Expo West Climate Day keynote: Lessons from indigenous food systems

Indigenous scholar Lyla June Johnston shares that taking a page from our ancestors, humans can be an asset to the planet. Read more about her ideas.

Melaina Juntti

March 20, 2024

6 Min Read

Lyla June Johnston advocates for a heart-directed, “kin-centric” approach to resource management and food production, informed by her traditional upbringing, her human ecology studies and her doctoral research on pre-colonial Native American food systems.

An Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer with Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European roots, Johnston delivered a keynote address, “Living Systems, Living Values: The Lessons of Indigenous Regenerative Ecosystem Design,” on Climate Day, the first day of Natural Products Expo West.

The ingenuity of our ancestors can guide the development of abundant, sustainable, equitable food systems today, she says.

After introducing herself and her heritage, Johnston said, “Our hearts are key to this puzzle, this problem.” In her recently completed doctoral studies, she focused on the many ways Indigenous people worked with, not against, the natural world for the benefit of all living things. She firmly believes that we can learn a lot from their tenets and practices.

Lyla June Johnston, Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer

“If there is anything my research has shown me, it’s that love and care and generosity are the ultimate core keys to sustainability,” Johnston said. “Not only generosity to others, but generosity to our nonhuman kin, to be able to see them as equals, and also generosity to our water and land.”

Related:‘We have to be smarter humans’: Sioux Chef Sean Sherman fosters change through food

Johnston shared several poignant stories to bring home her message.  

Love-driven land management

First, Johnston described how the American chestnut tree, now nearly extinct, used to grow from Maine to Georgia. Evidence shows they were planted by humans and “cared for by Indigenous peoples, like a vast orchard,” she said. Spaced far apart, the trees enjoyed ample access to sunlight, water and nutrients to keep them healthy.

Native people would burn around chestnuts to wipe out competing vegetation and put ash into the soil for fertilizer. “In the wake of these fires, nutrient-dense meadows would pop up that would attract deer, bison and other undulates—herbivores that were also good for food,” Johnston explained.  

She presented a soil core sample containing almost 10,000 years of fossilized pollen information, proving that “Indigenous people managed a biodiverse food forest of black walnut, hickory nut, chestnut and other edible species for 3,000 years.”

This example makes clear “that nature doesn’t just always get harmed by humans,” Johnston said. “Humans can actually be an asset to the land. When humans are driven by love and care and intelligence, they can actually add value to the ecosystem.”

Kin-centric ecosystems

Next, Johnston discussed 3,000-year-old clam gardens created by Indigenous people along shorelines in the Pacific Northwest. To mimic natural clam habitats, they built intertidal rock walls to capture water and sediment, producing calm pools to help clams thrive.

Importantly, Johnston noted, Native people viewed the clams as equals—a concept she wishes people would embrace today.

“When we can look at something so seemingly simple as a clam with this much virtue and dignity, we will finally be civilized,” she said. “Until then, we will remain primitive in this hierarchical silliness, which, for some weird reason, says that humans are more important than everything else.”

Beyond benefiting humans, building the gardens also helps to feed otters, mink, water birds and other species. “So it is very important to understand that this system is not human centric,” Johnston said. “It’s kin centric, where we are designing things to benefit nonhumans. What an idea.”

Fire fosters biodiversity

Johnston explained that Native Americans’ most important tool was fire. By burning the prairies, they kept the ecosystem in a grassland phase, thereby attracting bison, antelope, deer and other herbivores. “You essentially create a protein farm without fences,” she said. “Instead of caging animals to eat them, you build a place so beautiful that your food comes to you.”

Fire is also immensely beneficial for soil, injecting fertilizer, augmenting organic matter, increasing the water infiltration rate and introducing charcoal to house beneficial microbes. “Native people burned every single region of this continent with great deliberation and great intention to augment the health of the land,” Johnston said.

But this wasn’t a uniquely Native American practice. There is hard proof of “pyro-management” and intelligent soil cultivation dating back thousands of years, everywhere from South America to Norway.

“If you look across the planet, all of us used to manage this land in a really regenerative manner,” Johnston said. “Everywhere, we see ancient humanity being arguably more intelligent than we are today.” This shows that they were not primitive people, she added; rather, “our ancestors were incredibly brilliant.”

‘Software’ dictates actions

By sharing these stories, Johnston aimed to illustrate that the “secret sauce” to increasing food, habitat, biodiversity, etc., is not any one land-management technique. Rather, “It’s the heart with which you manage the land,” she said. “This is what I call the software.”

Here, Johnston introduced IRED. “The principles of respect, reciprocity, restraint, reverence, relationality, responsibility, regeneration and I might add humility, these are the software of Indigenous Regenerative Ecosystem Design,” she said. “The hardware is our body.”

Although people often say that humans are “bad” or a consistent detriment to the Earth, “It’s not the human that’s bad,” Johnston insisted. “It is their mind that can sometimes have the wrong program, the wrong software. If it’s not a program based on reciprocity, restraint, reverence, then our behaviors are not going to be sustainable.”

However, if our hearts are open and we are willing to be guided by these principles, “then we can become a gift to Earth,” she said. “Creator gave us this big brain so that we could be the landscapers of this Earth. We can be a supportive agent of the ecosystems around us.”

The true root of climate change

According to Johnston, these concepts have particular relevance to climate change. Contrary to popular opinion, she believes that climate change began long before the Industrial Revolution.

“I think climate change started when we chose to go from givers and stewards and servants to takers and dominators and profit maximizers,” Johnston said. “That’s when we started to have this extractivist mindset. That’s when we started to not really care what the next generation would go through. That’s when we started to only care about the bottom line. Climate change started when our heart turned.”

Johnston also pointed out how the collective trauma caused by 2,000 years of open warfare in Europe has only accelerated this ethos.

“You don’t know if there is going to be food tomorrow, right?” she said. “So you hoard it, you take it, stockpile. That’s where this willingness to capitalize [came from]. A synonym of capitalize is to take advantage of things for your own gain, and that’s based on fear.”

This extractivist mindset, Johnston added, doesn’t care about the water, plants or animals. “It sets us as the dominators of creation,” she said, which bars us from operating out of love for all species.

“I think each of those stories I went through of land management, clam management, fire management and soil management are really massive love letters to creation,” Johnson said. They are “a gift not only to us and our descendants because it creates a sustainable food supply, but also to species outside of our own.”

The entire Climate Day program is available to watch on You Tube. Lyla June Johnston’s session begins at 1:57:30 on the video.

About the Author(s)

Melaina Juntti

Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and NewHope.com. Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music. 

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