Multi-colored heirloom or
Heirloom or "Indian" corn grown at Sacred Seed Pop-Up garden in Omaha, NE. Photo courtesy of Taylor Keen

Native agricultural practices such as crop rotation, no-till farming, agroforestry, intercropping and the use of heritage seeds that were prominent in many tribal communities have since been integrated into what is now called the regenerative agriculture movement.

Many of these methods are still employed by Native communities in Nebraska, including by the Cherokee Nation, Q’anjob’al Maya people, the Ponca, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk Nation). 

Indigenous regenerative practices are often employed on both individual and local levels, like at small-scale farms or community gardens.

Regenerate Nebraska, for example, is a network of more than 58 regenerative farmers, ranchers, tribes and urban farmers across the state who run or support businesses, organizations and communities that commit to shifting away from industrial food production in favor of a more ethical food system. 

Of the Indigenous and tribal organizations that are a part of Regenerate Nebraska, Sacred Seed Pop-Up and Ho-Chunk Farms are two of the most notable. In addition to this, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, a 501(c)3 organization of the Maya Community in Omaha, has begun the development of their own regenerative project called the Maya Regeneration Project.

The Maya Regeneration Project’s founder, Luis Marcos, is looking to promote more sustainable agricultural practices in Nebraska but also hopes to influence practices across the country. Currently, the project is not fully developed, but according to founder Luis Marcos, organizers are planning to establish a regenerative farming operation on 400 to 600 acres of land within 60 miles of Omaha.

“At Sacred Seed this year, we had a ceremony where Taylor [Sacred Seed’s founder] gave us the four sacred seeds, which are corn, squash, sunflower and beans,” Marcos said. “And he said, you know, the Maya gave us corn at a time in our history when we needed it to survive. And today, he said, we give it back to you. And he gave us the seeds. So those are going to be the first seeds we plant for our regeneration project once we secure the amount of land we need.”

According to Marcos, however, there is a level of anxiety that exists when looking to secure the space necessary for the regeneration project. 

“I’ve talked to some people who are well informed about what it takes to secure lands for a project like this, and I know that it will not be as easy as we’d like,” Marcos said. “But I think it’s important to look at land ownership as it is right now. In our [the Maya peoples’] traditional homeland (central America), for example, there’s a lot of transnational corporations, especially corporations from the United States on big, huge amounts of land on our territory– so it would really be a travesty of justice, if we are unable to have access to even a little bit up here in Nebraska.”

In addition to the potential obstacle of securing lands for indigenous-run agricultural projects, many native organizations also grapple with the concept of reclaiming their roots and regaining ownership of the traditional agricultural practices of their tribes.

For instance, diverse farming practices developed by Indigenous people are the foundation for today’s regenerative agriculture movement. However, the concept of regenerative agriculture is often regarded as new, despite having existed long before American agriculturalist Robert Rodale coined the term in the 1980s.

According to Taylor Keen, founder of the native-run Sacred Seed Pop-Up Garden project in Omaha, the idea of regenerative or green agriculture being a ‘newly developed’ concept is just another way in which people have rebranded indigenous environmentalism.

“I was on a panel a couple summers ago, with the Tuscarora agronomist Jane Mt. Pleasant, and the topic of discussion was a book by the green environmental activist Wendell Berry called ‘The Unsettling of America,’” Keen said. “And one of the scholars there asked her what she thought of Berry’s work, whether or not it was an important perspective. And she said, ‘No, I don’t think it’s important because it’s idolizing the white males who call themselves the founders of the green movement, only to clean up the messes that were caused by other white men in America who came before them.’ She said that it [Berry’s work] was ‘ignoring 15,000 years of indigenous environmentalism.’ And I’m probably going to keep quoting her on that for the rest of my life.”

The novel, which Keen references, “The Unsettling of America,” essentially argues that there is a dire need for humans to forge a deeper connection to the land they use in order to save America’s future. 

However, as Mt. Pleasant said, this perspective ignores centuries of indigenous environmentalism by acting as though the need for humans to connect with the land on a deeper, spiritual level is somehow a new idea.

 It also awards Berry with the credit of ‘solving’ problems, which European Americans caused through till-based farming, despite the fact that Indigenous people had already established and practiced this land-based connectivity long before the European invasions, which caused the majority of environmental problems to begin with.

Regardless of where this idea originated, however, according to Marcos, one thing is clear– indigenous environmentalism and regenerative agricultural practices are necessary for sustainable living.

“Many intellectuals will tell you that, you know, if humanity is to be saved, indigenous peoples have a lot to give, to teach about building a sustainable life on Earth,” Marcos said.

Regenerative practices, like those that Indigenous people use, are much more environmentally-friendly in a variety of ways. 

For example, one of the most prominent regenerative methods, called no-till farming is much less harsh on the soil in which crops are planted. Turning the soil more carefully without the mechanical tillage used in commercial farming helps to prevent soil erosion by reducing soil agitation.

By ensuring that the soil is not overly agitated, carbon is more easily kept in the soil, which helps to enrich soil biodiversity and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases.

It is through these methods that regenerative agriculture aims to protect the environment, preserve biodiversity and reduce the effects of climate change– steps that are necessary not only to foster a cleaner and more sustainable environment, but to protect ourselves and our lives.

“We really want to do projects like this [Maya Regeneration Project], not only for ourselves, but for humanity,” Marcos said. “We want access to this amount of land to set an example for how we as a human family can survive. Because at the end of the day, everyone needs to breathe clean air and drink clean water. This project, and others like it are not only about us, they are about our family– our human family. It’s about protecting life, in all its forms.”