Traditional Indigenous Cultivation of Crops is Not the Same as “Agriculture”

This short article is a reproduction of something that was published about a year and a half ago by Deep Green Resistance, that I wrote in response to one of their articles. Since I still come across people who seem to equate all cultivation of food or medicine crops with commercial, or other unsustainable “agriculture,” I decided to republish the article here. I also included the links to the original articles.

Indigenous Horticulture: A Response to “Civilization Reduces Quality of Life” by Jason Godesky

July 10, 2019 Deep Green Resistance News Service Leave a comment

Editor’s Note: the following was originally posted as a comment on a recent article we shared entitled “Civilization Reduces Quality of Life.” We thought it was an insightful discussion of indigenous horticulture, and have received permission to republish it here. Image: Wild Rice by HellebardiusCC BY NC SA 2.0.

By George Price

Ever since about the time of the advent of Daniel Quinn’s novel, “Ishmael” (back in the `90s), indigenous cultivators of food crops, such as myself, have had to contend with the allegation that the cultivation of food crops, no matter how sustainably practiced, was the beginning of the grand decline and fall of our species. I realize that not every fan of Quinn’s work or every anti-civilization activist thinks that way, but the problem occurs when people fail to adequately define “agriculture” and distinguish that from sustainable traditional indigenous cultivation practices.

I define “agriculture” as the cultivation of food crops for a market economy, or for money, which is coupled with the commodification of and disrespect for the natural world. That practice, along with the invention of money itself and the failure of some early societies to maintain population levels that were consistent with the carrying capacities of their homelands, were the real culprits. Traditional first peoples would avoid over-population by several methods, including the prayerful dividing and relocation of bands within tribes in ways that would adjust for that, along with other population-regulating practices. Agriculture and money were the roots of empire and colonialism, and both were the result of unsustainable, disrespectful relationships with homeland, leading to dependence on trade and/or “conquest.”

Indigenous Horticulture

The traditional ways of indigenous cultivation more properly fit the definitions of the terms “horticulture,” “permaculture,” and “polyculture.” What those ways of cultivation have in common is that they were done for personal and community subsistence, only as needed, and in combination with sustainable practices of foraging. Whether foraging wild foods or cultivating foods that were originally found in the wild, those activities were/are done in a spiritual attitude of respect and thanksgiving toward the natural world (visible and invisible), and with a commitment to preserve natural ecological systems (1).

Our traditional practices involve working in sync with the natural world, helping to spread more of the wild-gathered foods into more of their traditional habitats. One example of that would be the Anishinabe practice of planting rice in new wetland areas created by beaver or, my people, the Wampanoags of Massachusetts, doing something very similar with wild cranberries. Corn was originally grown by many first peoples in habitats where corn’s wild grain cousins also occurred naturally. It should also be noted that many so-called “sedentary” or village-making tribes, should more accurately be defined as semi-sedentary, due to seasonal, cyclical movement of the people for the continuation of foraging practices.

Other than the omission of those distinctions, I am in general agreement with your analysis of the plague called “civilization.” I am also very pleased to see somebody else cite and quote Richard Lee, Marshall Sahlins and Walter Ong.

About the author

George Price was born in 1951 and is descended from indigenous peoples of America (Wampanoag, Massachuset, and Choctaw), Africa (tribes unknown), Scotland, England, and France. He began organic gardening and learning about natural wild foods and medicines in 1970. He lives on five acres on the Flathead Indian Reservation, north of Missoula, Montana, and works as a teacher and historian. (2)

(1) If I were to re-write this, I would add the phrase, “and local biodiversity” at this point in this sentence.

(2) I would also change the end of that short bio statement to, “worked as a teacher and historian before retiring in 2018 to focus on his other work in Earth protection, regenerative farming, and food sovereignty.”

2 thoughts on “Traditional Indigenous Cultivation of Crops is Not the Same as “Agriculture”

  1. Serendipitous. I spent last Saturday at he virtual DGR fundraiser where I was similarly struck by their critique of “agriculture”, without any distinction between the various forms. The claim that all agriculture kills the biotic community in soil seems over-generalized but I take your point about markets and profit and modern, industrial ag.
    I also think it is good to think critically about “civilization” but again, some distinctions are needed. Capitalism and civilization aren’t synonymous. And while most civilizations have collapsed by exploiting their land base, in theory at least, they could be more sustainable. The DGR folks are a little more sanguine about collapse than I am, an almost millenialist fervor.

    • Hi Dave. I was inspired to post this by the very same event that you refer to. I watched or listened to the whole thing, enjoyed most of it, but cringed when Lierre started talking about “agriculture,” because I anticipated that, even though some of them read my comment, most of the long-time DGR members were probably still singing the same tune. I don’t always see eye to eye with them, but I think that, in balance, they are more honest or correct about Earth’s current predicament and what we need to do going forward, than most “environmental activists.” Re: “civilization,” I guess a lot depends on how you define that (just like “agriculture”). I tend to equate civilization with the unsustainable megasocieties built on a foundation of human hubris and disconnection from Nature’s living systems, including the many attempts to cancel and overrule natural life systems. Civilizations also typically exceed the carrying capacities of the land that they are located upon and depend on extracting, confiscating, or purchasing resources from people on other lands.

      An important question to consider, when trying to determine if a civilization can be sustainable, is what is the net cost to the well-being of life on Earth for such a society to even exist (even in their “greenest” possible functional form)? Also, we can explore the question of how large can a human society be and still maintain a mutually beneficial, reciprocal, sustainable and regenerative relationship with its local natural systems? An accurate net mutual benefit would have to take into account what that society does with its waste products and environmental destruction that it does in other peoples’ lands as part of the calculation. I am continually vexed by stories of the U.S. (or any industrial mega-nation’s) “reduced carbon footprint” that only focus on measurements conducted within the national boundaries and completely ignore what that nation does in other countries around the world.

      Stay well. (I meant to write this a few days ago and thought I had until I just checked and saw that I didn’t. I just can’t keep up with everything anymore.)

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