Finding Their Roots
One area of growth in recent decades has been our understanding of early Indigenous agriculture in present-day Manitoba.
That understanding didn’t exist when soil scientist J.H. Ellis wrote his centennial book, The Ministry of Agriculture in Manitoba, 1870-1970. Ellis determined there was no clear evidence that Indigenous peoples had farmed in Manitoba before the arrival of Europeans.
That was the prevailing opinion drawn from excavations of Indigenous burial mounds in Manitoba. Mound-building people were known to have practised early farming elsewhere on the continent. Excavation of mounds to the south and east of Manitoba uncovered artifacts like ears of corn, either charred or impressions made in the ground; tools for digging, made from stone or shoulder blades of deer or elk; pottery for storing grain; and stone mortars and pestles for grinding grain. Maize, dubbed Indian corn, was a staple of the mound builder diet. Beans, squash, pumpkins, melons, sunflowers and tobacco were some other cultivated food plants.
There are burial sites in southcentral and southwestern Manitoba, and along the Red River at locations near Lockport, Selkirk and Netley Creek. Some of the Indigenous mounds in Manitoba were dug in the 1870s. These excavations, typically carried out with little consideration or permission of local Indigenous people, found skeletons, of course, and artifacts such as pottery cup, copper knife, fish spear, and shell and bone ornaments. But there was little that suggested early cultivation of crops. The closest thing to agriculture was the finding of a stone hoe in excavations in the Rock and Pelican lakes region.
Ellis concluded that Indigenous agriculture had not taken place in Manitoba prior to European immigration. The thinking was that First Nation peoples in Manitoba were too nomadic to put down roots, as in the roots of plants for food production. He wondered if climate was a determining factor. The shorter growing season may have been the deciding factor preventing maize from being cultivated in Manitoba.
“It is generally considered, though it may not be entirely correct, that in the pre-European period the Indian tribes of what is now Manitoba depended primarily for subsistence on hunting and fishing, and to a lesser extent on the gathering of wild fruits and native plants; and that the production of food crops by soil cultivation had no place in their way of life,” wrote Ellis.
Yet while there was no proverbial smoking gun to indicate early Indigenous farming, there was plenty of circumstantial evidence.
Indigenous mound builders were known agriculturalists elsewhere, and Manitoba’s mounds were all found in good agricultural areas. The construction of mounds, from six to 50 feet in height, and 60 to 150 feet in diameter, indicated early Indigenous peoples had the tools and technology to move soil. Ellis conceded Indigenous peoples had the tools to farm, but he did not know “if the mound builders were disposed to do so.” Ellis concluded they weren’t.
“It may be assumed the mound builders in Manitoba were hunters rather than agriculturalists,” Ellis concluded.
Perhaps it’s reading too much into his choice of words but Ellis seems reluctant to let go of the colonial stereotype of Indigenous people as being strictly nomadic.
That is, there was ample circumstantial evidence that early Indigenous agriculture took place. Indigenous burial mounds outside Manitoba contained agricultural artifacts, and it was known that Indigenous people in Manitoba traded with those mound builders to the south, such as the Mandans in North Dakota on the Missouri River. It was also known they obtained much of their flint for making arrowheads from the Knife River region of North Dakota—where Indian corn flourished a thousand years ago. It would not have been a leap to speculate that corn seeds might be part of the trade between the Indigenous peoples of Manitoba and North Dakota, as extensive trade networks were created and maintained for millennia throughout what is now North America.
Opinions in Manitoba started to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Ellis was writing the book. Some of the first evidence of Indigenous agriculture came not from mounds or archaeological digs but from pouring over various written accounts, including the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Barry Kaye, from the University of Manitoba, wasn’t digging around in the soils but rather examined early records left by the first European settlers when he discovered clues of early Indigenous agriculture.
Pieces of information were very scarce and scattered, he said in an interview for this book. “It was very spotty. It was a little bit here, and a little bit there.” But he didn’t need a lot of observation because of the great likelihood of Indigenous agriculture, seeing as it was all around Manitoba.
For example, Kaye found a reference to Indigenous people growing corn and potatoes in the Netley Creek area in 1805, by fur trader and explorer Alexander Henry. In 1821, another account said the Netley growers provided corn seed to Selkirk settlers—not the other way around as history often described. The band, called Odawas, are recorded as having later added beans and melons to their cultivated plots, and the scale of their gardening—the plots were certainly small by today’s farming standards—grew in part due to demand from fur traders.
“There was some (agriculture). It wasn’t just totally hunter-gatherers,” Kaye said.
His findings were followed by a definitive discovery from University of Manitoba anthropologist Leigh Syms that slots Indigenous agriculture well before the first Europeans arrived.
Corn, or maize, was first domesticated in the Mexican highlands 7,000 years ago and bred into strains that spread throughout Central and North America. Beans, gourds, sunflowers, potatoes and tobacco followed in the cultivated plots of Indigenous people. By 1000 CE (Common Era), maize was grown as far north as the Dakotas, a hardy variety known as Northern Flint.[i] Northern Flint was insect-resistant, high-yielding and tolerant of frosts. It may have been so-called because it grew in the Knife River area where Indigenous people throughout central North America accessed their flint for making arrow and spear points. Knife River is in central North Dakota, between Minot and Bismarck.
And what happens when agriculture takes root, as it did with corn and the other crops described above? People do the same. Indigenous people responded no differently than those in the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (now mostly Iraq, with parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey). The start of primitive agriculture allowed people to stay in one place and not have to be constantly on the move. People began to congregate in settlements. Villages started to form.
The growth of Indigenous agriculture fostered villages such as those of the Mandan people along the Missouri River in North Dakota. The Mandan were unique for their earthen lodges, with 90 or more residences in a typical community. The communities lasted about 20 years until the supply of firewood and small game ran out. Then the women, in the modern day equivalent of flipping through the Real Estate News, would scout out a new location.[ii] Women were regarded as the experts on living space but their role was even greater in early agriculture, as shall be seen.
The spread of corn contributed to faster population growth. It also caused populations of Indigenous people to congregate along many major rivers such as the Mississippi, Missouri and Red River. Hunting was still the primary source of protein, with bison the primary target, but local produce lessened the dependence on wild game and allowed more permanency to their camps.
Cultivation of plants spread rapidly into Iowa, southern Minnesota and the Dakotas from 900 to 1,000 CE. That was close enough for there to be trade with Indigenous people in Manitoba. The Mandan, for example, visited forts along the Assiniboine River for trade in the late 1700s, according to fur trade journals. In turn, Lewis and Clark noted Assiniboin bands visiting Missouri tribes. Therefore, “it should come as no surprise that native groups living in Manitoba both knew of plant domestication and attempted it,” wrote Syms and Catherine Flynn of Parks Canada, in the spring 1996 edition of Manitoba History magazine.
As for hard evidence, i.e. archaeological proof? That came in the mid-1980s from a trove of agricultural artifacts Syms located at Lockport, north of Winnipeg, known as the Kenosewun site. Archaeology students working for Syms uncovered charred kernels of corn, charred corn plant parts, ceramic vessels for containing the corn, and at least a dozen gardening hoes made from bison shoulder blades.
The dig also found large bell-shaped storage pits, five feet deep and four feet wide at the bottom, that were used for storing corn like early grain bins. The investment of labour in building these storage pits with bone tools indicates the people who dug them were there for the long haul.
The volume of earth-moving equipment and technology also shows it was an extensive agricultural enterprise. Hoes, Syms and Park wrote, were made of bison shoulder blades fastened to long wooden handles; rakes were made from antlers; and knives were formed from animal shoulders. Syms estimated the Indigenous occupation at Lockport preceded the arrival of the Selkirk settlers by at least 400 years.
The style of pottery found at Lockport also indicates a connection to Indigenous people farther south in the middle Red River, and along the James River in southern North Dakota, and the Cheyenne River in South Dakota.
A Hidatsa elder named Buffalo Bird Woman once described traditional agriculture. The Hidatsa were in the Missouri area of North Dakota but a camp was also uncovered in southwestern Manitoba in the 1990s by Brandon University archaeologist Bev Nicholson.
The Hidatsa elder said fields of about 1.3 hectares, or 3.2 acres, were seeded at the edge of the river. Senior women managed the fields. Women saw to the soil preparation, planting and weeding. Only when it came to harvesting did some men help.[iii]
The ripening of the crop was celebrated with a festival where corn was consumed ripe, dried and as a mush. The harvest was stored in the large storage pits in loose kernels or on the cob for consumption and traded throughout the year, said Syms and Flynn. The pits were lined with bark and grass and capped to keep out moisture, insects and rodents.
Indigenous people at Lockport chose the site for its sandy soil and exposure to the afternoon sun on the east bank of the Red River. Proximity to a body of water also allowed for a slightly longer frost-free growing period.
And the variety of the maize? It has been identified as Northern Flint, the same variety found in central North Dakota.
As for southwestern Manitoba, Syms uncovered at least eight storage pits near the confluence of Gainsborough Creek and the Souris River, three miles north of the municipal Sourisford-Coulter Park (about 4.5 kilometres). The pits were along the sides of a large field. Modern cultivation has obliterated much of the area so there is no telling how many storage pits were once there. The age of the occupation is estimated to be more recent than the Lockport site but still prior to European settlement.
Today, the Lockport site is regarded as the earliest evidence of pre-European farming on the Canadian prairies. The lineage of those first farmers came from agricultural sites in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa from which some members moved into the Lockport region between 1000 and 1300 CE. Indigenous people lived and cultivated food plants in the Lockport area into the early 1400s.
The agricultural settlement is believed to have met its demise not from any human action but due to the Little Ice Age. The cooling period started in the 1400s and although it was not as great as major ice ages, it still shortened growing seasons enough in North America to cause problems. It was apparently enough to demolish the robust Northern Flint maize growing in Lockport, at least so historians theorize, and the northernmost engagement of pre-European agriculture recorded in North America was abandoned.
Agriculture production merely supplemented a diet of wild meat, of which bison were primary. When the bison were hunted to near-extinction—the last bison hunt in Manitoba was in 1874—Indigenous communities in the region were pushed to the brink of survival.
“The subsequent tragedy was, of course, that when the bison herds and many of the other natural resources had been decimated, and when the native people had been confined to small parcels of reserve land, they were often given land which was marginal, and were bureaucratically hampered in their efforts to become effective farmers, and as a result experienced difficulty fending off starvation,” wrote Syms and Flynn.
Since the Lockport revelation, a second discovery has been made suggesting ancient agriculture in another part of Manitoba where it only makes sense. Can you guess that place where Indigenous people gathered long before European immigration, and where people of all nationalities gather today?
Archaeologists have long thought agriculture could have taken place at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, now known as the Forks in Winnipeg. After all, it was a centre where Indigenous peoples congregated, camped and traded. Seeds would have been an easy item to transport and swap. Added to that fertile soil created from the addition of nutrients from frequent flooding, and the Forks is a logical site for agriculture.
Between 2008 and 2012, during the construction of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, archaeologists unearthed a trove of more than 400,000 artifacts, many dating from 800 to 1,000 years ago. The findings included 191 hearths or campfire pits, indicating a very significant gathering place. This is supported by oral histories of a massive gathering on nine nations in 1285. Artifacts that suggested agriculture included fragments of a hoe made from a sharpened bison shoulder blade, squash knives (bone that was honed into a sharp edge, used for cutting plant material) and residue of maize and beans on cooking pots. The evidence is not as definitive as artifacts found at the Kenosewun site at Lockport, where at least a dozen hoes were found and actual charred kernels. As well, residue found in cooking pots could have been from produce imported to the site. Even so, the evidence is considered very strong.
VINCE TACAN IS a modern-day Indigenous farmer.
Tacan, pronounced Ta-CHAN and meaning “stone” in the Dakota language, is a third generation cattle farmer on Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located west of Brandon.
The Dakota people have a rich tradition as agriculturalists. They took their agriculture knowledge and adopted European practices demonstrated at a United States government experimental farm in Minnesota started in the 1820s. The Dakota people became competitive farmers and brought that knowledge and culture with them when they migrated into present-day Manitoba. The people who settled at Sioux Valley in Manitoba were American Dakota who arrived after the “Sioux War” of 1862-63 in Minnesota.
Tacan’s Sioux Valley was once one of the most successful agricultural reserves, and many families were producing not just food but incomes from farming in the late 1800s. “There was a steady expansion of agriculture so that by the early 1890s the residents had gone beyond subsistence farming and were practicing commercial agriculture,” wrote historian Sarah Carter, in a study summarized in Manitoba History magazine.[iv]
But the band’s agriculture failed to progress due to policies of the Department of Indian Affairs, Carter argues. Those policies limited and frustrated the band’s farmers’ ability to modernize and sell farm produce commercially, according to Carter.
The prime example was the federal Peasant Farming policy, passed in 1889, that forbade Indigenous people from practising farming beyond the subsistence level until government determined they had made the necessary “progress” to a more advanced stage of production. To accomplish this, the Canadian government banned First Nation people from buying modern, labour-saving machinery. This was enforced by a non-Indigenous Indian Agent, employed by the federal government, who oversaw band affairs.
The problem was Indigenous people like the Dakota were already at the advanced stage of production where they were commercial farmers, and the government’s policy only served to thwart them. The government policy took away their ability to buy basic machinery and conduct large-scale farming. Applying it to advanced farmers like those in Sioux Valley only served to stifle their progress in agriculture. It effectively frustrated the farming culture and entrepreneurial spirit on that Dakota reserve.
The other prohibitive policy was a permit system that regulated and limited the sale of crops off a reserve. The permit system required an Indigenous farmer to obtain government permission to both buy stock and implements, and sell grain outside the reserve. Again, Indian Agents assigned to oversee reserves blocked Indigenous people like the Sioux Valley Dakota from becoming competitive entrepreneurs.
Agriculture didn’t disappear overnight. Even in the 1990s, some band members were raising cattle and growing field crops like wheat, oats and flax, said Tacan, 60. But that is nothing like it was. “I remember we used to have a hundred head of cattle and feed them square bales,” he said of his parents’ farm.
Today, Tacan is the last person in Sioux Valley with cattle. Another resident puts up hay and sells it, he said, and another man, who formerly maintained a grain farm, now leases the land to users outside the community. Like many First Nations, much of the agricultural land is rented out to non-Indigenous farmers in the surrounding area.
“Kids think it’s funny or strange that I’m farming here. ‘How did you wind up being a farmer?’ they ask,” said Tacan.
Within Tacan’s family, a grandmother, who was from the Turtle Mountain Reserve in Manitoba, had some farming background and moved to Sioux Valley with her family where there was better hay land. His grandparents operated a small cattle operation.
The second generation farmers in Sioux Valley were his mom and dad. Tacan said his dad attended the residential school in Lebret, Sask., where he was taught farming skills, and his mother went to Brandon Residential School, where she learned homemaking skills.
An Indian Agent still dictated what type of business Indigenous people could and could not do in their own communities. Tacan heard many stories of frustration from his parents of Indian Agents interfering with the operation of their farm. But Tacan still wanted to farm.
“When I started it was because my dad had cancer and was getting out of the cattle side,” he recalled. “I approached my dad and said I was interested and I took over the cattle.”
There was government help available at the time to assist him with buying his own livestock. Tacan applied for a loan under the now defunct Manitoba Indian Agricultural Program. “I was 20 years old. It took me four or five years to finally get a loan and I bought 40 head (of cattle).”
He calved his cattle out and a short time later someone torched his hay. Tacan couldn’t afford to buy the feed and sold off all his cattle. Tacan believes it was more than mere vandalism that destroyed his feedstocks, but rather a case of jealousy against him for trying to get ahead. The same thing happened to his father. It wasn’t the last time Tacan would lose his hay to arson. It happened three times over his career and each time he ended up selling off all or most of his cattle.
He got back into cattle a few years later but learned how difficult it is to get a bank loan when living on a First Nation where the land is owned by the Crown. He applied repeatedly for a loan without success because he owned no assets.
In between these times, like most farmers, Tacan took off-farm work. He was a tribal policeman for five years, a parole officer for 14 years, and has been band chief off and on for 13 years. He was first elected chief in 1998; he was last voted out in 2018.
If there was anything he could change it would be sections of the Indian Act to allow some private ownership on First Nations. What many people don’t know is how “precarious” farming can be on a First Nation because nobody owns the land. “The land is not set up like outside communities.” He pushed the concept of “pride of ownership” when he served as chief but it never got much traction.
“After every election, you don’t know if council is going to finish you off or not because the land is under the Indian Act and for the benefit of all. So any improvement you make under the Indian Act, if you build a house or a barn or a fence, it automatically reverts to the band, which makes it hard to have assets and go to the bank.”
Tacan used to think farmers off the reserve “had it easy” because of private ownership. “I know now they don’t. They have taxation, markets, the banks, and they have to stay ahead of the curve.”
However, farmers off-reserve can borrow against their land to obtain a loan, and they can chase trespassers off their land, he said. Legally, Tacan can do neither. “In Sioux Valley, we’re just trying to survive but we have no control of the land,” he said. “I have in-laws off the reserve and they can’t believe it.”
He knows of one other Indigenous cattle producer in Manitoba. The producer, who was from the Interlake on Lake St. Martin First Nation, kept Black Angus cattle. However, they have lost touch and the last Tacan heard the farmer was having trouble keeping his herd due to flooding.
The authority of the chief and council can have impacts in unpredictable ways, and often their actions show the disconnect with agriculture that has developed on some First Nations, no doubt a disconnect worsened by the federal government’s earlier policies. For example, some years ago, during a drought in Alberta, Tacan put up 150 cattle from that province on his farm, for which he was paid $5,000 for two months of work. Because the land is community-owned, and not legally owned by him, the council demanded the money because Tacan’s land isn’t legally his land. “I said I didn’t think that was fair. I’m doing all the work and it’s my fence.” He ended up paying the band half the money.
He also wonders if it’s feasible anymore for an Indigenous person to operate a grain farm on a First Nation, considering the size of farms today.
Tacan had up to 60 head of cattle at one point, but by 2015, he was starting to wind down and had just 20 head. His herd has shrunk again. “We still have some grain land (and nine cattle) but for the most part we’re pretty close to being finished off,” he said.
Recently, he did some work at the Virden Auction Mart just to stay in touch. He also signed a contract with accounting firm BDO Canada Ltd. to do consulting work with some First Nations.
But farming is his first love and he doesn’t want to give it up, even if it’s little more than a hobby now. “My main thing was farming. That’s what I like to do. The reason I got into politics was as a means of protecting my farm,” he said.
Tacan’s cattle are Texas Longhorns crossed with Black Angus. He’s always got beef in his freezer and he sells the odd one. But he recognizes he may be the last of his kind.
“It’s more symbolic. I don’t want to be the last Indian farmer,” he said.
ON THE SEVEN-ACRE community garden in Peguis First Nation, the “Three Sisters” are very popular. Three Sisters is the name given by Indigenous people to the three staple vegetables their ancestors grew before the arrival of Europeans: corn, squash and beans.
“Corn would provide the shade, the squash would cover the weeds from growing, and the beans had a place to send their vines up the corn, so they complimented each other,” explained Carl McCorrister, a Peguis band member who acts as an advisor on the community garden.
It was also a teaching tool for co-operation among Indigenous people.
But in the Peguis community garden, another vegetable beats them all in popularity. “Potatoes are a big thing here,” said McCorrister, and another important vegetable grown before the European immigration.
There is a host of other vegetables grown including beets, carrots, peas and yellow beans. “Yellow beans are big also. People like canning them because they go good with wild meat,” he said.
The garden project was supported by the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Collaborative (NMFCC), a non-profit group that helps First Nations, particularly ones farther north, to practise gardening and other forms of food production.
Since its inception in 2014, the Collaborative has worked in more than 70 communities, supporting people’s efforts on everything from gardening to building greenhouses to setting up bee apiaries.
For example, there are now 80 household gardens in Pinaymootang (Fairford) First Nation in the northern Interlake; an apiary operation in Dauphin River First Nation; a processing centre for traditional foods like deer and goose sausages at South Indian Lake, 130 kilometres north of Thompson; a chicken and gardening project at God’s Lake First Nation; a greenhouse in Grand Rapids.
NMFCCC has distributed $2.5 million in support, mostly for equipment, since 2014, said Julie Price, the Collaborative’s coordinator, who grew up on a farm in southeastern Manitoba. Donations come from public foundations, private foundations, philanthropic organizations and the province. Its website is nmfcc.ca.
Along with other organizations like the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative, NMFCCC is one of many agriculture initiatives currently on First Nations today. Another is the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Smart Farm, a greenhouse initiative that uses vertical gardening to grow fresh produce. The project, started in 2016, grows more than two dozen different fruits and vegetables.
McCORRISTER WAS INVITED by Leigh Syms to tour the archaeological dig site at Lockport several years ago. It was very gratifying for McCorrister to see evidence supporting the stories he heard as a child, handed down in the oral tradition, about Indigenous vegetable cultivation.
Chief Peguis, along with about 100 people, moved from Ontario to Netley Creek in the late 1700s. History books say the Peguis people were introduced to agriculture by influential Anglican Rev. William Cockran, who arrived in the Selkirk settlement in 1825. But McCorrister maintains Peguis band members were practising agriculture before that, similar to the Odawa people at Lockport.
“History portrays us in a very stereotypical way,” he said.
After visiting the Lockport archaeological dig site, where at least a dozen ancient garden hoes were uncovered, McCorrister decided to make his own. He didn’t have a bison shoulder blade, so he made one from an elk shoulder blade instead. He tried working the soil with it. It wasn’t easy, he said.
The Peguis band started in Netley Creek, but was later moved onto nearby land in the area now known as East Selkirk. In 1907, the band was swindled out of its 45,000-acre reserve and relocated 190 kilometres north of Winnipeg on a larger but poorer 75,000-acre parcel of land. In 2009, Peguis and the Canadian government reached a settlement in excess of $100 million as compensation for the historic injustice.
McCorrister estimated about half the Peguis land today is arable and much of it is leased out to farmers outside the community. A local Hutterite colony is one renter.
As for the community garden in Peguis, it is divided into two separate plots: three acres along the Fisher River, and four acres a little farther back. McCorrister hires a crew every growing season to oversee production. The crew can range from young people who want to earn some money, to people who were incarcerated and are working their way back into society. The harvest is then distributed to the elders and others in need on the reserve.
“We’re reclaiming and going back to our roots and growing our own food,” said McCorrister, a retired school teacher on Peguis First Nation; his former students include recording artist William Prince in grades 10 and 11.
The initiative with the NMFCC, which has been in Peguis for seven years, is not limited to the community garden. There are also now 66 household gardens where vegetables are grown, making it one of the Collaborative’s biggest successes. “They are kind of kicking ass,” said Price.
Many are not small backyard gardens like the ones found in the suburbs or urban centres. “Some of their home gardens are huge,” said Price. NMFCCC has helped with funding for a rototiller that can be hauled from yard to yard.
Peguis First Nation has even started its own brand of tobacco. Years ago, a band member brought back some tobacco seed from the Hopi tribe in Arizona, McCorrister explained.
“We germinated it in trays and transplanted them and you wouldn’t believe it. We got three-to-four-foot high tobacco leaves, and so we’ve developed our own seed. We call it Peguis Tobacco,” said McCorrister.
“We grow our own. We use it for traditional purposes. It’s for offerings, for gift giving in little packets, and for ceremonies.”
[i] “Manitoba’s First Farmers,” by Catherine Flynn, Parks Canada and E. Leigh Syms, Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Manitoba History magazine, No. 31, Spring 1996.
[iv] “Agriculture and Agitation on the Oak River Dakota Reserve, 1875-1895,” by Sarah Carter, Manitoba History, No. 6, Fall 1983.