Take-aways from a presentation by A-Dae Romero-Briones as part of the Native Lands Stewardship Webinar Series by the First Nations Development Institute, assembled for this blog by Isabelle Jenniches, Co-Founder NM Healthy Soil Working Group.
A-dae Romero-Briones, who was born and raised in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, starts her presentation by pointing out that mainstream agriculture in the US, including organic agriculture, has a different epistemology than pueblo agriculture. The indigenous perspective contains an inherent understanding that everything is connected, but this view does not fit into any of the mainstream agricultural frameworks.
For example, A-dae recounts being unable to fill out the application for organic certification with her grandfather because of this disconnect between the required metrics and his deeply relational approach to farming.
The term Kincentric Ecology, coined by Enrique Salomon (Eating the Landscape, University of Arizona Press 2012) explains this world view as “people being related to the world around us”. The natural world is not separate from human beings –humans, animals, plants, water, air and even the soil are kin.
According to this mainstream agriculture timeline, we are in the 4th agricultural revolution with the first agricultural revolution taking place when “hunter-gatherers” converted to agriculture. A-dae remarks: “Indigenous people are often put into the hunter-gatherer category, although the reality is much more complex.”
When Europeans came to America, the agricultural techniques they brought with them served as a means to perfect private land holdings. Settlers laid claim to the land by putting up fences, introducing cattle and sheep, and plowing the prairies. Romero-Briones stresses that this is the basis of agriculture in the US and it’s important to recognize that this foundational premise is still with us today.
During the 2nd Agricultural Revolution mechanization took place. A-dae shares that in one of the first USDA programs, tractors were offered to indigenous communities in exchange for sending their kids to boarding school. This cruel strategy did not work and instead created resistance as well as ongoing reluctance to participate in government programs.
The 3rd Agricultural Revolution, the so-called Green Revolution, brought the introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and Genetic Engineering.
Now, in the midst of the 4th agricultural revolution, the related terms of organic, sustainable and regenerative agriculture are trying to distinguish themselves from each other. A-dae points out that currently none of these fields and terms include indigenous agriculture:
Out of thousands of organic farms in the US, only about a dozen certified operations are run by indigenous people. Sustainable agriculture, especially through the Deep Ecology movement, has been trying to bring some indigenous perspectives into the mainstream, but beyond appropriation of stories and knowledge, participation of indigenous peoples themselves has not taken place.
The definition of Regenerative Agriculture, the youngest term, is still evolving. For example, the Rodale Institute describes it as “a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social, and economic measures.”
Romero-Briones emphasizes: “There is an opening for indigenous people to still be included in the blossoming of this regenerative space! There is still room to correct historical mistakes. At the very least, we must start the conversation with indigenous peoples being included.”
Regenerative Agriculture often instructs to “mimic nature”. A-dae Romero-Briones points out that this is reflective of a Western epistemology which uses science to understand the natural world and believes humans can create something equivalent or even better: “By contrast, for indigenous people there are too many things we don’t know –and can’t know! –about nature. This reverence for the unknown illustrates a completely different approach to how indigenous people view natural systems.”
A-dae emphasizes that indigenous history and practices before colonization need to be included and that we must acknowledge the pivotal moment when homelands that used to be cared for by indigenous people were destroyed and started to degrade: “If we really want to talk about soil regeneration, let’s talk about the time before it became degraded. You need indigenous people for that!”
Non-indigenous people working within the emerging space of regenerative agriculture should review the long history of agriculture in the US and reflect on its origin and purpose: “If agriculture in the US is serving imperial powers and perfecting private property, that probably hasn’t changed.”
Indigenous people need to think about the time when traditional lifeways changed and were westernized. Creating a timeline that shows when hunting grounds were lost or the first fence was put up can be a useful tool. She says: “The knowledge about soil health still lies with indigenous basket weavers and fishermen. They can look at a landscape and tell if the soil is healthy. They know how to see the health of the soil without needing a microscope.”
A-dae closes by reflecting on Ishi, the last known member of the California Yahi. He is often talked about as being put on display in historical accounts –but A-dae says his story can also be read as an example of adaptability. He chose which parts of his indigenous self he wanted to reveal: “This is who today’s indigenous people need to be. Be engaged and understand enough about our history and how we view the world. Understand when we need to adopt something new and when we need to not do so.”
A-dae Briones-Romero concludes:
A-dae Romero-Briones is the Director of Programs – Native Agriculture and Food Systems – at First Nations Development Institute and formerly was the Director of Community Development for Pūlama Lāna‘i in Hawaii. She is also the co-founder and former Executive Director of a nonprofit organization in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico.
A U.S. Fulbright Scholar, A-dae received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Policy from Princeton University, a Law Doctorate from Arizona State University’s College of Law, and holds a LL.M. degree in Food and Agricultural Law from the University of Arkansas.
A-dae is from the Pueblo of Cochiti, where subsistence farming flourished until the 1970s when fields were flooded due to the construction of Cochiti Dam by the US Army Corps of Engineers.