Lessons from First Nation

This year’s Guelph Organic Conference and Expo looked to the roots of agriculture in the Great Lakes region for lessons in modern organic farming.

Richard Hill, a member of the Haudenosaunee First Nation, which is part of the Six Nation Confederacy, spoke to an attentive and enthusiastic crowd.

Before his talk, several people were working the technology, attempting to bring up his PowerPoint presentation. When he reached the designated time for his talk, he calmly suggested that perhaps this was a lesson to be learned. Although supporters had made a beautiful presentation for him, perhaps this was a reminder that the oral traditions should be shared orally.

This set the tone for his presentation and seemed typical of his approach: learn the lessons that are all around you. And his story telling was well honed: eloquent, humorous and fascinating.

Hill described the style of agriculture, based on corn, beans and squash, that was practised by the Seneca people in the 1600s. The “three sisters” were planted together in mounds. Corn grew tall, beans used the corn stalks for support and provided nitrogen and squash covered the ground, reducing weeding and keeping the soil moist. Hill said research from Cornell University shows this system was higher yielding and better for the soil than any of the European agricultural systems of the day.

Traditional agriculture was about more than yields or even soil. It included right relationships: among people, with the crops and with the earth. It also included songs, rituals and cooking. Traditional knowledge, he said, continues to provide a model for our relationship to the earth.

Hill explained the Haudenosaunee view of the world by comparing it to a bowl.

He said nature is like a big dish with everything we need inside. We are given a big spoon to take what we need, but there are some important rules: take as much as you need, don’t take more than you need, leave some for others and leave some for the dish. For you to be happy, the dish must be happy.

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This approach is based on abundance, social justice and ecology. It comes from a spiritual connection to food that is often lost in today’s world.

Hill said growing food is one of the best forms of medicine because if it is done well, it involves meditation, an open mind, compassion and realigning one’s self with the relationships we have with the earth.

The creation stories of the Haudenosaunee connect women with plants, and as such, “women are the economic engine in our community.” Men are connected with meat, with venison. Regeneration of society begins with an exchange of food between men and women, both groups working together.

“To navigate this world, we need inherited knowledge,” Hill said.

Sometimes the information is hard to access.

“If you use your mind in the right way, it is all there for you. You have to work, but it is there.”

This work can be emotionally draining, and Hill said it may not necessarily be cost effective. However, it is necessary to heal the gulf between people, the food supply and the natural world.

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Hill said the garden and the field tells us what we need. Some weeds may not be good, but they may be there to show us that more work is needed. Other “weeds” may be there because they bring the medicine we need. Even the crops themselves may be showing us what we need. One type of corn, the old grandfather or grandmother corn, with seeds that come up and over the tip, has medicinal value. Beans are important in relieving diabetes.

The lessons of the Haudenosaunee include a personal and spiritual connection to food.

“The love the creator felt for us is part of our traditional food,” Hill said.

You can’t say, “I grow corn,” in his language. You can only say, “I put the seed in the ground and the corn grows.” The corn has its own spirit.

Still, the work of the people is important.

“What we’re doing is to restore the health of the dish.”

Organic agriculture also needs to reconnect with its traditions of care, relationship, social justice and listening to the lessons around us.

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“The only antidote to stupidity is to have a relationship with right thinking,” Hill said. “Over there is insanity, and if you bang your head on that wall, you will get a headache. Over here is fertile earth. Where do you want to spend your time?”