“Wild Cultivation”: Traditional Plant Management in Northwestern North America
Nancy J. Turner
Indigenous agriculturalists of North America are known for their domesticated annual crops such as maize, beans, squash, and sunflowers. Most North American Indigenous Peoples, however, have been described as “Hunter-Gatherers,” with the implication that, in terms of plant foods, they simply randomly harvested the wild berries, greens and roots they encountered. This label scarcely acknowledges the sophisticated techniques and approaches these peoples employed to sustain and enhance their plant foods and habitats. Their management practices and associated knowledge are as relevant today as in the past, and have excellent potential for application in ecological restoration, food production, permaculture, and biodiversity conservation.
In cultivating “wild” species, Indigenous plant managers bring their personal knowledge, along with techniques and practices passed down through generations. Their contribution to North America’s landscapes include influencing ecological succession, creating and extending particular habitats, pruning and coppicing trees and shrubs, enriching soils, distributing seeds, and transplanting species from one locale to another. But their influence doesn’t end there. Indigenous Peoples also embrace their own associated cultural institutions, means of monitoring and maintaining productivity, and ways of sharing knowledge with others, including future generations. Their lessons and approaches are often taught through experiential learning, storytelling, ceremony, and art. These practices are currently being documented by botanists and ecologists in conjunction with key elders and scholars from many communities.