Ancient Wisdom from Women who Grew Vegetables

Buffalo Bird Woman

by Sandy Swegel 

I learned the story this week of Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa Indian born around 1839 in the Dakotas. She and the women of her tribe were the ones who did all the farming from breaking hard ground to heavy harvesting and transporting. Toward the end of her life, she gave interviews about how her people had farmed sunflowers and corn and beans, and how they preserved and even seasoned them. It was the work of women. Her stories always start with phrases like, “My two mothers and my sister and I went out to the field…” or “My grandmother Turtle would break the hard new ground with a stick.”

But Buffalo Bird Woman was also a scientist in her approach and gives detailed information about creating soil fertility (and softening the ground), about the timing and order of planting. Unlike the stories we hear of other tribes planting beans and corn and squash into single holes, the Hidatsas had an elaborate system that included sunflowers. They also planted in rows and pre-sprouted their corn and had a strict timing system.

Here was how you knew when to plant corn:
“We knew when corn planting time came by observing the leaves of the wild gooseberry bushes. This bush is the first of the woods to leaf in the spring. Old women of the village were going to the woods daily to gather firewood; and when they saw that the wild gooseberry bushes were almost in full leaf, they said, “It is time for you to begin planting corn!”

I think you’ll find it delightful to meet Buffalo Bird Woman. There is a children’s book based on her childhood called Buffalo Bird Girl.

There are even recipes for good warrior food like sunflower-seed balls.

Buffalo Bird Woman’s story of the practice of agriculture among her people is available free online at the Upenn digital library:

An interview with her was also included in the PBS series, The Sky Above Us.”
At the end of her life, the practices of her people modernized into Western ways, she bragged:

I think our old way of raising corn is better than the new way taught us by white men. Last year, our agent held an agricultural fair… and we Indians competed for prizes for the best corn. The corn which I sent to the fair took the first prize… I cultivated the corn exactly as in the old times, with a hoe.
Buffalo Bird Woman


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