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How Native American Food Systems Shaped Land and People

It's Native American Heritage Month, the perfect time to look at the ingenious food systems that supported rich and abundant […]

How Native American Food Systems Shaped Land and People

It's Native American Heritage Month, the perfect time to look at the ingenious food systems that supported rich and abundant […]

It's Native American Heritage Month, the perfect time to look at the ingenious food systems that supported rich and abundant biodiversity while sustaining the first people to live on this continent. 

Here we provide a brief overview of a handful of traditional practices. However, it's important to note that Indigenous foodways and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) are not things of the past, but vibrant and evolving ways of being. As recognition of TEK's importance grows, Native Americans are reclaiming their cultural heritage, restoring ecosystem health and illuminating valuable tools with which to address the climate crisis.

"The Three Sisters"

The Three Sisters is one of the most widely-known Indigenous agriculture techniques. At its simplest, this is the practice of intercropping corn, beans and squash in such a way that the needs and growing habits of each crop contributes to the benefit of the whole. Beans climb the tall stalks of corn as a trellis while delivering nitrogen to the soil, and low-stature squash plants cover the soil, protecting the soil and suppressing weeds. The result is a highly productive cropping system that produces a nutritious staple diet and fibers for use in daily life. 

However, the Three Sisters is more than a brilliant cropping system. It is one of many Indigenous foods processes that intertwine social, cultural and spiritual practices. For example, the Iroquois peoples' view of the Three Sisters has been described as "physical and spiritual sustainers of life. These life-supporting plants were given to the people when all three miraculously sprouted from the body of Sky Woman's daughter, granting the gift of agriculture to the Iroquois nations."

The Three Sisters likely originated in Mesoamerica around the 11th century C.E. It spread widely, and was ultimately adopted by at least 15 tribes across the Northeast and Southeast United States, including the Iroquois and Cherokee. 

As the practice spread from region to region and tribe to tribe, the Native people who kept the seeds expanded the crops' genetic diversity, producing a wide variety of plants perfectly adapted to local conditions and needs. Many of those resources were lost after colonization as Indigenous peoples were forced from their lands and separated from traditional practices.

Today, numerous Indigenous-led organizations are working to reclaim traditional food sources, protect food sovereignty and rematriate seed back to tribal communities. 

Bison on the plains

As early as 11,000 years ago, Native Americans hunted bison, also known as buffalo, on the Great Plains. To the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Crow and Lakota (to name only a few), bison provided food and materials for many daily needs. 

It's unclear whether the tribes followed the bison or the hunt drove the herd. However, to separate the cause and effect is to miss the point, like trying to pinpoint where a circle began. Before colonization, the Indigenous people, the bison, the grasslands and the soil existed in symbiosis. The herds fertilized the soil while the movement of herds and hunters allowed the land to rest and integrate those nutrients. The rest encouraged diverse grasses with deep taproots that pulled carbon into the soil, and the grasses fed the bison when they returned the following year. The collective interaction shaped the landscape, building soil fertility on what is now some of the richest farmland in the country. 

Today, Native Americans are pivotal in the efforts to restore bison. For example, the Intertribal Buffalo Council, made up of 80 tribes from 20 states, is committed to reestablishing buffalo herds on tribal lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development.

The Salmon People

It is impossible to overstate salmon's importance in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon have helped shape the landscape, the forests and the people who have lived here since time immemorial. (The Non-GMO Project is headquartered in Bellingham, Washington, on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Nooksack, Samish and Lummi.) 

The peoples of the Pacific Northwest developed cutting-edge equipment and practices that allowed them to fish skillfully while maintaining the salmon population and supporting the larger ecosystem.

The Indigenous relationship with salmon continues to be fundamental to certain tribal identities. Its ongoing legacy has been pivotal to environmental restoration, resource management and preserving tribal treaty rights in the region. For example, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakima tribes — the self-described Salmon People — have come together to form the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITF), protecting tribal treaty fishing rights, salmon and the watersheds where they live. 

Ultimately, the CRITF's work benefits all residents and life in the region.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer's powerful essay "Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System," the Potawatomi writer and scientist calls for the restoration of honor in food production and alludes to the perils that await us when it is squandered. "The honorable calling of farming is being dishonored by a worldview and economic institutions that relentlessly demand taking more without regard for giving back." 

Reciprocity and gratitude — fundamental aspects of many Indigenous food practices — are also crucial elements of the kind of regenerative and sustainable food system of which we hope to be part.

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