Book Review: Native American Gardening

Are you interested in learning more about the local history behind heritage seeds, and the gardening practices of the indigenous Southwest? I recently read a fascinating book about it! Since we only have one copy of it, I also created a list of similar titles to explore the topic further. Native American Gardening

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Native American Gardening is a really interesting view into the Hidatsa Nation’s way of life. As farmers, they regularly cultivated crops, such as corn, squash and beans, which they ate fresh, but focused on drying them for their winter use, or sold them to their more nomadic neighbors, like the Sioux. The Hidatsa also lived by hunting buffalo, and generally had plenty to eat.

Today, this Nation exists, living in North Dakota at the Fort Berthold Reservation. They are in economic peril though, due to the earlier 1837 smallpox epidemic, which greatly reduced their population, and the recent Garrison Dam, which formed the new lake that flooded some of their richest land along the Missouri River, and forced them to leave it. Their remaining land is higher, and not as adequate, so does not sufficiently support them. In addition, non-farming unemployment is high at 26%.

This Nation was semi-nomadic moving between Winter camps, and their Spring fields. They deliberately searched for good garden land, (not necessarily something gardeners can do today). When finding good land, they might return there to farm it again for several years. They were very careful to clear, and prepare the land for their first garden, removing soil debris and rocks, then laying cut saplings over it, and burning them. Then, they would allow it to be fallow (unused) for the first season. The women did 90% of this work, planting, and harvesting, which Buffalobird-Woman succinctly describes from memory, assisted with drawings by her grandson, Goodbird.

It was interesting to note that the Hidatsa women were very, very careful to not mix the different corn varieties, as each type had a specific food purpose. However, their squash seeds were mixed together, though the produce made different shaped and colored squashes. They also kept their bean seed varieties separate.

Overall, the Hidatsas’ lives told when Buffalobird-Woman was growing up, were upper middle class, though she said the women in her family were especially industrious. This Nation also provided for their community, by allowing the older women to help them slice squashes so the squashes were ready for drying on strings. If the squashes were small, these women were allowed to take them home as part of their “pay.”

Buffalobird-Woman told her story about her life very minutely to Gilbert Wilson, with exact dimensions of fields, building of in-ground storage caches, etc. She also describes the later influence of the white population on their farming methods. For example, instead of using buffalo shoulder blade hoes, they eventually got iron hoes, and their clay cooking pots, later were iron ones.

This makes an interesting read, as well as “food” for thought. The Hidatsas did not have a large variety of food, but their meal variety, as Buffalobird-Woman describes, was through the different food preparations of the corn, squashes, etc. Recipes count!

Additional References:

National Geographic (linked to archived article): , opens a new window

Native Partnership:

-SheilaB, for the Seed Library.