Written By:

Indigenous Knowledge

The Key to Survival of Life

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz*

Pre-colonial Indigenous Americans were able to support complex societies with extensive agriculture as well as building large cities and towns without degrading the environment. Indeed, the capitalist-driven invasion and destruction of these civilizations, replacing them with use of land to produce non-food crops while industrializing food productions triggered the onset of man-made climate change, which is now threatens the destruction of all life on the planet.

The colonial myth of a sparse population of Neolithic hunters and gatherers in Amazonia and North America has long masked the reality of the pre-colonial Western Hemisphere, in which the Indigenous Peoples had built economies and institutions that supported populations as large as Europe at the time, but without the motive of profit and accumulation of individual and corporate wealth. Capitalist accumulation and private property were not inevitable developments of human societies as the Western idea of “progress” argues, nor is it true that “There Is No Alternative,” nor is it possible to sustain that system.

The necessary change will require more than sustainable development and an end to fossil fuel use; it will require a radically different relationship of human beings to one another and to the land.

As Sam Grey and Raj Patel write about Native Americans’ relationship to the land, “Given the kin-like relationship to land, it is more accurate to understand its commodification not as a deepening reification, but as enslavement . . . just as people have a right to their land, the land has a right to its people. This is the logical terminus of a line of thinking that begins with the idea of the cosmos as a living entity.”1 Muskogee historian Susan Miller explains:

Photo by Alec Krum on Unsplash
  • Environmentalism based on this assumption holds that a living, conscious being enjoys health or suffers illness. Ethics demands respect for the needs of such a being. Legal theory following this logic views any human practices that degrade the environment as assaults on a par with physical assaults on humans. Political discourse within this paradigm assumes that the invasions and occupations of Indigenous lands have oppressed not only Indigenous peoples but also an untold number of spirits and the conscious land herself.2

An intimate, long-term relationship with traditional territories also gives rise to Indigenous systems of governance, social organization, and science. Philosopher Gregory Cajete, from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, refers to this as “Native science,” the practice and product of a “lived and storied participation” with the totality of creation, entailing “a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and ‘coming to know.’’’3

It is necessary to use the method of historical materialism to understand the socio-economic/cultural history of the United States as a settler-colonial state, being aware that in a settler-colonial society, everyone is an owner, or aspirant owner, so that classical European-based class analysis must be repurposed. Slavery meant bodies owned.

But there are serious misunderstandings and politicized science about the civilizations that preceded European colonization, and there is much that can be learned from the social relations and economies of those civilizations.

Humanoids existed on Earth for around four million years as hunters and gatherers living in small communal groups that through their movements found and populated every continent. Some two hundred thousand years ago, human societies, having originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, began migrating in all directions, and their descendants eventually populated the globe. Around twelve thousand years ago, some of these people began staying put and developed agriculture—mainly women who domesticated wild plants and began cultivating others.

As a birthplace of agriculture and the towns and cities that followed, America is ancient, not a “new world.” Domestication of plants took place around the globe in seven locales during approximately the same period, around 8500 BC. Three of the seven birthplaces of agricultural civilization were located in the Western Hemisphere, all based on corn: these were the Valley of Mexico and Central America (Mesoamerica); the South-Central Andes in South America; and eastern North America. The other early agricultural centers were the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile River systems, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Yellow River of northern China, and the Yangtze River of southern China. During this time, many of the same human societies began domesticating animals. Only in the Western hemispheric continents was the parallel domestication of animals eschewed in favor of game management, a kind of animal husbandry different from that developed in Africa and Asia, and perhaps a significant difference. In these seven areas of the globe, agriculture-based societies developed in symbiosis with hunting, fishing, and gathering peoples on their peripheries, gradually enveloping many of the latter into the realms of their civilizations, except for those in regions inhospitable to agriculture. Their stewardship of their territories is equally interesting.

Indigenous American agriculture was based on corn. Traces of cultivated corn have been identified in central Mexico dating back ten thousand years. Twelve to fourteen centuries later, corn production had spread throughout the temperate and tropical Americas from the southern tip of South America to the subarctic of North America, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean on both continents. The wild grain from which corn was cultivated has never been identified with certainty. Since there is no evidence of corn on any other continent prior to its post-Columbus dispersal of Western Hemisphere products, the development of corn is a unique invention of the original American agriculturalists. Unlike most grains, corn cannot grow wild and cannot exist without attentive human care. Along with multiple varieties and colors of corn, Mesoamericans cultivated squash and beans, which were extended throughout the hemisphere, as were the many varieties and colors of potato cultivated by Andean farmers beginning more than seven thousand years ago.

Many of the areas that gave birth to agricultural civilizations, and this is the case where corn was the staple, were arid or semiarid, so cultivation required the design and construction of complex irrigation systems. In the sites of corn production, these irrigation systems were in place at least two thousand years before Europeans knew the Western Hemisphere existed. The proliferation of agriculture and cultigens could not have occurred without centuries of cultural and commercial interchange among the peoples of North, Central, and South America, whose traders carried seeds as well as other goods and cultural practices.

The vast reach and capacity of Indigenous grain production impressed colonialist Europeans. A traveller in French-occupied North America related in 1669 that six square miles of cornfields surrounded each Iroquois village. The governor of New France, following a military raid in the 1680s, reported that he had destroyed more than a million bushels (forty-two thousand tons) of corn belonging to four Iroquois villages. Thanks to the nutritious triad of corn, beans, and squash—which provide a complete protein—the Americas were densely populated when the European monarchies began sponsoring colonization projects there. Destruction of Indigenous food crops was the primary method of British, then United States colonial occupation and ethnic cleansing to make way for mono-crop plantation agriculture.

The total population of the hemisphere was about one hundred million at the end of the fifteenth century, with about two-fifths in North America, including Mexico. Central Mexico

alone supported some thirty million people. At the same time, the population of Europe as far east as the Ural Mountains was around fifty million. Experts have observed that such population densities in precolonial America were supportable because the peoples had created a relatively disease-free paradise. However, there certainly were diseases and health problems, but the practice of herbal medicine and even surgery and dentistry, and most importantly both hygienic and ritual bathing, kept diseases at bay. Ritual sweat baths, having originated in Mexico, were common to all Native North Americans.

Above all, the majority of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas had healthy, mostly vegetarian diets based on the staple of corn and supplemented by wild fish, fowl, and four-legged animals. People lived long and well with abundant ceremonial and recreational periods. And, of course, there were conflicts, which sometimes led to war, but also highly developed diplomatic skills, which account for the Indigenous nations’ survival.

By the time of European invasions, Indigenous peoples had occupied and shaped every part of the Americas, established extensive trade networks and roads, and were sustaining their populations by adapting to specific natural environments, but they also adapted nature to suit human ends.

Rather than domesticating animals for hides and meat, Indigenous communities created havens to attract elk, deer, bear, and other game. They burned the undergrowth in forests so that the young grasses and other ground cover that sprouted the following spring would entice greater numbers of herbivores and the predators that fed on them, which would sustain the people who ate them both. Charles Mann, in his fine book, 1491, describes these forests: “Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak.”4 Inland a few miles from the shore of present-day Rhode Island, an early European explorer marvelled at the trees that were spaced so that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.”5 English mercenary John Smith wrote that he had ridden a galloping horse through the Virginia forest. In Ohio, the first English squatters on Indigenous lands in the mid-eighteenth century encountered forested areas that resembled English parks, as they could drive carriages through the trees.

Bison herds roamed the East from New York to Georgia (it is no accident that a settler city in western New York was named Buffalo). The American bison was indigenous to the northern and southern plains of North America, not the East, yet Native peoples imported them east, as they transformed forest into fallows for the bison to survive upon far from their original habitat. Historian William Cronon has written that when the Haudenosaunee hunted buffalo, they were “harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating.” As for the “Great American Desert,” as Anglo-Americans called the Great Plains, the occupants transformed that too into game farms. Using fire, they extended the giant grasslands and maintained them. When Lewis and Clark began their trek up the Missouri River in 1804, in the words of ethnologist Dale Lott, “they beheld not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.” Native Americans created the world’s largest gardens and grazing lands—and thrived.

Native peoples left an indelible imprint on the land with systems of roads that tied nations and communities together across the entire landmass of the Americas. Scholar David Wade Chambers writes:

  • The first thing to note about early Native American roads is that they were not just paths in the woods following along animal tracks used mainly for hunting. Neither can they be characterized simply as the routes that nomadic peoples followed during seasonal migrations. Rather they constituted an extensive system of roadways that spanned the Americas, making possible short, medium and long distance travel. That is to say, the Pre-Columbian Americas were laced together with a complex system of roads and paths which became the roadways adopted by the early settlers and indeed were ultimately transformed into major highways.6

This brief overview of precolonial North America suggests the magnitude of what was lost to all humanity and counteracts the settler-colonial myth of the wandering Neolithic hunter. These were civilizations based on advanced agriculture and featured varied forms of governance. It is essential to understand the migrations and Indigenous peoples’ relationships prior to invasion, North and South, and how colonialism cut them off, but those relationships have been in the process of being re-established with the international indigenous movement of the past four decades.

The problem is capitalism, which is not the same as commerce and trade. And capitalism emerged with the invasions and conquests of the peoples, land, and resources of the Western Hemisphere. No one has put it better in one sentence than Karl Marx:

  • The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of prior accumulation.7

Nearly three centuries of rapacious exploitation and genocide in the Americas culminated in the birth of the United States as the first state founded as a capitalist state based on land and enslaved African bodies as its principal capital. The extension of the United States from sea to shining sea was the intention and design of the country’s founders. “Free” land was the magnet that attracted European settlers. Many were slave owners who desired limitless land for lucrative cash crops. After the war for independence but preceding the writing of the US Constitution, the Continental Congress produced the Northwest Ordinance. Revealing the motive for those desiring independence, this was the first law of the incipient republic. It was the blueprint for gobbling up the British-protected Indian Territory (“Ohio Country”) on the other side of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Britain, with the Proclamation of 1763, had made settlement there illegal.

In 1801, President Jefferson aptly described the new settler-state’s intentions for horizontal and vertical continental expansion when he stated: “

  • However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar form by similar laws.8

This vision of manifest destiny found form a few years later in the Monroe Doctrine, signaling the intention of annexing or dominating former Spanish colonial territories in the Americas and the Pacific, which would be put into practice during the rest of the 19th century. Then, onward to world domination.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 had established a national system for surveying and distributing land, and as one historian has noted, “Under the May 1785 ordinance, Indian land would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”9 The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, albeit guaranteeing Indigenous occupancy and title, set forth a colonization procedure for annexation via military occupation, creating territorial status once conquered and ethnically cleansed, and finally statehood. Conditions for statehood would be achieved when the settlers outnumbered the Indigenous population, which in the cases of both the Mexican cession area and the Louisiana Purchase territory required decimation or forced removal of Indigenous populations.

In this US system, unique among colonial powers, land became the most important exchange commodity for the accumulation of capital and building of the national treasury. To understand the genocidal policy of the US government, the centrality of land sales in building the economic base of the US wealth and power must be seen.

* This is the text of the lecture given by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz at the “International Conference on Sustainability Development” held at Columbia University, New York, NY (2015). She is professor emerita at California State University East Bay, and author of numerous scholarly Indigenous-related books and articles, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 1980), The Great Sioux Nation (Bison Books, 2013), and the award-winning book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2015).

1 Sam Grey and Raj Patel, “Food Sovereignty as Decolonization: Some Contributions from Indigenous Movements to Food System and Development Politics,” Agriculture and Human Values 32 (2015): 431–444, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-014-9548-9.

2 Susan A. Miller, “ Native America Writes Back: The Origin of the Indigenous Paradigm in Historiography. Wicazo Sa Review 23, no. 2 (2008): 10–11.

3 Gregory Cajete, “Philosophy of Native Science.” in Anne Waters, ed., American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2004) 46 (quoted in Grey and Patel, footnote 1 above)

4 Charles Mann, 1491:New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Vintage, 2006), 286.

5 The Written Record of the Voyage of 1524 of Giovanni da Verrazano as recorded in a letter to Francis I, King of France, July 8th, 1524, http://realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/Misc/Data/Verrazano.htm

6 David Wallace Chambers, “Native American Road Systems and Trails,” Udemy, https://www.udemy.com/lectures/unit-4-native-american-road-systems-and-trails-76573 (accessed September 24, 2013)

7 Karl Marx, “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist,” Capital (1867), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm (accessed February 27, 2021).

8 Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Monroe, November 24, 2801, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl142.php  (accessed February 27, 2021).

9 Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origin of the American Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 14