Much to learn from pre-European farming on the Prairies
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The prevailing narrative about agriculture’s origins on the Canadian Prairies ties it to the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers just over 200 years ago.
Their story was one of hardship and perseverance, to be sure, and their arrival began the transformation of the region’s economy to agriculture as the dominant use of land.
However, characterizing these Scottish transplants as the region’s first farmers belies the archeological evidence that shows people were cultivating food crops and trading food and tobacco extensively throughout North America upwards of a thousand years before the Europeans’ arrival.
Daniel Benoit, a biologist and manager of the Indigenous Science Liaison Office with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, told a different account of history at the recent conference on agricultural sustainability hosted by the University of Manitoba.
The discovery of tools such as a hoe crafted from a bison scapula, remnants of roasted corn kernels and potatoes, and whelk shells found far from any ocean in the Red River region shows that the first people living on the Prairies were much more than hunters and gatherers. They cultivated food crops and were part of a trading network that stretched throughout the continent.
Moreover, there is evidence that they strategically used fire to guide the movement of the massive bison herds, which numbered in the millions. By wiping out the old grasses and encroaching brush, they created succulent new growth that drew the bison to areas where hunters could readily harvest them. In their early accounts, European explorers described these practices as wantonly careless and wasteful of good timber that “settlers” could otherwise use. But Indigenous herders were practising a form of range management long before modern science discovered it.
“This is the dichotomy we have between what people write about the things Indigenous people have done on the landscape versus sensible reasons for why it was done,” said Benoit, whose heritage is Red River Michif (Métis). “Through oral tradition, we knew that there were good ecological and food-related reasons to do these things.”
Benoit’s point is that the Prairies were “settled” and farmed long before European settlers arrived. However, their farming activities were part of a mixed economic model also involving trapping, hunting and fishing, trading and later, piloting Red River carts across the region.
Those early agriculturalists helped the first newcomers survive their failed efforts at making a go of it by only raising crops and livestock. “They just tried to import Europe or Britain to the Red River and the Prairies, and it was a total disaster,” he said.
“The Red River Métis and Peguis First Nation were the innovators, they were the people that actually did the work and actually applied it, not white settlers, not the Hudson’s Bay Company, not the Catholic Church,” he said.
“The Selkirk Settlers who arrived at Red River that year (1812) were unprepared, undersupplied, and because they were lacking necessary survival skills and competence, they were accorded provisions, shelter and training by those already present in the area,” he said.
After three years, their dependency was getting old. An edict issued by the colony’s governor Miles MacDonell prohibiting any export of pemmican and other foods outside of the district worsened tensions, setting the stage for the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 and other confrontations to come.
This reshaping of our historical narratives has vital implications for the future, not so much because of the farming model per se, but because of its underpinning values.
The type of farming that existed before the Europeans’ arrival is often dismissed as irrelevant because it didn’t prioritize productivity as measured in economic terms.
“They were small mixed endeavours which took in cultural norms, the sharing of harvest, the looking after of family and community, biodiversity, climate realities, labour shortages… and it was not all just done by men, but it was done by women and children,” Benoit said.
These systems were productive enough to produce surpluses for export trade at a time when conventional farming practices were prone to failure. More importantly, they embraced resilience as their measure of wealth.
What can we learn from our history?
Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.