Culture and Agriculture: First Nation Perspective

Dr. Clifford Canku, retired professor of Dakota Studies at North Dakota State University, is a revered elder of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate. Dr. Canku, whose first language is Dakota, is an expert on Dakota history, culture, and language instruction.

This interim session was an opportunity to reflect on unique cultural understandings of the land, nature and food. The perspective of the original people to Minnesota – Dakota Nation – was outlined in contrast to industrial and commercial agriculture.

Native Tribal Relationship to Land and Food

According to the traditional beliefs of the Dakota Nation, they have always lived in the area of the Minnesota River and the Mille Lacs Lake. Thereby the Dakotan has a historical, cultural and religious connection with the state of Minnesota.

According to Dakota philosophy, there is the belief that all living things originated from a great mysterious Creator, referred to as “Wakantanka.” The people in their traditional original teachings were taught that they were created as children with a relational connection to their Creator, who is also the Creator of all of life. Thus, there is a spiritual and natural connection of responsibility to care for the earth and to care for and nurture all its living spirits.

This traditional relationship is all expressed in the original teachings of the Seven Council Fires, passed down from generation to generation. This is an understanding to be a good caretaker of all of God’s gifts over all of the universe including the earth, lovingly called “Unci-Maka” or mother the earth. Its body is the land, and its gifts are water, flowers, fruits, vegetables, animals, fish, fowl, and flesh bearing peoples.

Dakota Relationship to Land:

The Dakota notion of land was different from the European colonizers; the Dakota believed that land cannot be divided because it was used by everyone (Meyer 1993, p. 40). The earth is a gift to be shared with all people and not be to individually owned and modified in human machinations.

“Relational connection to their Creator: this connection is very, very strong. We can do nothing until we connect to Him. We do not put ourselves above creation, we are all from one Creator and children of one mother earth. We are genetically/naturally empathetic towards creation.”

Dakota Relationship to food:

The Dakota notion of foods was different as well; Dakotans believe that food in its natural state such as wild rice, turnips, squash, potatoes, onions, fruits, embodies a natural & nutritious gift from the Creator.

Example of Wild Rice:

Canku explained that wild rice — called “P’sin” in Dakota and “Manoomin” in Ojibway — played an important role in tribal life. Wild rice was endowed with spiritual attributes; its recounted in legends and dreams; and it was used ceremonially as well as for food. Its harvest promoted social interactions in late summer each year.

The commercial production of wild rice is troubling for the Dakota people. Canku explained that tribal people view modern agriculture production practices as unnatural and violate the natural gift of relationship such as sulfate, sulfate is an ion containing sulfate and oxygen, iron mining and ore studies indicate elevated levels which may affect wild rice growth in near by streams.

Dr. Canku summarized by saying that all natural ecology is connected and resides with the original genetic relationship of Creation to the Creator. Natural ecology and spiritual ecology cannot be separated.