How Indigenous Sea Gardens Produced Massive Amounts of Food for Millennia

For those who know how to read them, the signs have long been there. Like the towering mound of 20 million oyster shells all but obscured by the lush greenery of central Florida’s Gulf Coast. Or the arcing lines of wave-weathered stone walls strung along British Columbia’s shores like a necklace. Such features, hidden in the landscape, tell a rich and varied story of Indigenous stewardship. They reveal how humans carefully transformed the world’s coasts into gardens of the sea—gardens that produced vibrant, varied communities of marine life that sustained Indigenous peoples for millennia. And in certain places, like on the west coast of North America in what is now Washington State and where the Swinomish are building a new sea garden, these ancient practices are poised to sustain them once again.

“I see it as a way for our people to be reconnected to our place, to be reconnected to each other, and to have a purpose, to have a responsibility that goes beyond us,” says Alana Quintasket (siwəlcəʔ) of the Swinomish Tribal Senate.

These gardening efforts included a continuum of features, such as seasonal or size limits on harvest, that may be invisible to the eye, Salomon says. And as Marco Hatch, a member of the Samish Indian Nation and a marine ecologist at Western Washington University who was involved in Rick’s study of oyster gardens points out, “these features aren’t just physical features, they’re cultural features and spiritual features.”

The cultural and spiritual aspects make recent momentum to revitalize sea gardening especially meaningful. “All of these practices, I think, are centered around this idea of growing food and growing community,” says Hatch. A community focus—passing on traditional knowledge between generations and improving health through access to local foods—is at the heart of the effort to build what is likely the first modern clam garden in the United States.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022