Documenting the history of American Indian agriculture and land‐use in northeastern WI

Bill Gartner with summer interns
Bill Gartner (center) with College of the Menominee Nation summer interns Brian Forman, Martylee Pyatskowit‐Penass, Monea Warrington, and Catherine Skenadore

Senior lecturer Bill Gartner had the privilege of working on the Menominee Reservation this summer as a Co‐PI, with David Overstreet (College of the Menominee Nation), on a project documenting the history of American Indian agriculture and land‐use in northeastern Wisconsin. They have discovered, mapped, and excavated several large raised field and storage pit complexes on the Menominee reservation. Archaeological excavations, archival research, and oral traditions suggest that the sites date from ca 1000 AD to the mid 19th century. The size and spatial organization of the native agricultural communities here have major implications for the cultural and ecological history of the region.

Unlike other areas of Wisconsin that have been ravaged by 19th and 20th century land‐use, traditional Menominee forestry practices have left large portions of the ground surface here in tact. The net result is a unique record of past agricultural practices. Bill and the College of the Menominee team have documented different raised field construction techniques, the presence of prepared soil amendments (likely consisting of a mix of silt and ash), several raised field rebuilding episodes, as well as a buried field and storage pit complex through careful soil description and mapping. Forthcoming laboratory analyses of soil and plant remains should provide many more details on environmental history as well as past land‐use and agricultural practices. Dave’s analyses of material culture and archaeological features will detail important components of Menominee history and ethnicity. College of the Menominee interns who are considering careers in natural resources or in heritage management are working as field and laboratory technicians throughout the project.

David Overstreet
Co-researcher David Overstreet of the College of the Menominee Nation

An important goal of the project is to apply past knowledge and practices to current problems of food production. “This is the original organic agriculture”, notes Bill, “ and our field work suggests that native food production here was not only viable in an area with a short growing season and infertile soils, but also sustainable, through several periods of pronounced cultural and environmental change. We still have so much to learn about modern agricultural and landuse practices from age‐old Menominee traditions.” At the conclusion of their research, Bill and Dave will assist Menominee natural resource and heritage management specialists in designing and constructing community gardens on the reservation.

In addition to potential contributions to modern organic and sustainable agriculture practices, the research by Gartner and Overstreet has general implications for American Indian health and food sovereignty. Today, there is an epidemic of diet‐related diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, in many native communities. These afflictions are largely unknown prior to the reservation segregation and subsequent allotment policies of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Today, food expenditures are a large part of many American Indian household budgets, and generally result in a net out‐flow of capital away from American Indian communities. According to Bill, “Native peoples produced astonishing volumes of healthy food in the past, yet today many native communities are no longer food self‐sufficient. Instead, like everyone else, many native peoples are tied into a global network of capital‐intensive food production. Although this global system produces tremendous volumes of cheap food by some measures, the social and ecological costs of modern food production are all too often borne by local communities in general and American Indian communities in particular.” This two‐year project is supported by a USDA NIFA grant to the College of the Menominee, with supplemental support from Menominee Tribal Enterprises. In addition, the College of the Menominee, Menominee Tribal Enterprises, and the Menominee Department of Historic Preservation have all provided invaluable guidance and considerable logistical support.


Author: Geography Staff

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