Old Ways, New Farmers: How Native Wisdom Can Help Us Create a Better Future

Old Ways New Farmers - How native wisdom can help us create a better future

Sustainability isn’t a new concept.


For almost 50 years I have worked to create a form of agriculture that helps all people grow abundant nutritious food and fertile soil, in harmony with this beautiful earth. I know that I have been helped and guided along the way by those who came before me: the original farmer-to-farmer training network, stretching back thousands of years. Time after time, I have seen examples of “primitive” cultures that knew more about their environment and how to keep their land healthy and productive than many of the finest scientists our modern agricultural and educational systems have produced.  And now that our civilization is seeing unprecedented challenges in the face of climate change, I find myself looking to the past, to the native people of North America for advice and resources on how to work with our planet to create the solutions we need to survive.


Three books that spring to mind on this theme are:


The Hopi Survival Kit by Thomas E. Mails
image credit: Amazon.com


The Hopi Survival Kit — The Prophecies, Instructions, and Warnings Revealed by the Last Elders 


Written in 1997 by Thomas E Mails, author of the source-book for the epic film Dances with Wolves. According to the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center’s online biography, Mails’ “…spiritual awakening as a minister gave him the insight needed to see the wonder and beauty of the Indian life-way, the center and core of which is man’s relationship to creation. … He spent years writing and illustrating Native American history books. The first book he worked on was titled The Mystic Warrior of the Plains…[which became] a standard reference book worldwide for those interested in the culture of the Plains Indians.” 


Mails wrote The Hopi Survival Kit in 1997, at the request of the Elders of Hotevilla, a tiny village on a remote Hopi reservation in Arizona, who for centuries had “…guarded the secrets and prophecies of a thousand-year-old covenant created to ensure the well-being of the earth and its creatures.” Mails was “…chosen by the last surviving elders to reveal to the outside world the sacred Hopi prophecy and instructions at precisely the time in history when they are most urgently needed. The Hopi Survival Kit is the first full revelation of traditional Hopi prophecy. … And though this may be a sobering realization, it is also our best defense. For the Hopi teachings give detailed instructions for survival–our actions can alter the pace and intensity of what will happen and help avoid a cataclysmic end.”


The chapters include:

  • The Secret of Land and Life
  • The Ark’s Instructions
  • The Ark’s Warnings, and
  • The Twist in the Secret

Much of this book is a historical narrative, and while some have criticized Mails’ writing style, I found it an interesting read and a valuable commentary on our current situation. The primary message of the Hopi prophecy is that humans must embrace peace and work with Mother Earth to achieve survival in harmony with nature.  And within the narrative is a nugget of 30 pages or so of practical advice and survival techniques to achieve this goal.


(Of course, if you’re interested in growing your own food sustainably, I also have another book you might like to read… 🙂 )


Native American Medicinal Plants by Daniel E. Moerman
image credit: timberpress.com


Native American Medicinal Plants—An Ethnobotanical Dictionary:

The Medicinal Uses of More Than 3000 Plants by 218 Native American Tribes


            An incredible resource! This is one of those books that really provides a link with the past for farmers into the future.


Written by renowned ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, this 800-page compilation is a wide-ranging and authoritative font of information about medicinal plant usage by the first peoples, far outpacing other books I’ve seen on the subject. Don’t be daunted by its size – it’s an enjoyable read, and a good addition to your reference library, covering “…82 categories of medicinal uses, ranging from analgesics, contraceptives, and gastrointestinal aids to hypotensive medicines, sedatives, and toothache remedies. This book includes extensive indexes arranged by tribe, usage and common name…and is a…starting point for anthropologists, botanists, phytochemists and readers interested in ethnobotany natural healing and the preservation of biodiversity.” 


The topics are arranged by tribe, usage, and common name, making it easy to access the richly detailed information. If you are interested in native plants, healing, naturopathy, survival, or botany, this is the book for you!


Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America by Walter Ebeling
image credit: Amazon.com


Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America


Another volume on the theme of native plant use, this handbook focuses on varieties used for centuries by people in the desert environments stretching south into Mexico.  On an increasingly desertified planet, this epic 971-page treasure trove of useful information by Walter Ebeling is a great place to start learning how to make a proactive difference right where you are, growing food and fiber while conserving water in our gardens!


Contents include:

  • The First Americans (including wild plant foods of the high plains and bordering mountains)
  • The Great Basin Wild Food and Fiber Plants
  • Owens Valley Native Food and Fiber Plants
  • California Food and Fiber Plants of the Central Valley
  • Food and Fiber Plants of Cahuilla Territory
  • The Lower Colorado Basin
  • The United States Southwest – The principal Useful Wild Plants
  • Mexico
  • A Historic Perspective


Pondering the predictions of the Hopi elders, wondering how things will go for our species and the planet, two of my favorite quotes from visionaries of different backgrounds spring to mind:


Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (Chief Seattle)


“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” (Abraham Lincoln).


The plants and perspectives included in these wonderful publications are a link with the past that can make all the difference in the world to each of our futures – if we take the time to understand them and integrate the wisdom of the first peoples into our actions! Why not start taking care of our part of the web of life, and growing a future where all beings can thrive today, with one of these books?







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