The First Stewards of this Soil: An Indigenous History of EarthDance Land & Land Use
By Mitali Sharma
August 17, 2020
EarthDance Organic Farm School acknowledges that it works upon the ancestral home of the Missouria, Osage, and Illini peoples who were unjustly dispossessed of their lands by the United States. We pay our respect to these indigenous communities, both past and present, for being stewards of the very same soil and ecosystems that we tend to today and honor the fact that the techniques and ethos of regenerative agriculture are rooted in millenia of indigenous knowledge.
THE PRECOLONIAL & COLONIAL HISTORY OF INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI (AND THE GREATER ST. LOUIS AREA)
Ferguson, Missouri — home of EarthDance Organic Farm School — is part of the greater St. Louis area. As with most places on the North American continent, the St. Louis area has a deep indigenous history that stretches back millennia. The first presence of humans in the midwestern part of what is now the United States, including in Missouri and Illinois, was in 10000-8000 BC (1)— a fact that demonstrates the extent to which humans had maintained relationships with the land prior to what is unjustly called the “discovery” of these lands by European explorers in 1500 CE. These early peoples relied primarily on hunting and gathering subsistence methods. In 2000 BC, the area experienced a substantial population increase, and boundaries between regional traditions and tribes subsequently began to be defined. The variety of landscapes in the St. Louis area meant that a great variety of traditions were birthed in this area (2).
In the early stages of what is called the “Woodland period,” a label used by archaeologists to denote the flourishing of indigenous cultures between 500 BC and first arrival of European colonizers (3), indigenous communities in the St. Louis area began to domesticate plants and animals and set up agricultural practices (4). This is not to say that native peoples were solely relying on agriculture, but nor were they solely relying on hunting and gathering and living “amongst the wilderness” as myths of indigenous histories often go: on the contrary, indigenous communities were altering their ecological environments in meaningful, diverse, and incredibly sustainable ways. At the later stages of this Woodland period, the St. Louis area witnessed the grandeur of Mississipian culture, primarily in the form of the Cahokia civilization which lasted from 600-1400 CE. Like many of their surrounding communities, the Cahokia people relied both on maize agriculture and a supplementary collection of wild plants and animals.
After the fall of the Cahokia civilization in 1400, still prior to any European contact, the Osage and Missouria tribes hunted and cultivated in the St. Louis area. “Missouri” is a Siouan Indian word that means “big canoe people” and was used to denote the Missouria tribe (5). By 1673, however, when the first French fur trader arrived in the area, the Illini Confederation were the primary occupants of the Missouri and Illinois borderlands (6). The area was officially claimed and named St. Louis in 1764 by a French fur trader and the settlement quickly became a hub for Midwestern indigenous tribes and French traders to exchange goods. In 1803, however, the supposedly French land was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase (7).
This purchase was a catalyst for the imperialist violence that was slowly being enacted upon indigenous communities: the Anglo-American settlers who now believed they owned the land had no intent of letting the tribes stay on their homelands (8). By as soon as 1808, the Osage nation was forced to cede 52.5 million acres of Missouri and Arkansas to the United States (9). In 1830, as various tribes from the East passed through Missouri on the horrid trail of tears, the Illini Confederation was too forcibly removed (10). Finally, in 1881, the Otoe-Missouria nation was forcibly removed to “Indian Country,” or Oklahoma (11)— only two years before the Mueller Family had the access to begin farming 200 acres of that dispossessed land right here at EarthDance in Ferguson, Missouri (12).
HONORING INDIGENOUS STEWARDSHIP OF THESE LANDS: TRIBAL AGRICULTURAL TRADITIONS AND RECOGNIZING THE INDIGENOUS ROOTS OF PERMACULTURE:
As the long and rich histories of indigenous peoples in North America demonstrates, indigenous tribes had complex systems of cultivating and stewarding the lands that were subsequently colonized. Nonetheless, mainstream rhetoric about pre-colonial North America labels it an untamed wilderness, erasing real histories of indigenous ways of life. Honoring indigenous histories of the land, therefore, means honoring indigenous modes of stewarding that land — modes that today are being co-opted into the permaculture movement.
Permaculture, as the ecologically-centered design systems for growing we think of it today, has been long attributed to the late 1900s work of Bill Mollison, an Australian researcher and biologist. However, many of the so-called innovations of permaculture techniques are rooted in millenia of indigenous knowledge: even Mollison himself acknowledged that he based his permaculture systems off the knowledge of Tasmanian aboriginal people (13). Indeed, many indigenous ontologies root in deep connection to place and honoring of non-human or more-than-human modes of sustaining that place (14): it is no surprise, then, that indigenous cultivation methods — as with permaculture — incorporate ways of working with the ecological systems of their place, rather than against them.
For instance, a shared indigenous planting method amongst North American tribes — including plains tribes in Missouri — is the three sisters garden (15). The three sisters garden involves planting squash, maize, and climbing beans together to allow the unique characteristics of the crops to support each other in their growth. The corn stalks provide support for the climbing beans which in turn uses its nitrogen-fixation to strengthen the fertility of the soil for both the squash and the maize. The large, prickly leaves of squash functions as a natural deterrent to predators of both the maize and the beans (16). Undoubtedly, in permaculture today, this ecologically-based design that supports symbiosis would be considered companion planting or polyculture.
Furthermore, rather than clearing large fields for extensive monoculture, the Illini people focused on cultivating small amounts of various crops to supplement plants and animals collected through hunting and gathering (17). This sustainable coexistence of polyculture and hunting/gathering subsistence methods was a common thread throughout the various tribes that inhabited the St. Louis area. The Miami tribe in particular prides itself on its traditional system of moving between planting, harvesting, hunting, and gathering based on knowledge of seasonal ecology and sustainability (18). Undoubtedly, the permaculture ethos of growing with the local ecosystems and cycles to heal both planet and people — as well as the modes of doing so (e.g. polyculture, companion planting, or small-scale farming) — is not a modern invention, but rather is a return to indigenous ways of learning from, being with, and working with the local land.
It is important to note, however, that as more people become aware of the indigenous roots of the permaculture movement, new harmful neocolonialist rhetoric around permaculture is emerging. This rhetoric paints all indigenous people, regardless of place or tribe, as holders of homogenous “traditional knowledge” that is globally applicable (19). Such generalizations actively erase real indigenous history — obscuring all the diversity of indigenous identities and place-based traditions into a singular commodifiable, globally-marketable “ancestral way of cultivating.” (20).
Not only is this an unjust reductionist approach to indigeneity, but it is wholly inaccurate. To say indigenous modes of planting are “globally applicable” ignores the very foundation of indigenous cultivation: indigenous place-thought. Indigenous ontologies are rooted in specific place and growing with that specific place (21). Indigenous practices, therefore, may share general principles like polyculture or small-scale farming, but the specific practices are rooted in specific places and cannot be reduced into a singular generic global agricultural solution. Honoring the legacies of indigenous stewardship, therefore, means recognizing the ways in which modern “alternative” movements root in indigenous ways of knowing place, but simultaneously acknowledging that there is no singular “ancestral knowledge” and that indigenous traditions are diverse, complex, and place-based.
Based in Ferguson, Missouri, EarthDance Organic Farm School tends to the ancestral lands of the Missouria, Osage, and Illini peoples who were unjustly dispossessed of these lands by the American settler-colonial state, primarily after the Louisiana Purchase at the beginning of the 1800s. The St. Louis area has a deep indigenous history, stretching all the way back to 10000 BC, and with that, a deep indigenous history of cultivation and stewardship of this land. Indeed, many of the regenerative agriculture and permaculture principles that EarthDance now employs to continue proper stewardship of this land are rooted in indigenous ways of approaching the land from a place of respect and creating cultivation methods that serve both planet and people. That being said, it is also essential not to reduce the abundance of indigenous place-based traditions into a globally-applicable “permaculture” label. As the indigenous history of the St. Louis area should demonstrate, indigenous histories are deep, diverse, and complex.