Hau Mitakuepi (Greetings My Relatives), this time of year always stimulates much conversation about planting crops, whether on a commercial scale or personal gardens. A generation or so ago everyone planted and tended gardens. Today, not so much. However, I noticed of late that there is a gradual resurgence of discussion about gardening and it seems a few more gardens appear around the Rez. Part of any discussion about planting is the use of fertilizers.
I know it must seem a little strange for me to be bringing up this subject but again my old friends Keoke and Porterfield, co-authors of, "American Indian Contributions to the World," tell a compelling tale about pre-European use of fertilizer by indigenous people of the western hemisphere and its impact on modern agriculture. I wanted to share with my readers who know full well by now that Indian people had it going on with life here on Turtle Island long before the arrival of European. This is just one small area of technological knowledge our people had already discovered and was being utilized.
Fertilizer is organic matter added to the soil to enrich it, thus producing more abundant crop yields or healthier plants. Indigenous people in the Americas had been using a variety of fertilizers for thousands of years before European contact. The MILPA, or slash and burn, system of farming that had been practiced from the beginning of agriculture in South, Meso-, and North America added nutrients to the soil. Through experimentation over the years, various tribes developed other fertilizers.
By 3000 B.C. in what is now Peru, indigenous people were cultivating many types of crops. They fertilized these with llama dung, anchovy heads, and guano, or bird droppings, from coastal islands. Mountains of these droppings had been deposited on certain coastal areas over the centuries. The Inca, whose empire was established in about 1000 A.D., regarded guano as a valuable resource. Believing it should be shared by all, they divided the deposits into districts, marking each area and allotting them to specific groups of farmers.
When the Spaniards arrived, they exploited the fertilizer deposits, selling them commercially. By the 1700s they were shipping guano throughout the world. In the 1800s the guano deposits had reached a depth of about 100 feet, but between 1840 and 1860 Peru exported an estimated 11 million tons of the fertilizer. Spurred by farmers, the U.S. government had plans to seize two of the guano islands from Peru, but the U.S. Civil War broke out before the action could be carried out. Guano fertilizer from Peru was marketed in Europe. This import is credited with beginning modern agriculture in that area of the world. Interest in the nitrogen-rich guano spurred experiments to develop artificial fertilizers. Today, dried anchovy heads are still being sold for fishmeal fertilizer, a major Peruvian export.
In about 1100 A.D., Aztec farmers in the Xochimilco-Chalco Basin of Mexico fertilized the raised fields they had created on swampland with compost made from aquatic plans. They also improved soil quality with muck from surrounding canals.
In the Eastern Woodlands of North America, Patuxet Indian, Squanto is famous for sharing the technique of using fish fertilizer with the Pilgrims, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. He had recently returned from captivity in Europe, where he had learned to speak English. In the spring of 1621, he taught the Pilgrims to plant corn, a grain they had never seen before, and to fertilize it with fish. The earliest Europeans on this continent were aware that fertilizer helped crops to grow, but Old World farmers relied on manure from domesticated animals, primarily cattle. Unfamiliar with the new soil and lacking herds of cattle, the colonists were at a loss about how to farm in their new environment.
Menhaden, the fish that Squanto used, were not eaten by the indigenous people who lived in the area. In fact, the name they had given this fish, munnoquohatean or munnawhatteauq, meant "that which enriches the soil." The colonists quickly adopted the use of fish fertilizer, spelling it "munnawhatteang," a word that appears in written accounts as early as 1643. Fishmeal is still used extensively for fertilizer today.
North American Indian farmers viewed the European use of animal dung to boost soil nutrients with disgust. When U.S. government Indian agents insisted they use it on their gardens in the 1800s, many refused to comply with what they believed was a barbaric custom.
Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa who lived on the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota, was interviewed by ethnologist Gordon Wilson at the start of the 20th century. She revealed that her people did not use dung, because not only did it contain worms, it also spread weeds.
"I do not know that the worms in the manure did any harm to our gardens, but because we thought it bred worms and weeds, we did not like any dung on our garden lands; and we therefore removed it."
And now you know the rez of the story.