Dec 22, 2009

The Shape of Things that Last

The Straightening out of Indigenous Agriculture and the Loss of Sacred Soil
The Shape of Things to Lose
For eons of time indigenous people have made their practice of living on the land a sacred act respecting its natural energies, insoulment, and many forms of life.
In nature there are few if any straight lines. The flow of life rarely takes a straight path, but winds through interconnected elements to form a pattern that will thrive in the niche it occupies.
The dominant shape present in many First People's implements and architecture is the circle. The round or cylindrical shape is strong and ever present. Patterns of shapes take hold in many forms and are organic to the function performed. When faced with choices of survival using only local resources and constructs, the natural patterns are obvious to those connected to the land.
The design drivers for agricultural designs in gardens were based on the natural elements and proven success. Weather was a large influence of how things were shaped and the garden was an indigenous construct to take advantage of, or buffer, the conditions for growing food. The yield was a locally produced food that could easily be stored for long periods of time without processing. Not as a commodity as the federal perspective approaches food production.
Mechanization of the farming practice is paramount in the euro-American paradigm. Planting faster and farther. Growing more than you need to exchange for those people who do not grow. The American economic system is based on commodity exchange and putting the most people to work producing the hardware of infrastructure of a nation. Regrettably for everyone the shape of the first gardens did not work well with machinery or the en mass cultivation of soil for large plots. Indian agents were set on fewer people working bigger lands, a model not suited to the sensitive ecology of the greater west. The shape that pre-Columbian cultivation took was suited to local conditions on economic pressures or social agendas.
The images in this paper will show the original shapes as well as the resulting destruction of traditional shapes when respect for indigenous knowledge was ignored. This is a common problem in societies over-run by ethnocentric "benefactors". 1
The Shape of Things Past

Milton Snow
"Hotevilla terraced garden, Hotevilla, Arizona. Everyone in this village has a small garden which is irrigated by the village spring. The women own and maintain these gardens." - Milton Snow, 1936.
Meso-Americans used terraces for centuries to slow down the water from arroyos and hills. These terraces collected silt and held the water underground. They were however high maintenance and inaccessible to modern machines. For local production they were very fertile and productive (Hurt, R.D., 1987). The native people were well adjusted to the terrain and climate needs for their crops. Terraces were small and personal gardens near a home or large mountain side constructions.
Milton Snow was a Soil Conservation Society photographer in the 1930s. He recorded many civil engineering projects on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. He was also a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) photographer. Most images are from eye level across the plane using a 4x5 camera.[i]
By 1000 B.C. Meso Americans had adapted their agriculture to the local environment. Once the modern agriculture moved the gardens out into the desert with fencing and plowed fields, the elements that had been respected so many years eroded the topsoil and blew away the fertility.
Zuni Gardens
The three images on the right are by Jesse Logan Nusbaum, a government archeologist in New Mexico and the surrounding area from 1909 to 1912. While working in the Yucatan Pennisnsula Nusbaum was named superintendent of the Mesa Verde National Park in 1920. Nusbaum retried at age 71 and lived in Santa Fe until his death in 1975. These three angles help define in multi dimensions the garden design. All three are by Nusbaum, taken within minutes of each other. The wall, people and lighting match to bring into scale what would otherwise be a flat image. This technique gives us much more information and lie to the photo. They could be seen as three images, but I like to consider that it is one image from three angles and construct a 3D image in my mind as I look at them. Unlike most single shot images of indexical nature, recording the subject from multiple angles is a great way to record a scene and helps extend our gaze into more facets of the visual experience. Pivoting around the subject creates a sense of singular focus, multiple access and perspective for the viewer as the subject seemingly stationary, revolves within our holographic consciousness.
The unmistakable Zuni Waffle Garden was a design response to the arid conditions of the South West. Cotton was a main crop in Zuni gardens, although they bartered for most of their needs from the Hopi and Pima. When the Spanish arrived with sheep, cotton became less appreciated and has disappeared except for ceremonial needs (Hurt, 42).
Zuni women would water the plants on a three-day rotation. Once a garden was established, it was semi-permanent and amended with organic matter and wind blown silt that would collect in the depressions. Advanced Zuni agriculture also rotated crops in arroyo fields and left fields fallow between crops (Vlasich, 96).
The Zuni Pueblo at left, a photo by John Hillers in 1879,[ii] mimics the same pattern as the gardens. Seemingly the same structural solution or cultural adaptation, although Pima and Navajo used mounding.
Hiller was an expedition photographer for John Wesley Powell creating images to help fund the surveys. By this time Hillers had been working for him 8 years. The Pueblo photo is an epic image, but also supplies the detail for anthropological study. The Pueblos are the longest continually inhabited structures in North America. The Spanish had long influenced the Zuni since before Coronado’s Army in the 16th century. More than 300 years before Hillers arrived there. Powell was surveying a culture deep in transition from Spanish to Mexican rule in 1821 to mid-century American governance and capitalism. It may have been unknown or hard to tell at the time what was original Zuni and what was of Spanish/Mexican origin. By this time Zuni had iron tools and implements, but the technology had not changed the practices or ceremonies of their agriculture until capitalism and modern equipment appeared. Even with Spanish domination and frequent battles between natives and insurgents, that destroyed fields and villages, the indigenous agriculture sustained the people.
With some regularity the styles of Hillers and Curtis are divergent. Curtis (c.1903) focused on portraits in close-ups of individuals in his makeshift studio, while Hillers (1879) photographed many architectural exteriors and landscape images. Hillers also used outdoor light for portraits with natural backgrounds, whereas Curtis used backdrops and modified portrait lighting.
By 1903 change was most likely accelerating as whites and white governance increased in the Southwest. Century magazine had an article in 1882 titled, My Adventures in Zuni. [iii]


Gilbert and Frederick Wilson photographed the Hidatsa Indian life from 1907-1908 and received his doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Minnesota in 1917. Wilson took many images of models and actual artifacts of Hidatsa agriculture.

Mounding soil is probably the most common practice in American Indian gardening. Pima Indians of the Southwest made six-inch hills and use a digging stick to plant the seeds. Spring floods or one-time irrigation moistened the soil until (hopefully) later rains came at the end of the season (Castetter, 1942). The arid land made the mounds, spaced thirty-six inches apart, the sole source of rooting soil for many months until the rains came and softened the land.
Hidatsa, Mandan, and the Eastern Wampanoag used larger mounds, hills to retain moisture and protect the roots of the plants. Companion planting was the foundation of the designs in order to leverage the natural capabilities of the plants. Whereas the Pima allowed one seed per hill, Northern latitude people planted as many as eight.
"Buffalobird-woman says she planted six to eight kernels to a hill. Just what pattern she used she could not tell until she went out with a handful of seed and planted a few hills to revive her memory. The three patterns shown in figure 7 will show how she laid the grains in the bottom of the several hills." -Gilbert Wilson

Edward Curtis, Hidatsa Earth Lodge, c. 1908

Again the prevelense of the round structure mimics the solutions for gardening, an alien concept for the colonist paradigm of straight lines using wood and bricks.

When the photographers in Curtis’s time made exposures of structures or non-human subjects, the agency of the photographer would seem to be paramount, yet the subjects were neither cooperative nor malleable to his wishes. Curtis had to find the angle, and move about to capture the essence of the subject without the controlled studio situation he might have set up for human subjects[iv]. Most of these inanimate objects are well exposed, composed and show a modern technical quality.

Floating gardens in Mexico created new areas to grow food. The people built rafts with wood and reeds and covered them with the mud from the boittom of the pond or lake. This was very fertile soil and allowed for immdiate planting. The water source was also within reach as the first hydroponic gardens grew beans, squash, peppers, and corn (with deeper soils).
Many farmers lived on the shoreline close to their Chinampas. Maps (at left) were even made to keep records of land “ownership”. The canals in the Chinampas complex were also used as transportation. The design of the agricultural practice was integral in the daily life and structure. The images of this time were taken by Waite at low angles, about ground level. Postcards and ethnographic images fail to show the diverse complexity of the island gardens and the historical significance. Even in the early 20th century the gardens near Mexico City were seen as ornamental tourist destinations rather than the highly productive and important food source they were designed to be. Just ten years apart the quality of the images also is noticeable. Waite’s image on the commercial card is much less fixed and faded.
The postcard (right) by archeologist Walter Hough (1859-1935) on the Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition to Arizoma and Mexico of 1896-97. Hough is also credited with finding the first evidence of cannibalism (Anisazi) in the Southwest. [v]
C.B. Waite was the founder an operator of Sonora News Service, a large postcard producer in Mexico.[vi]

The New Shape of Assimilation 
"The government also broke up big fields of prairie ground, and had us plant corn in them; but these fields on the prairie near the hills I do not think are so good as our old fields down in the timber lands along the Missouri. The prairie fields get dry easily and the soil is harder and more difficult to work.
Then I think our old way of raising corn is better than the new way taught us by white men. Last year, 1911, our agent held an agricultural fair on this reservation; and we Indians competed for prizes for the best corn. The corn which I sent to the fair took the first prize. I raised it on new ground; the ground had been plowed, but aside from that, I cultivated the corn exactly as in old times, with a hoe." - Buffalo Bird Women (Wilson, 1917)
This image (at right) by Karl Gustav Linde shows how the European influence has effected the construction of dwellings and the incorporation of wire fencing.

Hopi Dry Land Farming continued into the 20th Century
Fences replaced social interaction to protect crops. Women were moved out of the field and men were tied to plows. The white preoccupation with rows and objects as solutions to natural issue broke the land and turned the turf from its place. Gustav Linde was a local human interest and portrait photographer who spent many hours documenting the native cultures that at that time still surrounded the cities and lived nearly the same as settlement days. Linde ran a studio from 1909 to 1928 when he left for the Keewatin Boat works. In the images available of Linde’s work, only toddlers were visible. The older Ontario Anishinaabe and Couchiching children were sent off to Indian schools.
The human history of the area goes back 8000 years to the Palleo Indians.
200 BC- 900 AD is the Initial Woodland (Laurel Culture)
900 AD - 1600 AD - Terminal Woodland (Blackduck Culture)
1600 - Present - Historic (Cree, Assiniboine & Ojibiway Cultures.)[1]

The Loss of Sacred Ground
The Christian Science Monitor
September 19, 2002
Urban sprawl begins to swamp old canals ‘Venice of the New World’ is threatened by Mexico City’s population explosion as experts race to rescue historic zone
Urban sprawl squeezes the last Chinampas in Mexico City. What Mexicans refer to as the "mancha urbana," or urban stain.[vii]

Christian Science Monitor
Squatters and illegal construction have overridden the historic area. Valuable production zones are now occupied, polluted and paved.
All around the American West, wind picked up the loosened soil and desiccated the land. Moisture dropped and dust storms smothered the struggling plants. Modern agriculture set back indigenous self-sufficiency indefinitely.
Milton Snow was a civil servant photographer. He was the first in this paper and the last. In his extensive career shooting for the BIA and Soil Conservation Society he saw the many aspects of Southwestern life and culture. But like most, whether knowing or not, he captured the historical conditions of a hundred years of change. To see where we are going we need to see where we and others have been and even then contextualize the images in time and place.


Castetter, E. F., & Bell, W. H. (1958; 1942). Pima and papago indian agriculture. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press.

Hurt, R. D. (1987). Indian agriculture in america : Prehistory to the present. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas.

Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden Recounted by Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe (ca.1839-1932), edited by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson (1868-1930). Originally published as "Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation" by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson, Ph.D. (1868-1930) Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota (Studies in the Social Sciences, #9), 1917. Ph. D. Thesis.
Vlasich, J. A. (2005). Pueblo Indian agriculture. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

1 Missionaries many times brought their practices to remote sites, ignoring well founded traditions, as if the gardening practices were religious ceremonies.

[i] Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives Department, Northern Arizona University
Hopi Cultural Preservation Office Archive
[ii] Getty Museum, 2009,
[iii] Babcock, Barbara, 1988, Mudwomen and Whitemen: A Meditation on Pueblo Potteries and the Politics of Representation,UNM Press
[iv] Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-114582)
[v] The First Claim for Cannibalism in the Southwest: Walter Hough's 1901 Discovery at Canyon Butte Ruin 3, Northeastern Arizona, Christy G. Turner, II and Jacqueline A. Turner, American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 661-682 , Published by: Society for American Archaeology Stable URL:

[vi] Journal article by Daniel D. Arreola; Journal of the Southwest, Vol. 43, 2001

[vii] Peters, Gretchen, The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2002


T-Lee Johnson said...

I'm excited about edible forest gardening in the Twin Cities area and was happy to come across your site, but the code on this post is pretty awful. Can you fix it? Thanks.

Forest Garden and Homestead Design and Consulting said...

Fixed it best I could. Maybe I will see you at one of our events at PRI?


T-Lee Johnson said...

Thanks for the PRI invitation. I wasn't aware that there was a group in the Twin Cities, but I'll certainly check it out.

Permaculture and Polyculture Consulting and Design

Permaculture and Polyculture Consulting and Design
Getting to know your property, the plants you have and those you can grow, is a fulfilling endeavor. With most I am the steward of the land. I give them good soil biology and they do the rest. If I group them in cohesive plant communities, they respond with greater yields. If I encourage the micro-organisms (Fungus and bacteria) , the roots obsorb more nutrients making a pest and disease resistant plant. A stronger plant that gives us more organic food and takes less energy.

A Ten Acre Farm Transformed to an Edible Forest Garden

A Ten Acre Farm Transformed to an Edible Forest Garden
Self Renewing Fertility, Soil Building, Water Catchment, Tea Trail Swale, Erosion Control and Native American Medicinals