The first humans crossed the Bering Strait land (or ice) bridge to enter the western hemisphere about 15,000 years ago. Archeological evidence indicates they settled throughout North and South America over the next couple thousand years. Each indigenous Tribe has its own creation story.
Earliest agriculture was just getting started in southwest Asia around the time these human newcomers spread throughout the Americas. People in Central America were the first to develop agriculture in the new world about 8,000 years ago, working with maize, the forerunner of modern-day corn.
Next, potatoes, tomatoes and sweet potatoes were cultivated by Indians in the Andes Mountains region about 4,000 years ago. Gradually, beans, squash, melons, sunflowers, tobacco and other agricultural products followed as farming and trade spread from the warmer climes of South and Central America throughout what is now Mexico, the USA and southern Canada.
Agriculture led to a confluence of Native cultures throughout North America. The arrival of Christopher Columbus and others who followed changed the dynamics of human life thereafter on this side of the earth.
Thanksgiving Day reminds us of the early sharing of the continent’s beneficence by both Native people and Europeans.
November is Native American Heritage Month in the US. Many non-Native Americans don’t understand the deep attachments of Native people to the land and how forcible removal from Native lands by European settlers challenged their cultural identities.
All humans have a basic urge to claim the land, bodies of water and other resources needed to produce the food and shelter required by their families and communities. Called the agrarian imperative, this instinctual drive is also shaped by what humans learn about how to be successful farmers, hunters and fishers.
Europeans and most Asian immigrants came to the western hemisphere believing they would have opportunities to purchase and own the resources needed to produce food and fiber, as ownership had become the accepted practice in their native countries. With most land in Europe and Asia owned by the princes, rulers, religious institutions, and the wealthy, America offered possibilities for land ownership to the new immigrants.
Native Americans had no concept of ownership. Land, water and other resources of the earth were, and mostly still are considered divine gifts to be shared without ownership and to be conserved respectfully.
To Native Americans, all life comes from Mother Earth. Land and its gifts of bison, fish, corn, vegetables and so forth are sacred. Sharing Mother Earth’s gifts is an essential part of spirituality and Native cultures.
When Europeans and other immigrants took control over tribal hunting and fishing territories, Native Americans felt Mother Earth was being desecrated. Forcible removal from their ancestral lands and confinement to reservations totally violated Native Americans’ agrarian imperative.
It is not surprising that such devastating violations of what was most important to them led to profound disillusionment and cultural depression among nearly all Native Americans.
It is also not surprising that the most resilient Tribes are those that maintain and teach their cultural practices. The agrarian imperative instilled in them to do everything within their power to take uncommon risks–even wars, against overwhelming forces and to endure extreme hardships to adhere to their cultural practices.
This is the same drive that motivates farmers everywhere, but expressed differently, including the immigrants of the past five centuries. Native Americans already had survival capacity in a less complicated world. Their approach to living sustained the environment for future generations and had an inherent fairness doctrine: everyone shared in the gifts of Mother Earth.
The construct of the agrarian imperative helps us identify what draws us to appreciate the contributions to humankind that the earlier indigenous Americans devised. They had figured out a method of democratically sharing Mother Earth’s gifts.
The American Indians survived and flourished for many centuries while inhabiting this hemisphere. They altered their environment very little.
As Native people thrived they developed various methods of recording information and systematic methods of observation and experimentation that resulted in sustainable agriculture techniques, astronomy, engineering, medicine, behavioral healthcare, sophisticated arts and much more.
Their methods of living nurtured cities of 40,000+ inhabitants until new immigrants arrived with unfamiliar diseases to which Natives had little resistance. My Mandan friends tell me their Tribe shrank from about 3,000 to 300 persons after smallpox decimated the population in the 1830s.
Think of the loss of accumulated knowledge and human capital. This is the Tribe that supplied the Lewis and Clark expedition with ample provisions during the winter of 1804-05 because of their healthy farming techniques–in a cold climate no less.
Thanksgiving Day is about appreciation for our roots, our gifts and, in many ways—agriculture. I am a neophyte in the understanding of the first cultures to inhabit the Americas but I have acquired great respect for our preceding cultures.
I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.
Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.