Northern Plains Agriculture

The common stereotype of American Indians paints a picture of them as horse-mounted, nomadic, buffalo hunters. This stereotype is often based upon the Northern Plains Indians which the American traders, missionaries, and military encountered in the nineteenth century. However, not all of the Indian nations of the Northern Plains were buffalo hunting nomads: the tribes of the upper Missouri River Valley-the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara-were sedentary agriculturalists. These villages raised corn, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash. They produced not only enough agricultural products for their own use, but also a substantial surplus which was traded to other tribes, and later to the Europeans and Americans. Their agricultural surplus brought them wealth and political power.

Catlin Mandan

Shown above is a painting of a Mandan village by George Catlin.  

Agricultural Fields:

Sensitive to the ecological demands of the Northern Plains, fields were established in the fertile bottomlands where the tillable soil was renewed annually by flooding. The brush which was cleared for the planting was spread over the fields and burned. This practice softened the soil and added nutrients. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman, speaking about 1910, says:

“It was well known in my tribe that burning over new ground left the soil soft and easy to work, and for this reason we thought it a wise thing to do.”

In addition, fields were taken out of production and allowed to lay fallow for two years in order to let the land rejuvenate.

Among the Arikara, each family worked a plot of land from a half acre to an acre and a half in size. The plots were separated from each other by brush and pole fences. These fields tended to be irregular in shape. Among all of the tribes, the fields were tended by the women. Since no fertilizer was used, the fields were periodically abandoned and new fields were cleared and put into use.

In preparing the fields for planting, the Mandan used rakes and digging sticks. Some of the rakes were made from deer antler and some were made from long willow shoots. In cultivating the fields, the Mandan used a hoe that was often made from the shoulder-blade of the buffalo or elk, which was attached to a long wooden handle.

Among the Mandan, there were watch platforms scattered throughout the fields. These platforms were staffed by young boys who kept a careful eye out for enemy warriors who might threaten the unprotected women who were working in the fields.

Crops:

Sunflowers – black, white, red, sand striped – were the first crop planted in the spring and they were the last crop harvested in the fall. The sunflowers were planted around the edges of the field. The Hidatsa name for April is Mapi’-o’ce-mi’di which means Sunflower Planting Moon.

Sunflower seeds were parched in a clay pot and then made into meal. Some of this meal was used to make sunflower balls which were an important item in the diet. Warriors would carry a sunflower-seed ball wrapped in a piece of buffalo-heart skin. When tired, the warrior would then nibble at the ball. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman describes the effects of nibbling on a sunflower-seed ball:

“If the warrior was weary, he began to feel fresh again; if sleepy, he grew wakeful.”

Corn planting began after the sunflower seeds were planted. When the gooseberry bush began to leaf it was time to plant. Corn was planted in hilled rows with the hills about four feet apart. This spacing was tuned to the local rainfall. Closer spacing would bring higher yields only if the growing season were unusually wet. A second planting of corn was done when the June berries were ripe.

Most families kept enough seed corn for two years. After two years the corn would not come up well and after four years the corn seed was dead and worthless.

The village tribes of the northeastern Plains planted between nine and eleven different varieties of corn. The Indians also observed some basic plant genetics. According to Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman:

“We Indians knew that corn can travel, as we say; thus, if the seed planted in one field is of white corn, and that in an adjoining field is of some variety corn, the white will travel to the yellow corn field, and the yellow to the white corn field.”

The corn grown by the Missouri River tribes was extremely hardy. It adapted itself to varying amounts of moisture and produced some crop under drought conditions. It was also resistant to the unseasonable frosts which are apt to occur in the region.

One of the main varieties of corn was flint corn, which was well-adapted to the semi-arid Northern Plains climate. This corn took about 60 days to mature and, because of its short stalk, was able to withstand winds fairly well. This corn is usually eight rowed, occasionally ten or twelve rowed. It is high in protein and the grain is very hard and heavy.

The tribes also grew flour corn which is softer and lighter. It is largely composed of starch and is deficient in protein. The advantage of this species of corn, however, was that it could be easily crushed or ground and it was much softer than the flint corn when eaten parched.  

The farming efforts of the village tribes on the northeastern plains produced surplus crops which were used in developing trade with other tribes and, later, with the European immigrants. The Sioux, for example, would make yearly trips to the Arikara villages to trade buffalo robes, skins, and meat for corn. During the 19th century, the Arikara produced 2,000 to 3,000 bushels of corn annually. Even when drought and early frost killed part of their crop, they had surplus to trade.

Squash was planted in late May or early June. To prepare the seeds for planting, they were first wetted, then placed on matted red-grass leaves and mixed with broad-leaved sage. Buffalo skin was then folded over the squash bundle and it was then hung in the lodge to dry for two days. During this time the seeds would begin to sprout. The sprouted seeds were then planted in hills about four feet apart.

Immediately after planting the squash, the beans were planted in hills about two feet apart. The beans were often planted between the rows of corn. Five different varieties of beans were planted.

Tobacco was also raised by the tribes. Among the Hidatsa, tobacco was planted only by old men. According to Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman, young men did not smoke as

“they were taught that smoking would injure their lungs and make them short winded so that they would be poor runners. But when a man got to be about sixty years of age we thought it right for him to smoke as much as he liked.”

The Hidatsa tobacco fields were about 18 feet by 21 feet.

Storage and food preparation:

The village tribes stored their crops for winter in cache pits. These pits were shaped like a jug with a narrow neck at the top.  Among the Mandan, the storage pits would be from 6 to 8 feet deep. The cache would hold 20 to 30 bushels. They were lined with grass or woven plants to prevent spoilage from moisture.

In preparing the corn for storage the ears would be braided into strands. The length of the braids was standardized: the length was from knee down around the foot and up to the knee again. Once braided, the corn would be hung on the frame of the drying scaffold.

One of the popular ways of preparing the corn for eating was making corn balls. In one version of the corn balls, pounded sugar corn was mixed with grease. Another kind of corn ball was made using pounded corn, pounded sunflower seed, and boiled beans. It is reported that this tasted like peanut butter.

Southeastern Indian Agriculture

One of the common misconceptions about American Indians that is often repeated in the media and in high school and college textbooks is the idea that they were “hunting and gathering” people. In fact, the Indian nations of the Southeast were agricultural people who lived in permanent villages.  

Background:

The Southeastern Woodlands is an area which is bounded by the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands of Arkansas and Missouri and the dry plains of eastern Texas on the west and the low plateaus of Kentucky and Tennessee and the interior plains of Illinois on the north. The eastern boundary is the Atlantic Ocean and southern boundary is the Gulf of Mexico. The Southeastern Culture Area includes the present states of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, western North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, southern and eastern Arkansas, Tennessee, and the portions of Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky that border the Mississippi River. Prior to European contact nearly two million Indian people lived in this area.

Farming:

Crops (primarily corn, beans, squash, and tobacco) were planted along the creeks and bottomlands near the villages. The area would be first cleared by cutting and burning. The ashes of the burnt wood and cane would then nourish the crops. In addition to the primary crops, the Indians of the Southeast also raised sunflower, sumpweed, chenopodium, pigweed, knotweed, giant ragweed, canary grass, amaranth, and melons.

In order to obtain a maximum yield from their fields, the Southeastern Indians practiced both intercropping and multiple cropping. Intercropping involved planting several different kinds of plants together in the same field. By planting corn and beans together, for example, the bean vines could twine themselves around the corn stocks.  

The farming practices of the Southeastern Indians did not rapidly exhaust the soil. They planted beans with corn, thus offsetting the latter’s great consumption of nitrogen. They also carefully hoed the fields to avoid eroding the land.

One interesting aspect to intercropping was the practice of leaving and/or planting trees in cultivated fields that yielded nuts and fruits. This practice helped maintain long-term soil fertility. Fruit and nut tree cultivation in fields with maize and other annuals planted in hills contributed to maintaining fertility. These trees included cherries, white and red mulberries, persimmons, walnuts, chestnuts, plums, and dwarf chinquapins.

Many of the tribes also cultivated plums, particularly the Chickasaw plum (Prunus chicàsa). Later Europeans, who tended to be blind to Native American agriculture, described this as a wild plant and failed to notice that it was found only near abandoned Indian fields.

In addition to helping provide nutrients, the trees also attracted birds. The birds, in turned, helped to restrain the insect population in the fields.

Multiple cropping involves the planting of two successive crops in the same field. Thus, early corn was planted first. It ripened early and was picked green. Then the field would be cleared and a second crop was planted.

Not all cultivated plants were food plants. The Southeastern Indians also grew bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). When cured, the bottle gourd has a hard shell that is very light and difficult to break. Bottle gourds were used for making water vessels, dippers, ladles, bowls, cups, rattles, masks, and bird houses. Tobacco was also grown.

The fields were worked communally. The entire field was not tilled, but rather worked into small hills about a foot in diameter which were spaced about three feet apart and which were laid out in straight lines. Working the fields in this fashion prevented soil erosion and preserved the fertility of the soil longer than did the plow-agriculture which was later introduced by the European colonists.

Fields were cultivated with handled implements that the first Europeans described as hoes. These implements had blades of stone, oyster, mussel shell, fishbone, or wood. In addition, they used a digging stick for making holes into which the seeds were planted.

Unlike the Europeans, the Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands did not view land as private property. Farm land was owned communally and therefore the food it produced belonged to all. Each village had a common granary to protect against times of famine.

In general, each of the Southeastern towns would have a certain amount of land under cultivation. Whenever a child was born the land under cultivation would be proportionally increased.  To determine the amount of land needed by the town, a census would be taken each year.

An important part of agriculture is the ability to store the harvested crops in such a way that they are kept safe from mice and other animals. To do this, the Southeastern Indians built corn cribs which were raised 7-8 feet on posts. The posts were polished so that the mice could not climb them. The crib itself was plastered and the door was sealed. When corn was taken from the crib, the seal would be broken, the door opened, some of the corn removed, and then the closed door was resealed to protect the corn which remained in the crib.

Cuisine:

The diet of the Southeastern Indians was heavily dependent on corn, beans, squash, and other agricultural crops supplemented with wild game and fish.

There is an important reason for consuming both corn and beans together. While corn supplies some essential protein, it lacks the amino acid lysine. On the other hand, lysine is abundant in beans. Thus, when beans and corn are eaten together they are a good source of vegetable protein.

The early European settlers were amazed at the number of different ways that the Indians prepared corn. It is estimated that there were at least 42 different ways of preparing corn, each with its own name. Corn was processed into hominy which has been described as the staff of life for the Southeastern Indians. This process involved the use of wood-ash lye which selectively enhanced the nutritional value of the corn by increasing amino acid lysine and niacin. This protects people who eat a corn-based diet against pellagra.

To produce the wood-ash, the Choctaw women would pour cold water over clean wood ashes placed in a hopper. This would produce a yellow lye which would drip down into a small container. This lye would then be added to the cornmeal.

Among the Choctaw, corn was made into paluska holbi, which was a kind of bread. Boiling water would be poured into cornmeal, which was then pounded into a stiff dough, and shaped into small rolls. These rolls were then wrapped in corn husks and cooked under hot ashes. For a richer taste, they would add chestnut or hickory oil to the cornmeal.

Another Choctaw cornbread was bunaha. This was prepared by mixing dried beans, wild potatoes, and/or hickory with the cornmeal. The rolls of this mixture, wrapped in cornhusks, were then boiled in water.

Another important part of the cuisine of the Southeastern Indians was squash. At least five different kinds of squash were grown. As a fresh vegetable, squash was often used in stews. It was also sun dried, which concentrates the sugar so that dried squash could be cooked as a sweet dish.

Southeastern Agriculture

When the Spanish first arrived in what is now the Southeastern United States, they found Indian nations that had been agriculturalists for more than a thousand years. In 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto landed in Tampa Bay (Florida) with a large force and began marching north. The Spanish report that they passed by many great fields of corn, beans, squash, and other plants. In one instance they reported that the fields ran for two leagues (approximately 4-5 miles) and that they spread out for as far as the eye could see on either side of the roadway. It is estimated that this represented more than 10,000 acres under cultivation.

Crops (primarily corn, beans, squash, and tobacco) were planted along the creeks and bottomlands near the villages. The area would be first cleared by cutting and burning. The ashes of the burnt wood and cane would then nourish the crops. In addition to the primary crops, the Indians of the Southeast also raised sunflowers, pumpkins, sumpweed, chenopodium, pigweed, knotweed, giant ragweed, canary grass, amaranth, and melons.  

In order to obtain a maximum yield from their fields, the Southeastern Indians practiced both intercropping and multiple cropping. Intercropping involved planting several different kinds of plants together in the same field. By planting corn and beans together, for example, the bean vines could twine themselves around the corn stocks.  

One interesting aspect to intercropping was the practice of leaving and/or planting trees in cultivated fields that yielded nuts and fruits. This practice helped maintain long-term soil fertility. These trees included cherries, white and red mulberries, persimmons, walnuts, chestnuts, plums, and dwarf chinquapins. In addition to helping provide nutrients, the trees also attracted birds. The birds, in turned, helped to restrain the insect population in the fields.

Multiple cropping involves the planting of two successive crops in the same field. Thus, early corn was planted first. It ripened early and was picked green. Then the field would be cleared and a second crop was planted. However, double-cropping drains soil fertility unless there was some method of restoring nutrients to the soil. It is evident from both historical accounts and from the archaeological record that the Southeastern nations retained their fields for long periods of time and therefore must have replenished soil fertility.

The farming practices of the Southeastern Indians did not rapidly exhaust the soil. They planted beans with corn, thus offsetting the latter’s great consumption of nitrogen. They also carefully hoed the fields to avoid eroding the land. Among the Yamasee, who planted their fields near lagoons and marshes, the cultivated areas were regularly rotated to avoid soil exhaustion.

There is another important reason for raising both corn and beans. While corn supplies some essential protein, it lacks the amino acid lysine. On the other hand, lysine is abundant in beans. Thus, when beans and corn are eaten together they are a good source of vegetable protein.

As a fresh vegetable, squash was often used in stews. It was also sun dried, which concentrates the sugar so that dried squash could be cooked as a sweet dish.

A number of tribes in Florida, including the Timucua and the Calusa, cultivated a tuber known as Zamia. The Zamia plant appears to have been introduced into Florida by the ancestors of the historic Calusa from a source area in the Caribbean islands.

Not all cultivated plants were food plants. The Southeastern Indians also grew bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). When cured, the bottle gourd has a hard shell that is very light and difficult to break. Bottle gourds were used for making water vessels, dippers, ladles, bowls, cups, rattles, masks, and bird houses. Tobacco was also grown.

Unlike the Europeans, the Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands did not view land as private property. Land was held in common with individuals and families having use rights. These farming rights were held as long as they continued to use the land. Use rights were generally respected and an individual or family would not seek access to a piece of land until it had been abandoned.

Among the Creeks, the amount of land under cultivation at each town would be increased whenever a child was born. To determine the amount of land needed by the town, a census would be taken each year.

The fields were worked communally. The entire field was not tilled, but rather worked into small hills about a foot in diameter which were spaced about three feet apart and which were laid out in straight lines. This method of preparation prevented soil erosion and preserved the fertility of the soil longer than did the plow-agriculture introduced by the later European colonists.

Among the Seminole, everyone in the village helped keep the crops healthy until they could be harvested. During the day, the children and the older people would drive away the nuisance birds. At night, the men would patrol the fields to keep the nocturnal animals away. Deer, bear, and raccoon were fond of Seminole crops.

The Cherokee built large scaffolds in their fields so that they could watch for crows and raccoons. During the summer, elderly women would sit on the scaffolds watching the fields. They would attempt to scare away animals which might eat the crops.  

Fields were cultivated with handled implements that the first Europeans described as hoes. These implements had blades of stone, oyster, mussel shell, fishbone, or wood. In addition, they used a digging stick for making holes into which the seeds were planted.

An important part of agriculture is the ability to store the harvested crops in such a way that they are kept safe from mice and other animals. To do this, the Southeastern Indians built corn cribs which were raised 7-8 feet on posts. The posts were polished so that the mice could not climb them. The crib itself was plastered and the door was sealed. When corn was taken from the crib, the seal would be broken, the door opened, some of the corn removed, and then the closed door was resealed to protect the corn which remained in the crib.

The early European settlers were amazed at the number of different ways that the Indians prepared corn. It is estimated that there were at least 42 different ways of preparing corn, each with its own name. Corn was processed into hominy which has been described as the staff of life for the Southeastern Indians. This process involved the use of wood-ash lye which selectively enhanced the nutritional value of the corn by increasing amino acid lysine and niacin. This protects people who eat a corn-based diet against pellagra.

To produce the wood-ash, the Choctaw women would pour cold water over clean wood ashes placed in a hopper. This would produce a yellow lye which would drip down into a small container. This lye would then be added to the cornmeal.

Among the Choctaw, corn was made into paluska holbi, which was a kind of bread. Boiling water would be poured into cornmeal, which was then pounded into a stiff dough, and shaped into small rolls. These rolls were then wrapped in corn husks and cooked under hot ashes. For a richer taste, they would add chestnut or hickory oil to the cornmeal.

Another Choctaw cornbread was bunaha. This was prepared by mixing dried beans, wild potatoes, and/or hickory with the cornmeal. The rolls of this mixture, wrapped in cornhusks, were then boiled in water.

As with tribes in other parts of North America, the tribes of the Southeast raised and gathered tobacco which was used for smoking. Among the Choctaw, tobacco was mixed with the leaves of other plants when used for smoking.

Many of the tribes also cultivated plums, particularly the Chickasaw plum (Prunus chicàsa). Later Europeans described this as a wild plant and failed to notice that it was found only near abandoned Indian fields.