Indigenous Agricultural Innovation

The digging stick illustrates Indigenous women’s role in the development of North American crops and agricultural practices.

A T-shaped Native American wooden digging tool comprised of a two-handed cross-piece set upon a 2.1ft curved shaft with a pointy top end.
Digging stick, Nlaka’pamux, BC, Thompson River, Spences Bridge Canada

Unknown Maker, Digging stick, Nlaka’pamux, BC, Thompson River, Spences Bridge Canada, 1895. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.


When European explorers first traveled across North America, they were impressed by the richness of the land. Reports of corn fields that stretched for miles, forests full of fruit trees, and wetlands stocked with edible plants amazed readers back in Europe. They did not realize or consider that Indigenous women had worked and experimented for centuries to cultivate the land.

In many Indigenous communities across North America, women were responsible for growing, harvesting, and cooking the majority of the food that fed their communities. Women were the leaders in crop development, the experimentation necessary to invent better new crops. Women discovered that the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—grew best when planted together, and women created the many varieties and uses of corn that we still enjoy today.

By the time Europeans arrived, Indigenous women had spent generations adapting and developing crops. Their work fit so seamlessly into the natural world that the explorers believed everything had evolved that way. 

About the Artifacts

This wooden digging stick was produced by the Nlaka’pamux people, who lived in the Cascade Mountains that span modern-day British Columbia, Canada and Washington State. The tool was used to dig plant roots and tubers. The crosspiece at the top of the stick allows the user to drive it into the earth with two hands. The main shaft is curved to help pull roots and tubers from the ground.


  • agricultural: Farming.
  • cultivate: The process of preparing and improving.
  • Nlaka’pamux: A tribe that lived in the Cascade Mountains that span modern-day British Columbia, Canada and Washington State prior to European contact. Today there is a Nlaka’pamux community in southern British Columbia.
  • tuber: The underground thickened part of the stem of a plant that can be harvested for food. Potatoes and cassava are both tubers.

Discussion Questions

  • How was this tool created? How was it used? What does this object tell us about life in Nlaka’pamux communities?
  • What would it feel like to use this object? What does this tell us about the daily lives of Nlaka’pamux women?
  • How does knowing about the role of Indigenous women in land cultivation and crop development reshape our understanding of women’s impact on human history?

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