By Madronna Holden
One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west. This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.
Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking: pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself. Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.
Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.
The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on. Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”, such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.
The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland. In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.
The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people. Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.
In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity. To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.
Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.
But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies. In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.
East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food, another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds. That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.
Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking, 53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.
They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.
Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.
In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another. In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources. Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others. Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.
In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody. If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”
With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.
In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound. At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon. Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.
In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.
Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there. Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.
An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.
Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.
In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.
The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care. The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.
Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.
It is a pragmatic approach.
A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.
The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.
Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.
Notably, in putting forests back, “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.
Nature does not “monocrop”. And neither should we.
In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.
This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, environmental philosophy, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, worldviews | Tagged: biodiversity, ecological agriculture, Indigenous environmental knowledge, indigenous use of biodiversity |