Decolonizing Regenerative Agriculture: An Indigenous Perspective

Harriet and Helen (Diné) community elders from Vanderwagen, N.M., hold corn and cabbage at Spirit Farm. PHOTO © JAMES SKEET. Photo originally appeared in

A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa) is the Director of Programs: Agriculture and Food Systems for the First Nations Development Institute. First Nations provides grants and technical assistance to strengthen native communities and economies. A-dae is a compelling voice against the injustices of colonization inflicted on Native People and for the acknowledgment of Indigenous People’s land stewardship as a basis for regenerative agriculture. A-dae was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Director of the Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Program.

ARTY: What are the differences between an indigenous perspective of agriculture and a non-indigenous perspective?

A-DAE: That’s a loaded question because the whole idea of agriculture puts a contemporary spin on the conversation. Agriculture is usually the point in our American historical narrative where Indigenous People are separated from the rest of civilization. Agriculture is usually the delineating line where people talk about civilization and non-civilization or hunter-gatherers and yeoman farmers. Whenever I get questions about agriculture, I always get a little squirmy because I realize most people are coming from the perspective of the American historical narrative where Indigenous People are excluded.

There are stark differences between agricultural systems in indigenous communities and agricultural systems in contemporary communities. The first being the idea of collective resources. In an indigenous community, there are some things that just cannot be commodified – land, water, air, animals, even the health of the people, all of which are considered collective resources. Collective resources require collective and community management. Contemporary agriculture doesn’t have the same base. In contemporary agriculture, there are individualized, commodified resources like land, you can buy water, at one point in our history you could even buy somebody’s body and health. 

With individualized, commodified resources, the whole dynamic of society changes. It requires different skill sets when you’re managing collective resources versus individualized land plots. There are a lot more specialized skills in the individual land plot scenario. In collective resources management, a variety of skills are needed because you’re not only dealing with people, but you’re also dealing with relationships and how to balance those relationships. 

The biggest difference in contemporary agriculture versus indigenous agriculture is the idea of money. In an indigenous community if you had a person who hunted, if you had a person who could plant a seed, if you had a person who knew how to gather, then you had access to food. In an American or contemporary agricultural system, the way to access those things is through money or some form of money. Sometimes it’s public benefit; sometimes it’s through actual cash economy transactions. There are a lot of transactions that limit the access that a person has to food.

It’s important to keep in mind that food is an indicator of the health of a society. In an indigenous community, food shortages mean something within that society is awry and has to be fixed. But because we have the extra barrier of food access through money, food no longer is that indicator. You have to replace that societal indicator with something else. When that happens, people are disconnected from society and from the collective resources that go into making food. 


ARTY: What does it mean to decolonize agriculture and how does that pertain to regenerative agriculture?

A-DAE: Agriculture, as we’re told in the American narrative, is the delineating line between civilization and the wild Indians. It was the system that separated and allowed for a lot of injustice that occurred with land theft, slavery and indentured servitude. The conversation about decolonizing agriculture is about examining the agricultural system and concepts that allow for those injustices to happen. When we talk about decolonizing regenerative agriculture, we are looking at that initial definition. I’m asking people to stop and say, “Look at how we think about agriculture in America and think about whether it included Indigenous People.” The answer is it doesn’t. It doesn’t include indigenous people because only colonizers and settlers are considered farmers in America. That means that when people are talking about correcting agriculture to a time when it was better, we’re going back to that definition of when settlers came to America and started agriculture. Before that, people weren’t considered agriculturalists. Before that, they were considered hunters and gatherers, which has its own connotations.  

To decolonize regenerative agriculture, we have to go back and think about the times before European settlement and contact to the times when there was more of a balance in the ecological environments that we’re trying to correct now.

ARTY: How would you define regenerative agriculture?

A-DAE: At the heart of the concept regeneration is wanting to renew and correct some of the missteps that have taken us to the point of environmental damage and degradation. We want to create systems that are rebirthing a healthy environment. In order to do that, we need to include Indigenous People. So, my definition of regenerative agriculture is one that includes a true history of land and the environment and people’s health that starts prior to contact.

ARTY: In your writings and talks, you seem to challenge the idea of mimicking nature, which many people in the regenerative agriculture movement use as a guiding principle. Isn’t nature our best teacher?

A-DAE: Yes. I think nature is our best teacher. But it’s a fallacy to think that we can imitate a system that has been in existence for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. These are systems that have been perfected because of relationships with other living beings, plants, animals, the land and everything that surrounds it; those relationships take time. We are a very young society and nation. Scientific inquiry and the scientific field is fairly young compared to the natural systems that we’re trying to mimic. 

We can probably shoot for mimicking nature, but the idea that we could actually achieve it is a fallacy to me. I think one of the most important lessons in indigenous epistemology is that natural systems have unknowns, and that man cannot know everything. We have to have reverence and respect for those unknowns. There are processes in the trees that grow, in the animals that migrate that we just will not know. We should respect in reverence and allow those unknowns to happen. We can observe it knowing that we can probably aid in the health of it, knowing that there is something just beyond our reach, and knowing that there is something greater out there that we must respect.

Coffee Pot Farms, a Native American woman-owned business in Navajo Nation

ARTY: The late Joseph Campbell, professor and author of books on mythology, said that Indigenous Peoples refer to the natural world and all in it as “thou,” as sacred. He said that Western culture views the natural world as an “it” that can be exploited and processed. Can you talk more about reverence versus exploitation?

A-DAE: There is an assumption that man has command of everything around us, or we are on a higher plane than the living things around us. To me, again, that’s a fallacy. We are probably the youngest species on our planet and in our environments; the trees and the plants and the animals are much older. Understanding our place in the universe requires us to actually look at those time frames. When you look at the whole of time, it becomes overwhelming. Indigenous People have created the idea of the unknown and the sacred and reverence for where we are as the youngest entity in this place. There is so much that we have to learn. Rather than being burdened with that task, the idea that we respect the unknown helps people deal with it.

It leaves room at the table for processes to happen because if we knew everything and if we could mimic nature, there’s no imagination that’s needed, there’s no room for surprises, and there’s no room for some of the beauty that happens by happenstance. Some of the greatest joys come from the understanding of reverence and the sacred.

This idea of exploitation puts us in the position that we have to manage everything with the right to commodify things that should never be commodified. We can’t sell everything. I think we learn that through our relationships with other humans that not everything is meant to be sold.

ARTY: I heard you tell the story of assisting your grandfather filling out an organic certification application and to the question of what inputs do you use, he said “prayers, love, river water.” 

You serve on the National Organic Standard board. Have you been able to provide some indigenous perspective to that process?

A-DAE: One of the reasons I entered into the organic community was because organic uses less chemicals to create a food system, and the use of those things by industrial agriculture really worried me. When I see basket-weavers who are weaving from roots that have been affected by pesticides, I worry about them. Why would I want to put that in my body? Indigenous people, in general, don’t use pesticides. We have really strong seeds. So, this idea that Indigenous People would be welcomed in the organic community was one that I was really hopeful for.

What I found is there are not a lot of non-white people in the organic community. When you’re trying to move an entire community of white people and as a non-white person, it is really, really hard and tiring. So, I sit on the board and it helps that I’m a brown face in a very white community. In that sense, I think there is some awareness that there needs to be more inclusion of non-white people in the organic community. I have tried to work on group certification for tribal communities, but again these are systems that are massive, and it takes way more than me to make really lasting change. 

My term is coming to an end, and I hope they replace me with another indigenous person, but that’s a political process, which is pretty crazy presently.

Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative addresses food insecurity and diet related illness on the Rosebud Reservation

ARTY: When Europeans came to North America they erected fences. How did fences disrupt indigenous food sheds in New Mexico and other places?

A-DAE: I think we’re still dealing with the issue of fences today. When I was a little girl in second grade, we were asked to draw a picture of our house. My teacher pulled my paper because I had all the houses together like a pueblo, which I grew up in. She said, “No, what I mean is you need a pitched roof and a picket fence in front of the house. The idea of the picket fence fascinated me. I was like: “What is this? What is the purpose of this fence?” Because in the Pueblo we don’t have fences. Rez dogs just wander in the community and people feed them. In our fields, there are no fences.

In the 1930s and again in the ‘60s, The National Resource Conservation Service came in and put in elk and deer-proof fences. They said you need to put fences around your fields so you can keep out all the animals that are going to eat your crops. My grandpa’s response was: “We’re farmers. When we plant corn, we don’t plant just for us, we plant for the environment around us too. If the deer are coming, it’s because they’re hungry. So, that means, I need to plant more.” We’re adjusting to our environment rather than trying to keep everything out. So, this idea of a fence is just antithetical to the way we view the world. 

Recently the Pueblo of Jemez had a lawsuit against the forest service. The Caldera in the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico is surrounded by a fence; it’s in a National Preserve. The Pueblo of Jemez said that the Caldera has always been sacred to the Jemez people, and they have always had continuous access. But the federal agency said, “There’s a fence there, and it says no trespassing. Are you telling us that the Jemez people have been going over this fence?” And the Jemez governor’s response was, “I thought that fence was to keep the elk in not to keep the Indians out.” 

ARTY: Relationships in indigenous ways are central. For example, you talked about growing corn for the deer. How does indigenous farming develop relationships and nurture life?

A-DAE: One of the things that comes to mind is food safety. I studied food safety law when I got my LLM [Master of Laws Degree]. I thought it was fascinating, the idea that you pretty much kill everything so that nothing living goes inside your body as a preventative to making you sick. I just didn’t understand the concept of making the food supply so clean to prevent sickness.

It’s almost like the idea of wilderness being healthy if nobody’s in it. To me it’s weird because in indigenous epistemologies people are a part of the environment, and it’s the same with the microbiome. Indigenous communities embrace the environments that we’re in. We have to embrace the bacteria and the microbiome that make our community because that’s the only way our bodies adjust to our environment. That’s the only way we’re going to ensure that we are within the cycle of whatever natural systems we’re a part of. We don’t kill the natural systems in order to ensure that we survive, which is what food safety does. 

When we farm, we’re thinking about natural cycles, and how do we become more embedded into those natural systems. We take the cues from the natural systems, whether that be deer, whether that be insects, whether it be water shortages.  In order to be successful farmers, we have to learn how to adjust to those environmental changes from the beings in that natural environment.

But it is very much the opposite of what agricultural systems are today, which tries to kill everything except the plant that you want to grow. That is so hard for me to understand. 

ARTY: I’ve always felt like one of the big problems with agriculture is that it needs more biology, it needs more life, not less. And as you describe, the thrust is to kill off the pests, kill off the weeds, destroy and kill and create the monocrop. But the real remedy is more diverse above-and-below ground living systems.

A-DAE: Absolutely. That’s exactly how I see indigenous food systems. The indigenous universal connection is the idea that you absolutely need to be part of the natural cycles around you, whether they’re negative or positive. You need to adjust to them. You’re part of that system. You need to become embraced in that system in order to create not only a healthy food system, but also healthy people, a healthy environment, and a happy mental state. I don’t understand the other side. I’ve tried. I’ve studied it to death, and I’m still learning.

ARTY: You wrote: “Indigenous People 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.” Allan Savory, the founder of holistic livestock management, was criticized by scientists because initially he didn’t use scientific metrics to measure his success, but instead he used the overall improved health and biodiversity of the landscape. Is regenerative agriculture a place where traditional indigenous knowledge and science can complement each other?

A-DAE: One of the major components I hear consistently in regenerative agriculture is this idea of carbon sequestration. The language of science is very minute, talking about atoms and nutrients and carbon. These are things we can’t see unless you have a microscope and unless you know what a carbon atom looks like. It leaves the common farmer and the common Indigenous person outside of understanding, and that’s a problem. We need people to understand why it’s important to have healthy soil and why it’s important that you have a healthy root system that sequesters water. We need people to understand that. But counting carbon and counting molecules is not going to help people understand.

In regenerative agriculture, the science needs to follow healthy systems. Indigenous people are stewarding healthy systems. Rather than trying to disprove or prove the functionality of these systems, science needs to take their cues and use scientific methods to explain the importance and the positives of these stewarded lands. There are many reports that say carbon sequestration is happening in indigenous stewarded lands. In places like the Amazon or here in California where the Mono people are still doing traditional burns, or places along the rivers where Indigenous People are stewarding the salmon and the salmon burial grounds, those are some of the healthiest soils. Also, places that have been stewarded and kept by California indigenous basket-weavers, those are the places where carbon is probably its most healthy. Science rather than trying to count carbon, should work to explain to the Western scientific world why these stewarded places are so important and why these practices should be continued. 

In historical terms, science has been used to dispossess a lot of Indigenous Peoples of land. So, this idea that science is objective is kind of a fallacy to me because I think science is very much subject to political whims more than anything else. I could go off on politics and science, but I’m just going to end there.

ARTY: In the webinar you hosted as part of a First Nations Development Institute series on land stewardship, you said that agroecology is a non-indigenous term; it’s an interpretation of an indigenous way of farming, but not an interpretation by Indigenous People. How do Native voices become authentically included in the regenerative agriculture conversation?

A-DAE: Invite them to the table. When I say agroecology is an interpretation, it’s because agroecology practices are practices without the people. Many of these other disciplines take practices of Indigenous People, but don’t include the people or don’t include their stories.

For instance, my grandpa would take me to the field and tell a story about the last time he saw conditions like this and what his grandparents did. Those stories are just as important as the practices or the l hoe that I pick up. Those stories are the guideposts that need to be laid out before we even start digging into the soil. Indigenous People need room to tell those stories.

The same goes for traditional ecological knowledge. Really, what does that mean? It’s a very broad term. Cochiti people do things differently than Pomo people. Pomo people do different things than Navajo people. The Navajo people do different things than Kiowa people. It’s much more nuanced than these terms that are in vogue or not in vogue depending on the time and audience.

Each of these peoples have their own practices and stories that go along with these practices. They need that whole spectrum, the full body, the full room and the time to tell those stories along with their practices, which currently is hard to find in any of these multiple disciplines, whether it be agroecology, permaculture, or traditional ecological knowledge. 

ARTY: What needs to happen to make the regenerative agriculture community more inclusive?

A-DAE: We need to challenge, as a community, the historical narrative of this country that begins with this idea that the farmer is the true American, and that agriculture is really how our continent was started. It started long before that event happened in our country, and regenerative agriculture needs to challenge that narrative that has led us astray thus far.

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