Native Village 
Youth and Education News

January 1, 2013

Aboriginal Farming in New England
www.nativeamericannetroots.net
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New England:  Native American agriculture in New England was based on corn, beans, gourds, pumpkins, passionflower, Jerusalem artichoke, tobacco, and squash. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they depended on foods from Indian fields to survive.

Yet those same Pilgrims, along with later settlers, considered the area an untamed wilderness. Because Native agriculture was "unorderly," Europeans disregarded it. They considered New England's native people as nomadic hunter-gatherers. In fact, these tribes were actually settled farmers.

It was the Native women who did the farming. A single Indian woman could raise 25-60 bushels of corn on 1-2 acres -- enough to provide half of her family's caloric needs.  Throughout the area, villages had extensive fields ranging from 20-30 acres.

The English, however, assumed that only men should farm.  Europeans considered men more important than women and valued only what they perceived as men's work.

Native people cleared the land for farm fields by using slash-and-burn methods. Fires would be built around standing trees to kill the tree. Later, the dead tree would be cut down, knocking down other dead trees as it fell.

Once the area was cleared, earth mounds or hills were constructed 4-5 feet apart.  Kernels of corn and beans would be planted in the mounds. The bean vines would eventually use the corn stalks as poles on which to grow. Squash, gourds, and tubers were planted between the mounds.  The squash vines trailed beside and over the mounds, protecting the roots of the corn plants and preventing weeds from growing.

The area Natives made hoes for digging and weeding from crab and clam shells, deer bones, or turtle shells. Small huts might be built near the fields so children could watch and scare away birds which threatened the plants. Among the Narragansett, tamed hawks were also used to frighten the birds away.

In southern New England, planting was timed by the disappearance Pleiades from the western horizon. Harvesting  began when it reappeared in the east. These astronomical sightings mark the length of the area's frost-free season.

Native people measured the seasons by creating observatories. Stone  chambers, stone circles, and split boulders enabled them to view and mark events such as solstices and lunar and stellar cycles. In fact,
Indians named at least six of the thirteen lunar calendar phases in terms of agricultural schedules.

These architectural features puzzled non-Indians.

Since fields can lose their fertility -- often after 8-10 years -- the people would increase fertilization and/or create new fields by burning the woods. Sometimes they might abandon these fields and establish a new village a short distance away. The move would be done gradually, often over several years. A few families would move initially and then the others would join them.

Agriculture was also the center of religious and ceremonial life. Particularly important were the harvest ceremonies that involved days of feasting, dancing, and the giving away of material wealth. Native American food was seen as communal and was shared freely by all in the village.

The Green Corn Ceremony was usually held in August when the first corn ripened. For about two weeks,  community leaders would eat only at night.

Indian Nations in New England believed in many different spiritual beings or forces. Unlike Europeans, they did not rely on one god with multiple personalities. Nor did they have a hierarchy of gods and goddesses. Traditional stories tell of forest and river elves, fairies, dwarves, and giants. Among the Narragansett, an entity called Cautantouwit sent the first kernels of corn to the people in the ear of a crow. For this reason, the Narragansett did not harm crows. 


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Native Village Gina Boltz
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