On a hunt for North America's indigenous crops

Recovering lost knowledge of ancient crops and the practice of indigenous food culture.
Traditional foods harvested by Kim Recalma-Clutesi at the Kwalicum First Nation, British Columbia. They include red clover root (tak'sus), rice root (lak'sim), lupine (Kwa'ni) and silver weed (Tlik'sim). (K Recalma-Clutesi)
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Fields of ancient dreams

Thousands of years ago, the North American landscape was not dominated by endless fields of corn, soybeans and wheat like it is today. Indigenous peoples cultivated a fruitful and diverse range of native plants that have all but disappeared from our food supply. Plants often perceived as weeds such as erect knotweed, goosefoot and marsh elder were an important part of traditional diets for thousands of years.

But with the arrival of Europeans, and more recently the development of industrial agriculture, the deep knowledge of the native North American ecology and crop diversity has been lost.

Scientists and food activists are trying to reverse that loss, by using a combination of archeology, botany, and rescued and recovered indigenous knowledge to learn more about the ancient crops cultivated and eaten in different parts of the continent. They also hope to perhaps one day reintroduce them into our modern, sometimes nutrient poor, diets.

Rediscovering lost crops

Dr. Natalie Mueller, an archeologist and paleoethnobotanist and post-doctoral researcher from Cornell University, is one of those researchers on the hunt for some of these ancient crops. Her first challenge was to identify what people were growing, harvesting, and eating prior to European contact. She's explored various archeological sites to identify which these ancient crops were important to the First Nations of North America. 

These crops show up in various places. She's found seeds in harvesting and storage sites, as well as cooking and preparation remnants around hearths. Dr. Mueller says she's even gleaned important information from fossilized human feces. "Back in the 1980s, some human paleofeces or human poop from thousands of years ago was recovered from caves in Kentucky and Tennessee. And those human poops are full of the seeds of these plants," she said.

Dr. Nathalie Mueller in her greenhouse where she cultivates plants used in ancient indigenous agriculture. (N Mueller)

About 700 years ago, however, most of the ancient crops she's discovered were no longer being cultivated. Why that happened is still a mystery, but it represents lost knowledge that Dr. Mueller is trying to recreate both in the lab and the field. 

"When I am able to actually find populations of these plants, especially the ones that are a little bit more rare, I kind of see that as a small glimpse of a different way of living on the landscape," she said.

Dr. Mueller has gained a lot of respect for the deep local knowledge of plants and animals that ancient peoples must have had. She says it's clear that these people, "made use of a more diverse array of resources to live on a local scale, rather than to create commodities for sale, which is mostly how that landscape is used today".

Erect knotweed, cultivated by pre-European contact Indigenous peoples, collected by Dr. Nathalie Mueller. (N. Mueller)
 

Preserving knowledge nearly lost

Not all Indigenous knowledge of local food and and its preparation has been lost, of course — though in some cases, it was a very close thing. In the Kwalikum First Nation on the coast of British Columbia, for example, Kim Recalma-Clutesi (Ogwiloqwa) is an apprentice of sorts — a keeper of knowledge of ancient crop harvesting practices. She is also the caretaker of Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwaxsistalla) and is trying to gather and preserve the knowledge of local food sources, harvesting, and preparation that only he possesses — while there is still time.

Kwaxsistalla - Clan Chief Adam Dick harvesting edible roots. As a child he was hidden from officials of the residential schools system, and so was the only one in his community in Kwalikum First Nation to learn about their traditional food knowledge. (K Recalma-Clutesi)

Dick is 89 years old, and the last traditionally trained elder in the art of Indigenous agriculture in his community. Knowledge like he has was nearly lost forever. When he was a child, his contemporaries were snatched up by the residential school system, and so the communication of knowledge from elders to youth was mostly broken with his generation. It was only because he was hidden from the residential schools that he got the chance to acquire and carry on the traditional knowledge of the ancient crops. And for most of his life, disruption of his community meant there was no-one to pass that knowledge on to.

Recalma-Clustesi is now doing her best to take on all the knowledge of environmental stewardship, nutritional diversity and food preparation that her clan practised for generations. It's no easy task, as the the breadth of knowledge, the skill required, and the understanding of the ecosystem takes a lifetime to master.

Bundled lupine roots collected on the Kwalicum First Nations prepared for cooking in a smoker. (K Recalma-Clutesi)

For Recalma-Clutesi, it's a work of passion that she sees as fundamental to keeping her culture alive and the people of her community healthy in body, soul and spirit.

"I believe that a lot our health issues stem from not practicing traditional food gathering," she says. "There is no question in my mind that the rampant onslaught of diabetes and many of the diseases that many people face in First Nations communities that are exceedingly high, they have to be tied to the loss of the use of the land and the loss of the good food."