Learning from the first ‘farmers’ how to save the earth

By Sylvia Keesmaat

There is something about a drive through the country that is deeply satisfying. Green fields divided by tree lines or split rail fences. The occasional dry stone wall. Cattle or sheep dotted in the fields and cozy farmhouses flanked by wooden barns. An idyllic picture of a pastoral farming way of life.

When the first settlers came to Canada and encountered the Indigenous people of these lands, they did not realize that the land they were looking at also reflected a pastoral, farming way of life. There was so much lush greenery. The woods seems so thick and the animals so abundant. This was nothing like the farms they had left behind in England and France and Spain. This land didn’t appear to be managed. It didn’t look controlled. And it certainly didn’t look as though anyone was trying to raise crops or breed animals.

Because this land looked nothing like the intensively cultivated and privately-owned farms that they had left behind, those first explorers thought they were looking at untouched wilderness. They were wrong.

As we learn more about the lives and practices of the Anishinaabeg who lived on this part of Turtle Island, a picture emerges of peoples who carefully managed the land on which they lived. Some areas were controlled with fire to create savannahs, attracting deer and other browsing animals, which could then be more easily harvested for food.

Fruit and nut trees were nurtured and cultivated so that they could be harvested in season. Maple and birch trees were carefully tapped in the spring and their sap boiled down to maple sugar. Ducks were captured as they gathered on the lakes and marshes.

The wild rice was harvested and carefully preserved to provide staple nutrients throughout the long hard winter. During the harvest the wild rice was also carefully sown in the rivers and lakes to provide habitat for ducks and shore birds, and to provide a home for the muskie, bass, pickerel and perch, which in turn fed Indigenous peoples in the summer and fall.

During the summers, small hills were planted with the three sisters: beans growing up stalks of corn, both surrounded by squash. The fruit of these plants could be dried and stored throughout the winter. Together with dried berries and dried meat, they made for nourishing and sustaining stews.

It only looked as though the land was wild. In reality, the Indigenous peoples of this land were not only carefully tending the plants and animals that were here, but were also modifying the landscape, planting crops, and ensuring the seed supply of their crops so that they would have food in coming years. They were engaging in the same sorts of activities that farmers engage in today.

However, they were doing so with one big difference.  The Anishinaabeg viewed this land, and the plants and animals that lived here, as the gift of the Creator. When they harvested food or killed an animal they gave thanks to the Creator. And, honouring Creator’s gift, they only took what they needed, and no more.

As a result, the cultivation practices of Indigenous peoples did not deplete the land on which they depended. Their growing practices replenished the soil. Because they did not eliminate predators, the animals that browsed their savannahs kept moving and did not overgraze the grasslands. Their careful observance of where trees grew naturally and when they bore fruit, meant that they didn’t need to cut down forests and plant orchards. They were able to harvest from the forest and keep the natural ecosystem intact. They lived in a world of plenty.

With the advent of the settlers all of that changed. Forests were cut down. Savannahs were ploughed up. Topsoil began to blow away and erosion increased. Animals lost their habitat and wetlands were drained. Rivers were dredged and dams were built. And, eventually, we began to poison the land and the water that provides us with sustenance and life.

As the world grapples with climate change, with increasing drought, loss of biodiversity and the collapse of our insect populations, there is a chorus of voices calling out for us to once again listen to the wisdom of old. Once upon a time there were Indigenous peoples on this land who knew how to live in ways that were sustainable and resilient. Who knew where the water flowed and where the trees grew. Who knew what to harvest under the moons of spring, and what to harvest as the days grew shorter. The peoples of old knew that a dependence upon a diversity of plants, trees and ecosystems created a resilient habitat and food system in the face of flood and drought.

Those peoples are still with us. And it seems likely that we will need to listen to their wisdom to learn how to live on this land in a way which creates harmony rather than destruction.

For further information about the Anishinaabeg people who first lived here, visit the Curve Lake Cultural Centre. See also their website.


  1. Mina Coons says:

    This is such a great story. It makes us realize what a great country we live in.
    These people were able to show what could be done with what was on hand and to a great success. If only it could be that way today for more people.

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