answered my questions.
“What kind of corn seed do you plant?” I asked.
“The traditional eight-row flint corn,” they replied.
I wanted to know why the beans that I planted overwhelmed the corn. They explained that I had planted the beans too soon.
“You need to wait until the corn has grown hand-high before planting the bean seeds,” they instructed.
The traditional garden is an elegant form of agriculture that includes growing corn, beans, and squash as well as Jerusalem artichoke and ceremonial tobacco. Cornstalks provide support for the growing pole beans, whose leguminous roots enrich the soil with the nitrogen that is much needed by the corn. Squash leaves and vines cover the ground in between the mounds of corn and kidney beans, creating deep shade that discourages the growth of weeds and preserves moisture. Squash includes varieties of pumpkin, crookneck, acorn, summer squash, scallop, and zucchini.
When I asked why Wampanoag gardeners often planted four kernels of corn atop each mound, I was told, “We plant four kernels in the top of each mound and arrange them to the four directions. It’s a symbol of how we give thanks to Corn, and to the Creator, Kiehtan.”
Giving thanks and living in a state of balance is the basis for a traditional Wampanoag relationship with the natural world. Plants, animals, and all aspects of the land are viewed as gifts to be used with respect and gratitude, and the gift is then returned. There are at least three traditional ceremonies honoring the gift of corn alone, including the Planting, Green Corn, and Harvest celebrations.
Similarly, Wampanoag hunters ask the animal’s spirit to feed the family, and the animal fulfills the prayer by offering its flesh as food. The hunter reciprocates by not taking more than is needed and not being wasteful—by expressing gratitude and returning the gift. In Wampanoag tradition, this form of acknowledgment has direct consequences. If an animal is not treated with respect and gratitude, hunters believe they will not succeed in obtaining food for their family and village.
This does not mean that, historically, a traditional life was part of an idealized relationship with the natural world and that no changes were made. One of the reasons that, historically, their neighbors knew the Wampanoag by the name of Pokanoket, “Place of the Clear Land,” was that the traditional system of land management created large swaths of open land surrounding the villages. When the soil became depleted after several years of gardening on the same spot, that plot was abandoned and a new garden was cleared by cutting and burning.
Regular burning near the village in the spring and autumn created clearings for planting, reinvigorated plant growth (including blueberries), encouraged optimal deer habitat, and preserved ecological diversity. This openness made it easier to see prey for hunting and to spot people approaching the village. It also cut down on thick brush, allowing fresh breezes to blow through the village to keep biting insects away.
In Ndakinna, “Our Land,” the Abenaki peoples of northern New England practice similar traditions when gardening, gathering wild edible and medicine plants, hunting, and fishing. Living in balance is one constant among the traditions of the Wampanoag, Abenaki, and many other indigenous cultures; coexisting with mutual respect and reciprocity toward the natural and human communities that one belongs to.
In these times, the ramifications of this lesson have never been more clear. We cannot live without the food and material resources provided by other forms of life, and the survival of plants and animals depends on the wise management practices and stewardship of their human neighbors. To step outside of a balanced relationship between humans and nonhumans is to live a life that is not sustainable.
DO JUST ONE THING: Help seed banks preserve the genetic heritage of corn and other traditional crops by planting heirloom seeds—perpetuating varieties that are hardy and are naturally resistant to insect pests and diseases. Excellent sources of seed for heirloom varieties of corn include: Solstice Seeds (Hartland, VT), High Mowing Seeds (Wolcott, VT), Seeds of Change (Rancho Dominquez, CA), Native Seeds/SEARCH (Tucson, AZ), Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA), Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Winslow, ME) and Fedco Seeds (Waterville, ME).
Corn (Zea mays). Each individual silk on a corn flower that becomes pollinated generates a single kernel of corn on the cob.” (Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash)