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Archive for November, 2014

Tending the Wild-Native American KnowledgeWe had a lot of food on the California property on which I grew up, but we didn’t know it. No one told us. Instead, there were times when we were reliant on food stamps: huge blocks of government cheese and bags of pinto beans and powdered milk. I appreciate the food bank folks, but pine nuts, chokecherries (adequately prepared so as to not poison ourselves), and more miners lettuce than the tiny bits we picked…these would have been much more nutritious. The two rattle snakes I did eat–and my mom nervously cooked–stand out as extreme against our sterile modern diet.

“The Sierra Miwok alone used forty-eight types of greens; by comparison, we commonly eat only about a dozen domesticated greens…” (p 266-7)

I’ve heard that Native Americans respect the land and only take what is needed, but I had never read the details of this. It just sounded good, and seemed to match up with majestic media portrayals of native peoples.

To both use and conserve nature requires complex knowledge and practices, far more complex than leaving nature alone. Hidden in the simple act of gathering lay sophisticated rules that safeguarded the plant stock from overharvesting … Anthropologists recorded the existence of this rule from the northern extremity of the state, among the Tolowa, to the southen border, among the Quechan (Yuma). Indeed, rules commanding the user to take no more of a resource than is absolutely necessary are common throughout North America and existed among groups as diverse as the Cree, Beaver, Koyukon, Kaska, Inland Ilingit, and Tutchone of Alaska and Canada. (p 128)

Yes, instances of massive kills by driving animals over cliffs in droves are recorded too (evidenced from intact piles of bones at the bottom of cliffs), but the fact remains that native groups survived–and thrived–for thousands of years on this continent, and from what modern science┬ácan tell, their overall impact was life-supporting as opposed to life-degrading.

┬áMuch of the landscape in California that so impressed early writers, photographers, and landscape painters was in fact a cultural landscape, not the wilderness they imagined. […] But according to the European rationale, only raw, unspoiled, unused nature was capable of emanating this kind of beauty. It did not occur to them that the size of the trees and the open pattern in which they grew were products of human intervention. (p 158)

The importance of tending with fire was almost completely unknown to me. Indeed, it brings to mind the alchemical process.

The majority of plant species that California Indians relied on for food and medicine and for making cordage, basketry, and tools thrive only in full sun or partial shade…The areas where the favored plants occurred frequently were burned so as to keep them open and decrease competition from weeds. […] Based on this relationship, it can be hypothesized that the disturbance caused by California Indians’ use of fire in a variety of ecosystems, occurring at intermediate intensities and frequencies, promoted a maximally heterogeneous mosaic of vegetation types and increased species diversity. (p 152-3)

Other equally important points made by the author, M. Kat Anderson, include deconstructing the “hunter gatherer versus agriculture” dichotomy, and replacing it with a spectrum that includes “protoagricultural techniques” (p 253), which really revolutionizes the way we think of agriculture. The book also covers the complicated net of factors that resulted in genocide; “from 1769 to 1890 the population plummeted from approximately 310,000 to 17,000” (p 64), including legalization of murder, and making it illegal to simply be Indian (p 87).

This book paints a picture of a virtual army of people roaming the California landscape, trained since birth to tend to life in its myriad forms, fostering the growth of plants and animals, and securing a sustainable livelihood for their own kind in the process. The fact that those people were driven off of the land and murdered in unimaginably massive numbers, and in horrific ways, does not speak kindly of our history and society. Further, in the absence of the Indians, who is tending to the land? Will the remaining tribes willingly communicate their knowledge in an attempt to save all of us? Will they simply wait until the dominant society evaporates? Will it be too late for all of human kind at that point; will there be anything left? Are they talking but we’re still, to this day, not listening?

One cultural universal was that food was never taken for granted. A gatherer asked the plant for permission to gather its parts, and gathering was followed by prayers and offerings of thanks. … At the end of the harvest season ceremonies were often held to thank the rains for nourishing the earth, or the black oaks for bearing heavily, or the Canada geese for returning. (p 249)

This level of deep humility and care does not marry well with a materialistic reductionist mindset. Is true sustainability possible “in the absence of the sacred”?

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