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 that Native women had worked and experimented for centuries to cultivate this abundance.
In Native communities across North America, women were responsible for agricultural cultivation. It is common knowledge that this means women were responsible for growing, harvesting, and cooking the majority of the food that nourished Native communities. But this also means that women were the leaders in crop development, the experimentation necessary to invent new, better crops. It was women who discovered that the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—grew best when planted together, and it was women who created the many varieties and uses of corn—blue corn, popcorn, flour corn, etc.—that we still enjoy today.
By the time Europeans arrived in the 1600s, Native 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. Their assumption is a testament to the sophistication of the scientific work that Native women did.
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 cross-piece 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.