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Gardens: Gardens in Indigenous Traditions


Gardens are of economic importance and also of aesthetic and social significance for indigenous peoples who sustain themselves by the cultivation of vegetables and grains. They may be the subject or locus of myth, and they are regularly the focus of ritual. Where subsistence gardening is the major economic activity, people usually have some food gardens close to their homes and others farther afield. In many societies, gardening is complemented with hunting and/or fishing.

Among the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) of North America, cultivation of the "Three Sisters" (corn, beans, and squash) provided vegetables, while the hunting of deer and other animals provided meat. Moreover, the Iroquois grew sacred tobacco for use in ceremonies. Like the Three Sisters, sacred tobacco is said to have first grown from the body of the Corn Mother, the woman who died after giving birth to Right-Handed Twin (the Creator) and the Left-Handed Twin. Iroquois gardening and hunting were supported by and celebrated in an annual ritual cycle that attended to the sun and moon and seasonal changes and gave thanks for both wild and domesticated fruits. These calendrical ceremonies included Bush Dance, Maple, Seed Planting, Moon, Sun, After Planting, Strawberry, Blackberry, Bean, Thunder, Little Corn, Green Corn, Our Sustenance, Harvest, End of Summer, and Midwinter (Sturtevant, 1985, p. 147). (Some of these ceremonies continue to be celebrated in Iroquois communities.) Iroquois ceremonies acknowledged the thunder spirits. In the American Southwest, among the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo, the rain spirits were even more signficant. They were entertained in festivals and were encouraged to provide the moisture that the land and the people needed. Ceremonies for rain spirits remain an important focus in the agricultural cycles of the Southwest.

In colonial and postcolonial situations, subsistence economies have coexisted with cash economies, and gardening is no longer the only means of obtaining the food necessary for life. People may have income from wage labor or from an introduced form of gardeningcash cropping. Cash cropping often destroys traditional subsistence, because land once used for subsistence gardens may be taken over for the growing of crops such as coffee and tea to the detriment of a people's self-sufficiency. As well as being a primary source of food, the garden is also a metaphor for the meeting of life's needs. In Papua New Guinea, for example, a worker refers to his or her pay packet as gaden bilong mi (my garden). Similarly, gardening may be seen as homologous with other cultural domains such as marriage, exchange, speech, and weaving. Metaphors from gardening may be used to discuss sexual relations, and the maintenance of social alliances may be described in terms of planting and weeding.

Gardening includes not only practical endeavors such as clearing land, tilling soil, planting, and weeding, but also symbolic processes: rituals performed at crucial stages in the gardening process, spells or prayers recited to encourage plant growth and to ward off pestilence, and festivals to celebrate the harvest. Both the manual labor and the ritual activities are "work" for gardens. Rituals usually accompany the seasonal cycle of the crops, and ritual interventions to address crises such as disease or drought are made as warranted. Some societies employ garden specialists to carry out rituals; in others the gardeners themselves perform the necessary rituals or there may be a sharing of rituals. The practical side of gardening in indigenous societies has changed over time with the introduction of new crops, implements, and gardening techniques. Similarly, the spread of religious traditions such as Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism has occasioned changes in the ritual processes performed for the benefit of gardens. In many parts of Oceania and Africa, Christians include prayers for gardens in their church services, and they pray to God as they plant, weed, and harvest. The understanding that both practical work and religious work are necessary for successful outcomes continues to pervade the practice of subsistence gardeners around the world, whether they rely on their indigenous religion, on an introduced religion, or on both. Their welfare depends upon engaging the powers of garden fertility.

Probably the best-known ethnographic account of gardening is Bronislaw Malinowski's Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935), which describes the gardening techniques and rituals of the matrilineal people of the Trobriand Islands, whose livelihood depends on gardening and fishing. In the communities Malinowski studied from 1915 to 1918, the garden magician is an hereditary specialist who coordinates a series of rituals that parallel stages in the gardening cycle and encourages people in the communal labor necessary for the gardens. "Gardening," Malinowski writes, "is associated with an extremely complicated and important body of magic, which, in turn, has its mythology, traditional charters and privileges. Magic appears side by side with work, not accidentally or sporadically as occasion arises or as whim dictates, but as an essential part of the whole scheme" (vol. 1, p. 55). He continues, "Gardening, and effective gardening at that, with a large surplus produce, lies at the root of all tribal authority as well as of the kinship system and communal organization of the Islanders. The gardens of the community are not merely a means to food; they are a source of pride and the main object of collective ambition" (vol. 1, p. 66).

Throughout Oceania the vegetables that make up the daily diet are grown by the family. Gardens are devoted to yams, taro, bananas, green leafy vegetables, beans, corn, and other crops. Flowers, which are used for body decoration, as part of traditional rituals, and to decorate churches for Christian services, may be grown at the border of the vegetables or in separate plots. Tobacco is frequently grown at the edge of gardens. In general, agricultural labor is divided between the sexes so that a man does the work of clearing land (e.g., felling trees, breaking up the soil), making drainage ditches, and fencing, whereas his wife plants and weeds. In many places a woman uses a digging stick for planting, weeding, and harvesting. Before planting, the couple performs a ritual to ensure a good crop. For example, in parts of the Papua New Guinea highlands it is common to bury egg-shaped fertility stones in the garden and to rub digging sticks with pig fat. In some places a couple may have sex in a new garden before planting takes place, and for some communities the garden is the regular place for sexual activity. Generally, women plant, tend, and harvest the sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables, and men care for trees that provide fruit and nuts and tend the sugarcane and corn. In some areas men are also responsible for taro and yams. Women need to work in their gardens every day and to harvest tubers each day to feed their families and pigs; men's crops require less attention. It is common for crops to be designated as male or female according to who cares for them and in relation to their physical characteristics.

Writing of the Kuma of the Wahgi Valley in the New Guinea highlands as they were in the 1950s, anthropologist Marie Reay describes how during preparations for a major ceremony, a small rite is performed with the overt intention of promoting garden fertility. The men and boys carry toy bows and arrows, of the kind used in rites expressing traditional hostilities, and give them to a sorcerer, who holds them against a bundle of fresh leaves from the sweet potato vine. An orator announces that the fathers and grandfathers of all who are present are to be honored in the dance about to begin. Then the sorcerer returns the bows and arrows to the owners, each with a piece of sweet potato vine, which is later planted. Garden fertility is expressed both verbally and in the handling of sweet potato leaves. Traditional hostilities are implied in the use of toy bows and by the presence of the sorcerer. Thus, the rite for garden fertility is linked not only to the physical environment but also to the social situation. The Kuma expect their clan to prosper if they continue their fathers' and grandfathers' hostilities (Reay, 1959, p. 158).

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, gardens are dedicated to staple grain crops and tubers. Flowers may be grown either within the vegetable or grain garden or in separate plots. Flowers are cultivated for medicinal or culinary use or, less often, for decoration. Depending upon the particular culture and its contemporary religious patterns, prayers for gardens may be addressed to God, to nature spirits, or to spirits of the dead. In southern Africa among the Nguni, the myth of Inkosazana yase zulweni (the Princess of the Sky) describes a mythological figure who personifies vegetation and fertility. She is goddess of the corn and presides over the growth of the grain. It is said that from her the people learned how to brew beer. Moreover, she has the power to bring rain. She is said to visit the earth in the spring, and her visit is celebrated with festivals. People appeal to her for alleviation of misfortune and for protection from disease. In the summer (December) the Nguni hold a first fruits ceremony when the corn and other vegetables are ready to eat (Krige, 1950, pp. 197200).

Rain-making specialists are common in Africa, where so much of the country is dry and the lives of people and crops depends upon rain (Mbiti, 1991, p. 134). As in Oceania, there are rituals for making new fields, for planting and weeding, for first fruits and for harvest (Mbiti, 1991, pp. 135136). African gardening, like Oceanian gardening, is part of a total way of life and is related to other cultural processes. The Dogon cultivate land in squares following the pattern of the flat roof of the celestial granary of Dogon myth. Traditional cultivation, according to Ogotemmêli, the wise man who related his understanding of the Dogon world to the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, "is like weaving; one begins on the north side, moving from east to west and then back from west to east. On each line eight feet are planted and the square has eight lines recalling the eight ancestors and the eight seeds" (Griaule, 1965, p. 77). "Moreover," says Griaule, "weaving is a form of speech, which is imparted to the fabric by the to-and-fro movement of the shuttle on the warp; and in the same way the to-and-fro movement of the peasant on his plot imparts the Word of the ancestors, that is to say, moisture, to the ground on which he works, and thus rids the earth of impurity and extends the area of cultivation round inhabited places" (p. 77). The original French title of Griaule's work, Dieu d'Eau: entretiens avec Ogotemmêli (Water god: Conversations with Ogotemmêli), points to the central importance of moisture in the world of Dogon gardeners.

Food and fertility are foci of all religions. Supplicants ask for their daily bread and pray for the fruitfulness of the land, the fecundity of flocks, and the flourishing of human beings. The emphasis on food and fertility is most obvious among those who tend gardens for their livelihood. Their myths and their rituals tell of their dependence on the powers of fertility, and through practical work and symbolic work they assert what control they can over their garden-world.

See Also

Agriculture; Ecology and Religion, overview article; Food.


Dieter, Michael, and Brian Hayden, eds. Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power. Washington, D.C., and London, 2001.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. Introduction by Germaine Dieterlen. Translated by Ralph Butler. Oxford, 1965.

Kahn, Miriam. Always Hungry, Never Greedy. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Krige, Eileen Jensen. The Social System of the Zulus. (1950) Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 1988.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Coral Gardens and Their Magic. 2 vols. London, 1935.

Mbiti, John S. Introduction to African Religion. 2d ed. London, 1991.

Meigs, Anna S. Food, Sex, and Pollution: A New Guinea Religion. New Brunswick, N.J., 1984.

Reay, Marie. The Kuma: Freedom and Conformity in the New Guinea Highlands. Melbourne, Australia, 1959.

Sillitoe, Paul. Roots of the Earth. Kensington, Australia, 1983.

Sturtevant, William C. "A Structural Sketch of Iroquois Ritual." In Extending the Rafters: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Iroquoian Studies, edited by Michael K. Foster, et al., pp. 133152. Albany, N.Y., 1985.

Young, Michael. Magicians of Manumanua: Living Myth in Kalauna. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.

Mary N. MacDonald (2005)

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