The history of agriculture always starts with the estimate that “agriculture” began 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, in what is now called the Middle East. This is where wheat was domesticated, large scale irrigation was created and wool was initially shorn from sheep’s backs for human use.
While this all may be true, labeling the Fertile Crescent as the “origin of agriculture” reflects a Eurocentric approach to agriculture that has had detrimental and oppressive effects on the way we perceive other cultures and ways of cultivating. Notice that wheat, irrigation and wool are all products of European necessity: wheat is the chosen food staple, irrigation is necessary in northern climates and wool is crucial for long winters.
Creating such a Eurocentric image of agriculture has predictably limited us in imagining the spectrum of land management practices used by non-Europeans. When gold-miners rushed into California nearly 150 years ago, they were awestruck by the magnificent “wilderness” before them.
California was not a land of “wilderness” untouched by human hands or unchanged by human intention. Its forests, meadows and valleys — and the plants and animals within — were strongly influenced by hundreds of generations of land management. California Indians are labeled as “hunter-gatherers” by most history and anthropology books. By painting California Indians as hungry wanderers across hillsides and along rivers, their complex food system is easily obscured.
California Indians practice land management in ways that challenge their classification as “hunter-gatherers.” Oak trees, which produce a crop of acorns, were considered private property by families and were pruned to maintain the health of the tree as well as increase production.
Edible roots were also a common component of California Indian diets. While harvesting this underground crop, special attention was paid to dispersing and leaving smaller bulbs that would mature in the coming seasons. When European settlers saw California Indians tending edible root plants, they called them “Diggers” — a derogatory term meant to insinuate a savage reliance on dirty foods. Remnants of the slur exist today.
For example, in a small town in Northern California that exists within Pomo traditional tribal lands and next to their federally-designated tribal Rancheria, a bar popular with the conservative ranchers exists called “Diggers”.
Perhaps an even larger insult to the traditional knowledge of the California Indians came with the rejection of their most powerful land management tool: fire. The United States Forest Service (USFS) was established in the early 1900s to manage the nation’s timber resources. In their minds, letting a forest burn was like letting mountains of cash shrivel in flames. Thus, the USFS adopted a total fire suppression mandate, and in 1944, the U.S. public met Smokey the Bear.
The USFS fire suppression policy held strong for nearly six decades until ecologists could adequately explain and document the role of fire in a healthy forest ecosystem — which California Indians have known for centuries. Frequent, low-intensity fires clear out dead plant debris while stimulating a diverse community of forest animals and plants. Six decades worth of greed and dismissal of traditional knowledge has left us with extremely flammable forests that often culminate in devastating, high-intensity fires.
California Indians used to frequently set forests on fire to return nutrients to the soil, reduce competition amongst plants, stimulate young shoots as fodder for deer and elk, and to reduce insect and pathogen communities. Doing so created open stands of forest that were easily navigable by plant gatherers and also more visible for hunters searching for deer and elk. The frequency ensures that a fuel load could not build up.
Clearly, California Indian traditional knowledge has been disadvantaged by the racist, oppressive actions and structures created by European settlers. Not only did they cultivate food, but they cooperated so well with natural processes that Europeans couldn’t even recognize it. While we cannot change the course of history, we do have the opportunity to start giving homage to the people and cultures that developed the best land management practices for the California landscape.
If you are starting to think of California “wilderness” differently, email ELLEN PEARSON at firstname.lastname@example.org.