Established Sustainable Food Systems Before First Contact (Pre-1500)

For thousands of years, the Indigenous Nations of what we now call the Americas lived free on the land. Hundreds of nations and cultures permeated the landscape from coast to coast- from the far northern lands to the tip of the southern lands. This land was astonishing in its abundance, with the earliest written accounts marveling at such sights as pigeons, which were so numerous that you might see millions in a flock...and as they pass by, in great measure, obstruct the light of the day.” But despite contemporary dominant narratives, the land was far from an untamed wilderness. Fish, fowl, animals, and the land were consciously managed through fire to clear land, habitat maintenance in hunting and fishing areas, complex irrigation systems, skilled farming, and an intricate network of roads for trade and exchange. There was no private ownership of land as we know it. Rather, land was viewed as the source of all life and an entity to be in active relationship with, guided by ethics including moderation, reciprocity, restraint, celebration and gratitude.5-7


“To our people land was everything- identity, our connection to our ancestors, the home of our non-human kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted. Sacred ground, it belonged to itself. It was a gift not a commodity- so it could never be bought or sold.”

- Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomi Nation8

The majority of Indigenous Nations practiced a communal form of economic organization in farming and hunter-gatherer communities of various sizes. Over 200 native foods were domesticated on this land including: beans, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, cocoa, sunflowers- and most importantly, corn, which served as the basis for Indigenous agriculture. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes the Native Peoples of this land as “people of the corn.” Corn was originally domesticated more than 10,000 years ago in what is now central Mexico and migrated along with Native Peoples’ across North and South America. Unlike most plants, it does not grow wild, and requires human cultivation. Corn was so central to the diet of Native Peoples that it was honored as the source of life through ceremonial dances and played a central role in myths and creation stories.9

The area between the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River was one of the most fertile agricultural belts in the world and was the home of multiple agricultural Indigenous Nations. The land that today comprises Durham County is the ancestral home of the Occaneechi, Eno, Adshusheer, and Shocco. These agrarian peoples grew corn, beans, and vegetables, and hunted game large and small such as bear, deer, wild turkeys, and possums. In the settlements around the Eno River, three corn harvests were reaped each year through staggered plantings and stored in communal granaries. Fruit and nut trees were plentiful and deep insights held about the healing properties of local plants and minerals. For these peoples, land was not a commodity to own and extract from, but earth to be in relationship with. And so, there were rituals associated with eating animal flesh and ceremonial thanks and reverence routinely offered for the harvest.10-13

Excerpt from Tribal Nations Map, showing the names and homelands of Native Nations. Courtesy Aaron R. Carapella,
Excerpt from Tribal Nations Map, showing the names and homelands of Native Nations. Courtesy Aaron R. Carapella,


  1. Knowlton, Andrew. (2008). America’s Foodiest Small Town. Bon Appetit
  2. Geary, Bob. (2012). On MLK Day the Most Tolerant US City? It’s our very own. Independent Weekly
  3. CNN Money. (2020). 25 Best Places to Retire, Durham #1. Retrieved from,
  4. Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. (2020). 2018-2019 Durham County Profile. Retrieved from
  5. Lawson, John. (1984). A New Voyage to Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 50-51
  6. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 45, 24-28
  7. Emory, Frank, et al. eds., (1976). Paths Toward Freedom: A Biographical History of Blacks and Indians in North Carolina by Blacks and Indians. Raleigh: The Center for Urban Affairs, North Carolina State University. P. 10
  8. Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, p. 17
  9. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, p.16-17, p. 30-31