Resource

Native Women and Agricultural Innovation

The digging stick pictured in this resource illustrates Native women’s role in the development of North American crops and agricultural practices.

Digging stick, Nlaka’pamux, BC, Thompson River, Spences Bridge Canada

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

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Background

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.

About the Object

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.

Vocabulary

  • agricultural: Farming.
  • cultivate: Prepare.
  • 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 the Nlaka’pamux live 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.

Pronunciation

  • Nlaka’pamux: Ent-klah-PLAK-mut

Discussion Questions

  • How was this tool created? 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 Native women in crop development reshape our understanding of women in the past?
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Suggested Activities

  • Use this object in any lesson about the daily life and culture of pre-contact Native people.
  • Digging sticks have been used by cultures all over the world. Have students research and compare digging sticks from other parts of the world and think critically about how similar agricultural practices evolved in cultures that were worlds apart.
  • Combine the image of the digging stick with the images of the cradleboardZuni pots, and the story of the gateras for a lesson on the labor of women in Native communities.
  • For more stories of women and agricultural innovation, pair this document with the Mortar and Pestle for Pounding Rice and the Patent for Cleaning and Curing Corn.

Themes

GEOGRAPHY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

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