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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 Nation (ref 8)


  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