Human Stories

Regenerative Lessons From Indigenous Food Systems

When European colonisers came to North America, they said they were settling in “unused” and “virgin” territory. But the land wasn’t empty. Find out how Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island have been managing complex and regenerative food systems for millennia.

Dr Lyla June Johnston is a Diné woman, musician, and Indigenous academic with a PhD from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In her work exploring Regenerative Indigenous Food Systems, Dr Johnston discusses how Indigenous Nations have managed vast landscapes for food security and ecological health for thousands of years.

These complex pre-colonial food systems teach us how people can coexist with other species, actively expand biodiverse habitats, and still produce an abundance of healthy food. In the face of a changing climate, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and a growing population to feed - these lessons couldn’t be more important.

Read on to discover some key messages from Dr Johnston’s research.

Pristine Myth

The Pristine Myth challenges the idea that Turtle Island (North America) was a “wild” and “empty” space before European settlers arrived. This idea is a myth because many Indigenous Nations have been managing the land on a vast scale for thousands of years.

Various case studies unearthed by Dr Johnston show how Indigenous management often improved and expanded wildlife habitats to ensure food security for people and animals. For example, the native prairie ecosystem that Indigenous peoples created and expanded using intentional, low-intensity fire offers habitat and sustenance for many wild animals, including buffalo. In turn, the buffalo provide food, shelter, and spiritual benefits to Indigenous communities.2

Dr Johnston explains that when Europeans arrived on Turtle Island, they weren’t always willing or able to recognise the complex food systems they encountered, as there were often no parallel forms of land management in Europe as a reference. But an inability to recognise the regenerative food systems in place doesn’t mean the land was uncultivated.

“We must restore decision-making power to Indigenous groups where ecological systems are failing,” she told FoodUnfolded. “This is not only to restore the health of the land but to heal a history of dispossession and devaluing of Indigenous ecological relationships”.

The idea that Indigenous peoples are effective stewards of natural habitats is also widely supported by peer-reviewed studies. In Australia, Brazil, and Canada, for example, areas managed by Indigenous peoples are either as biodiverse or more biodiverse than officially protected areas.3 But until recently, with research like Dr Johnston’s, academic literature had a significant knowledge gap around Indigenous land management, biodiversity, and sustainable food production.

Editor’s note: Indigenous communities are diverse. They have different traditions, languages, spiritual practices, and histories. In North America, for example, we know of 300 Indigenous languages at the time of contact. (150 of those languages have survived until today).1 Indigenous communities often share a deep respect for the natural world and a history of persecution, but each Indigenous Nation is unique.

Western (mis)understanding

Western scholars sometimes describe Indigenous peoples as living in harmony with nature, managing to exist without causing harm to wild spaces. This isn’t exactly untrue, but it would be more accurate to see Indigenous Nations as a force for regeneration, actively managing the land to be healthy, biodiverse, and resilient. For example, the native grasslands that European settlers encountered on the Great Plains and in the Midwest were actively managed and cared for by Indigenous peoples, mainly through frequent low-intensity fires, which were intentionally lit when conditions made it safe to do so.

Native American Camp on Prairie, 1891. (John C.H. Grabill via Getty Images)
Native American Camp on Prairie, 1891. (John C.H. Grabill via Getty Images)

Dr Johnston explains that the expert use of fire built and maintained healthy soil for thousands of years, thanks to nutrient-rich ash, increasing soil pH, and clearing older vegetation to make space for new growth. The Indigenous-managed native grasslands stabilised soil and provided habitat to large herbivores like buffalo and antelope. In turn, the buffalo provided food, materials, and cultural-spiritual benefits to Indigenous Nations. At the same time, the grasslands were biodiverse ecosystems that provided for wildlife – not just people.

“We often imagine Indigenous Nations following bison herds, but there is increasing evidence that at times the bison herds followed the Indigenous fire, which fostered living soil systems and nutrient-dense grasslands.”

The native prairies can teach us that humans don’t need to destroy wildlife habitats to benefit from them. Instead, wildlife and humans can share a reciprocal relationship where each benefits the other.

From Prairie to ‘Dust Bowl’

When European farmers came to Turtle Island, they encountered the fertile grasslands that Indigenous Nations had cultivated for millennia. But Dr Johnston explains that in certain regions, it only took two decades for vast tracts of this precious ecosystem to be destroyed by the ploughs and livestock of settlers. In the Southern Plains, this culminated in “The Dust Bowl” – an environmental and social disaster in the 1930s, characterised by dust storms and drought. Importantly, the idea that ‘lazy’, ‘ignorant’, or ‘savage’ Indigenous peoples were ‘wasting’ good farming land by leaving it idle was a justification for land seizures and genocidal violence. Western settlers failed to understand that the rich soil they thought Indigenous peoples were ‘wasting’ was created and maintained by those same people.

In our hurry to exploit the natural world, we can clearly undermine the very resources we consider valuable. For example, if we plough up native grasslands, we destroy the soil that makes them so fertile. If we over-harvest shellfish in the sparkling bays, we undermine the water quality that allowed that delicate species to thrive (a single native oyster can filter nearly 200 litres of water per day).4 And when we persecute Indigenous communities, we also persecute the living systems that they take care of, with dire consequences for people and the living world.

Humans as a keystone species

In her work, Dr Johnston discusses a wide range of Indigenous fisheries where human intervention has nourished and uplifted aquatic environments. For example, she describes hand-planted kelp forests providing spawning grounds for herring fish.2

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation leverage traditional kelp farming techniques to help manage the negative impact of climate change at their farm in Hampton Bays, New York. (J. Conrad Williams Jr. via Getty Images)
Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation leverage traditional kelp farming techniques to help manage the negative impact of climate change at their farm in Hampton Bays, New York. (J. Conrad Williams Jr. via Getty Images)

Through examples of indigenous fisheries and land-based farming systems, Dr Johnston explains that humans can act as a “keystone species” or “an organism that many other species and systems depend on.”

Today, Dr Johnston tells me, many green organisations and environmental agencies argue that land care practices should be “hands off.” But she doesn’t agree.

“Not only do humans belong on the earth, but our presence has an essential, supportive purpose when guided by proper principles and value systems”.

Ancient clam gardens

As an example of humans acting as a keystone species, Dr Johnston explains that remnants of 6,000-year-old rock walls built by Indigenous peoples lie along about 35% of the coastline of Quadra Island in British Columbia.2

When the tide was low, ancestral communities would roll stones to the intertidal zone to create containment berms spanning kilometres. When the tide returned, the walls held back sediment to form nutrient-rich pools known as clam gardens.

Clam gardens were carefully maintained and sustainably harvested so that clam regeneration could keep pace with human caloric needs. These clams offered sustenance for humans, and the clam bed habitat also provided food for species like raccoons, minks, otters, ducks, and geese.

Surviving persecution

We sometimes talk about human impact on the natural world as inherently harmful. But Dr Johnston’s work reminds me that some human groups have protected living systems for thousands of years.

This positive relationship between the human and non-human is made possible by an Indigenous worldview that respects and honours all life, from the grasses on the Great Prairies to the shellfish in the Clam Beds and all the species that rely upon them. However, Indigenous peoples and their customs have faced persecution. 

This persecution includes colonisers forcibly taking Indigenous children to boarding schools where their customs and languages were banned. It includes genocidal violence. And it includes ploughing up abundant food systems, which settling people saw as “pristine wilderness” to exploit.

Despite the persecution, Indigenous peoples and their food systems live on. In New Mexico, the Keres Children’s Learning Center is reclaiming education for Pueblo children to honour their heritage while revitalising the Keres language. Based in Colorado, the First Nations Development Institute is supporting tribes and Native communities to rebuild sustainable Native food systems. And based in Arizona, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance is supporting Native communities with advocacy, education, and networking as they revitalise Indigenous food systems. Meanwhile, the Intertribal Buffalo Council is working to restore buffalo to Tribal lands, promoting ecological restoration and rekindling the spiritual relationship between Tribal people and the buffalo. For even more examples of Indigenous peoples overcoming the trauma of genocide by reclaiming food sovereignty - the Gather film is a very good place to start.#

If you want to learn more, you can access Dr Johnston’s complete dissertation 
via her website for free or via a paid link to support the Keres Children’s Learning Center. You may also view her TEDx speech on regenerative Indigenous land management here.

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