Aboriginal and First Nations
Run Deep By Jay Whetter
Winnipeg Free Press
October 8, 2022
Long before European settlers arrived, Indigenous peoples had
established complex agricultural practices that are still relevant
The view of the Chain Lakes from the hill on Jay Whetter’s family farm
in southwest Manitoba. The land was traditionally farmed by the Sioux
MY favourite place on Earth is a hill on the farm where I grew up in
southwestern Manitoba. Furry, lilac-coloured crocuses, yellow cowslips,
wolf willow and other plants I cannot name grow among the grasses along
the gentle incline to this high point of native prairie. Rocks covered
in orange, white and sage-coloured lichens dot the way. From the top, I
can see our farmhouse and old red barn to the east. Three little lakes,
Chain Lakes, fill the valley below.
My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and
great-great-grandparents all climbed that hill. And before them, the
Sioux. While I always knew the land had an Indigenous history, I didn’t
know until recently that the Sioux have farmed the land for generations.
I’m an agriculture journalist. Though I now live in Kenora, for a
quarter-century I have written about grain farming on the Prairies: how
to improve profits for canola, wheat and peas; how to use fertilizer
more efficiently; how to control pests while protecting biodiversity. I
write about a better farming future but hadn’t thought much about the
past, or how the past might shape our future, until a man I met during
an agriculture conference coffee break recommended a book.
I don’t remember the conference or the man’s name, only that he worked
with First Nations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had
released its report, and the words of its chief commissioner, Murray
Sinclair, were fresh in my mind: “We have described for you a mountain.
We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the
climbing.” I bought the man’s recommended book — Clearing the Plains:
Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. In it,
author James Daschuk describes how killing the bison herds led to the
devastation of the Indigenous population. Yet, Daschuk wrote, the
Dakota Sioux survived the systematic destruction of the bison herd
better than other nations. The reason: they were farmers.
Curious to learn more, I contacted Brandon University and found Mary
Malainey, a professor in the department of anthropology. Malainey had
evidence that the history of farming in southwest Manitoba dates back
to the late 1400s. She invited me to an archeological dig in a
sheltered bend of the narrow muddy-watered Gainsborough Creek not far
from where I grew up. Along the creek, an amateur explorer had
discovered two hoes made from bison shoulder blades and alerted
Malainey. About a dozen archeologists and aides bedecked in Tilley hats
and khakis, off-gassing the whiff of bug spray, were on-site when I
visited in 2019. They worked in the creekside bushes, sifting through
soil painstakingly extracted from one-metre-square dig pits. They
discovered remains of a tool-making workshop and residential debris —
evidence, along with the bison-bone hoes, that Indigenous peoples had
lived and farmed the area centuries before European contact.
Archeologists don’t yet know who these 1400s farmers were, but when I
asked Sara Halwas, an archaeologist at the dig site, how I could learn
more about early Indigenous farmers, she recommended Buffalo Bird
Woman’s Garden. Written in 1917 by anthropologist Gilbert L. Wilson,
the book recounts the crop production practices of Hidatsa woman
Maxidiwiac, also known as Buffalo Bird Woman. She was in her late 70s
when Wilson interviewed her, capturing minute details of her farm at
Like-A-Fishhook village on the Missouri River in North Dakota, 200
kilometres south of the Gainsborough Creek site. Maxidiwiac knew every
detail about crop production, harvest and storage. She even knew about
pollen drift and selective breeding. Maxidiwiac was not just a farmer,
she was an expert farmer. “Corn planted in hills too close together
would have small ears and fewer of them,” she told Wilson. Farmers
plant corn in wide rows to this day. She also filled the space between
corn plants with beans that fix their own nitrogen — an essential
nutrient for plant growth — from the air, and with squash that provided
ground cover to limit weed growth. Weeds use up moisture and nutrients
from the soil, reducing crop yield.
Reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden was like a lightbulb turning on.
This old woman was rewriting my family history. I filled my book with
underlines, asterisks and annotations. Maxidiwiac made me realize that
present-day tools of convenience, like synthetic fertilizers
and pest control sprays, have reduced our need for time-honoured
techniques proven over centuries to work. We may want to look at how
these methods could help us today.
Farmers around the world, including Canada, are pressured to be more
efficient with their use of nitrogen fertilizer. Plants need nitrogen —
and fertilizer is essential to maintain yields per acre — but
extracting nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer takes a lot of
energy, and nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, escapes from fields
where these fertilizers are applied. To improve nitrogen use efficiency
and reduce nitrous oxide emissions, Canadian farmers are using
techniques to apply fertilizer when the crop needs it, to place the
product deep enough in the soil to prevent losses and at rates that
match the yield potential of each piece of land. This is a
Maxidiwiac-esque efficiency of resources. In the spirit of Maxidiwiac,
some farms, though not many at this time, are intercropping: planting
in the same field a mix of legumes like peas that can fix their own
nitrogen with plants like canola that need a lot of nitrogen.
Today’s farmers are also wrestling with a rise in herbicide-resistant
weeds. Fighting the problem will require a multi-pronged approach that
doesn’t rely entirely on herbicides. One prong is to have crops achieve
full ground cover as quickly as possible, using the crop itself to
suppress weed growth. I’m not saying farmers should grow squash between
rows of wheat and canola, but Maxidiwiac reminded me that ground cover
is an old and proven technique. In an article I wrote recently on
integrated weed management to reduce the reliance on herbicides, point
No. 1 is to make the crop more competitive — increase the density of
plants to reduce the space left for weeds. That is what Maxidiwiac did.
Reading about the expertise of this farmer made me wonder about
Indigenous farmers of today.
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The author is rethinking his family’s farming history since learning of
Sioux agricultural practices.
Agriculture journalist Jay Whetter
TOM THOMSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS