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  • Writer's pictureTribes Team

Turtle Island's Ancient and Honorable Trade Systems--Incorporate Best Practices

Updated: May 4, 2023

By Tony Skrelunas, Dine, MBA, Big Mountain

Founder of the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations

Founder Red Road Journey

The traditional trade systems of the Americas encompassed a massive area ranging all the way from South America to Canada. Anthropologists point out that South American and far north items found at various tribal migration routes date back over 10,000 years. As our world search for sustainability solutions in the face of climate change and the need to curb pollution, there are lessons we can learn from: the traditional values of the entire Turtle Island's old time tested system, what the underlying sustainability ethic meant to the tribes, what honorable trade was, and what we can incorporate as tribes work to catch up their current western style economic development efforts. A question often arrises when exploring this subject: should western style economies even be the goal?


Turtle Islands immense trade system was not about maximizing shareholder wealth, taxation or infatuation with getting rich; trade was about honor, love and excitement. A couple hundred years ago, the tribes were each other's tourists and offered intertribal visitation to ceremonies, homesteads, villages, cornfields, livestock. Like today when somebody comes to

visit you, they bring food, you share about your family, your home, your culture, and your ancestor's history and story. You're excited to share! You cant wait to share your story, to share unique land marks such as springs, a corn field, a dance. But if you think back just a few hundred years, that was all our tribal ancestors had; the tribes only had each other. It was really honorable. Those values are the focus; we want to look more closely at them. A couple of years ago, I organized inter tribal gatherings to replicate ancient gatherings. As it so happens, tribes have these fantastic knowledge systems, stories, brilliant advanced knowledge of natural laws, climates, plants, deserts, mountains, oceans, forests and the history of the universe.


A lot of this knowledge was told orally, through the creation of natural laws around how to deal with issues and challenges.


One of the biggest issues affecting our people now is climate change; increasing temperatures, rainfall, volatile winds, our land drying out, lack of water, erosion, things we depend on. Some of the tribes are gatherers, some of the tribes are sheepherders, some of the tribes live in the forest; but the suffering is all of ours. The scientific western paradigm

is what is causing this catastrophe.


An importance lesson from study of the past is the ancestors of the area tribes had figured out how to live sustainably. They had built large cities, some with over 15,000 inhabitants. They had created regional trade networks from Alaska to the Southern tip of South America.


The tribes were very dependent on the natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter. Thus, each tribe developed unique living in concert with the places that they lived. Each tribe and region developed unique ways of living that took advantage of local resources. These divergent resources resulted in varied cultures, religions, and material uses. All tribes had to know precisely which plants and animals were available at what time during the year. They had very intimate knowledge of their land, seasons, and community. This knowledge was important for sustainable harvesting of these resources, for survival of the future generations of people, and all living animals and plants.


For example, over thousands of years, the Inuit had discovered the social characteristics of caribou. Thus they knew the role and importance of the elder caribou in calming and leading, and of the need to hunt younger caribou. This same type of knowledge applied to grasslands, agricultural lands, and plants.


This intimate knowledge was so critical to a tribe’s survival that it became a major part of social structure, religious beliefs and ceremonial cycles. The tribal society’s survival depended on strict adherence to rules of proper interaction between the 5 fingers, humans, and nature … nihxima nahasdzaan (Navajo word for mother earth).


Each Tribe developed their societies in a way that accommodated their region and land that they lived on. Almost all tribes have a similarity that ensured sustainability - they placed intimacy with the land as vital to survival and regarded the land as a living being. Around this common thread could be built regional economies and trade networks. Some tribes specialized in fishing, in harvesting acorn, wild rice, others in agriculture, cotton clothing and blankets, rugs, bowls and food storage, tobacco, hunting and food processing tools, medicine and healing, architecture, others in hides and feathers, and minerals.


There are well known regional trade gatherings that happened all over the Americas. In the Great Basin, the Shoshone put on a big one that attracted tribes from the Plains, the Great Basin, and Columbia River regions. Just down the road, for 1200 years the Hohokam traded with the central Mexico, plains, and California tribes.


Tribes also depended on their differences in livelihood and cultures for economic trade and a type of cultural tourism. For example, the Navajo and Hopi have lived close to each other for a long time. Tribal elders recite stories of how they really got along in the past, constantly mingling at festivals and dances. Hopi elders miss the time when large groups of Dine would come to dances with meat and would set up camp below the villages – at night sharing their songs, dance, and foods. The next day, the Hopi would reciprocate. Many friendships and interdependence developed. The two tribes are different in many ways. Yet, the difference between the two tribes actually created a complementary that brought them closer. Hopi life is connected to farming. Navajo life is intertwined with health and well being of their animals .. horses, sheep, goats. This creates an sustainable economic symbiosis between them… meat, wool for corn, squash, and melons. It became a business connection as well as social.


Traditional trade systems were premised on sustainability and industrialization; the Mountain Tribes hunted, cultivated certain plants, had different housing styles that were built around mountain life. And then you have the desert tribes, the different levels of desert types, like the Hopi who lived around the mesas and really specialized in farming produce, crops, fruits like peaches. All these tribes created products, the Mountain Tribes obviously had buck skins, foods like pinions and acorns, so you start seeing food and types of food unique to them. The Hopi specialized in corn, thus creating a lot of different types of uses, and corn was important for all of the tribes. The Navajo is kind of a hybrid, specializing obviously in sheep, livestock and farming.


Its important to learn from these systems, the values they were based on, how we can use some of the best practices used by our ancestors. We need to tap our elders and historians to share story, to write and record, so that future generations know there is a sustainable path that once was achieved and can be achieved again.


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