Gardening among the Mandan and Hidatsa
Many tribes, including the Mandan and Hidatsa, grew beans, corn, squash and other vegetables to supplement their diet and to trade for other goods. These bountiful gardens, planted and maintained by the women, served as a favorite place to gather and socialize. Judy Bluehorse Skelton, a passionate gardener herself, talks about the gardening traditions among the Mandan and Hidatsa.
Judy Bluehorse Skelton:
Native Americans were the first gardeners and caretakers of North America. From high deserts to river valleys, from mountain hollows to woodlands and forests, Native communities cultivated and encouraged their favorite foods to grow and flourish. With keen powers of observation and patience, they imitated nature and in doing so, found innovative ways to overcome challenges like low rainfall, hot summers and short growing seasons.
Women were the keepers of the seeds and planted the vegetables, while men planted tobacco, and hunted or fished. The primary vegetables were corn, beans, squash and sunflowers. The Mandan and Hidatsa formed the Goose Women Society, whose purpose was to benefit the people by growing these foods. Their story tells of the “old woman who never dies” who lives on an island far to the south with her assistants, the great birds that keep the food plants.
The goose is the keeper of the corn; the swan is the keeper of the squash; and the duck is the keeper of the beans. Every spring, the old woman sends these birds north to signal that it’s time to plant the gardens.
Planting time was a time of hope and filled with social events. The Goose Women entertained each other and their families by preparing feasts to share. They held the spring planting ceremony, with dancing, singing and more feasting. While planting, the women visited and sang to one another over the fences separating each small plot. Once the garden was in, the women set up platforms a few feet off the ground. Young, usually unmarried women, would sit in pairs on the platforms to watch for blackbirds and other predators. Young men might happen to pass by when their favorite girl was on duty, for a little courting. Contact between boys and girls was strictly supervised, so the young people would exchange songs instead of conversation. Their intentions would be revealed in the songs they made up, some suitors hearing encouragement, and others leaving discouraged.
Women’s Work Song
Lewis & Clark: Sounds of Discovery
Women were often the traders of their own produce and the Mandan and Hidatsa region along the Missouri River was one of the largest trading centers. Trading had been going on for centuries before Columbus arrived, and shells from the Pacific Ocean and tomatoes from Central America could be found across the continent. Trade was the foundation of many healthy tribal economies.
In 1804 and 05, Lewis and Clark wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa and enjoyed their hospitality. However, by 1850, the tribes they had encountered were confined to reservations. They were no longer free to come and go as they pleased, to trade, to hunt, to fish. And they were no longer free to gather and tend to their gardens, which were often located outside the boundaries of the reservations. Their economy, traditions, and ability to provide for themselves suffered greatly.
In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act designed to assimilate Native people into the mainstream population by having them become farmers. Congress thought farming would suit American Indians who had an agricultural tradition, and that those who did not, could learn.
The Dawes Act broke up the large tracts of reservation lands into individual allotments for farming. Many of these farms failed and were sold – often to white settlers – further eroding the traditional land holdings of the tribe.
The Missouri Women
Lewis & Clark: Sounds of Discovery
But farming is not gardening, and this policy failed on many levels. Gardening had always been a supplement to hunting, fishing and gathering, not the sole source of food. The people couldn’t grow enough food. Congress ignored the fact that nearly all vegetable growing was done by the women, and gave allotments to men only. The Mandan and Hidatsa grew their gardens in the fertile banks of the Missouri River, not up on the hot, windy bluffs of the exposed plains, far from water. Native gardens were small, intensively planted to minimize water use, control pests, and make the most of the best soil. The American farming methods imposed on native people proved to be unsustainable, as American farmers would find out less than a century later when their topsoil blew away during the droughts of the 1930’s.
Today over 4,700 native people own their own farms, and more than 60% are employed in some capacity of agriculture. A revitalization of traditions and culture is blossoming and many reservations are creating small, bountiful community gardens to feed elders and to teach children the benefits of growing healthy, fresh food. The garden has become a place to remember our role as caretakers and an acknowledgment of the interrelationships of the circle of life. cultivating the gifts of generosity, humility, responsibility and respect.
With each breath, with each step, with each heart beat. Osadadu.
Educator, writer and herbalist Judy Bluehorse Skelton is Nez Perce, Chickasaw and Cherokee. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.