Race and Apples 1: Mixed Beginnings

In the last week, an important discussion has gained some traction: race and environment. In short, media is reporting on how the effects of climate change and environmental damage are born most strongly by non-White communities, including terribly toxic environments, urban environments without green spaces or the ability to withstand heat events, unaffordable food, and the lack of agency to use land as culturally-specific social space, rather than a resource, or a natural or recreational space, and so on. This week, let’s support this vital social/environmental discussion with a look at just one food crop: apples. These things:

Spigolds in my garden: 700-900 grams each. This is a fruit to share. You have to!

These fruits were originally imported from Europe, which imported them from Asia 2,000 years ago. North America, however, also has its own Indigenous ones:

Malus Fusca, aka Pacific Crabapple

They taste rather like pears and are the size of rose hips. They also will grow in swampland. That’s a bonus.

Apples are an Indigenous Eurasian crop, shaped by and shaping human cultures. The Indigenous apples of the Cascadian Coast of North America, where most of North America’s apples are grown today, are not, however, part of the industrial success of farming.

Malus Fusca again.

A crop that thrives in ditches, wetlands, swamps and their edges, and which supports humans and birds alike, is a part of a social environment. It could also be used as the foundation of a cider industry, an apple-breeding program, or a root-stock development program to increase the range of apples grown in Indigenous ways.

At first, setlers in the American Cascadia were part of a culture that made the planting of apple trees one of the legislated prerequisites for settling cleared Indigenous land. The US government’s goal was to keep people on land long enough to become rooted to a place, rather than scattering off to the next available plot of land in an ever-increasing real estate scheme. They would, in a sense, become indigenous. These trees were often informally planted, in suitable natural areas, such as these remaining trees from a homestead below Umatilla Ridge…

Not this side of the ridge. The other side. It’s too dry here.

… in Dry Falls, in the Grand Coulee, in Sinkiuse Territory south and east of the Columbia River.

Yes, this side of the ridge.

In Settler history, this is a part of the Hudson’s Bay Company “Okanogan Trail”, that saw Nimiipu’u horses carrying freight from Fort Okanogan to Alexandria and back, twice a year for generations. In Indigenous history, the trail is as old as the end of the Ice Age, and carried obsidian, ochre, flint and other products from Athabaskan and Carrier territory down to Wishram and Celillo on the Columbia, and beyond. Trees like these were capable of supporting both cultures at once.

Settlers in these parts planted American and English varieties of apples rather than malus fuscas in order to support the replacement of Indigenous culture with Euro-American culture and to create a trade economy with Europe. That these fruits are productive, easy to grow, and labour-saving, led to their adoption even by Indigenous communities, as means of survival once other crops on the land were locked away behind private land barriers or extirpated through grazing practices. Even so, the land continues to give life; such early fruit-growing was destructive of neither community life nor Earth-human relationships. It was, for example, picked up by Syilx families in the Similkameen by 1865 (and then eradicated, racially, in 1923 and 1963). When Father Charles Pandosy was kicked out of the newly-formed Washington Territory in 1859, and banished to British Columbia for his role in trying to stop a war between the Yakama and American forces, he ate an apple while riding between Fort Colville and Okanagan Lake, pocketed the seeds, and planted them a year later in today’s Kelowna. The spirit was both European and Indigenous at once. It was a time of change. His task on Okanagan Lake was to prevent war. Unlike his activities during the Yakima War, his assignment was not to save Indigenous lives in opposition to church and military goals but to help clear Indigenous power from the land so that it could be settled by Europeans in accordance with such demands.

Father Charles Pandosy, Anguished

Shortly after Pandosy’s death in 1891, pressure increased. Now his name was used to promote horticultural settlement in the Okanagan Valley, on the model that he was the first White settler in the valley and had planted the first orchard (his one Indigenous-style tree, for starters). Around the turn of the 20th century, in other words, a mixed-race vision of apple-growing became racialized. Let’s keep that in mind when we go to the store to buy apples. They aren’t these:

Malus Fuscas in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria

To sum up, apples have always been a tool of racialization (at worst) and racial-mingling (at best) in this region. Although both tendencies began together at the intersection of Indigenous and Settler lives, the racialized conception eventually replaced the other, dominated North American markets, led to racialized work forces and elite White classes, and have led to unaffordable food in the continent’s cities, unsustainable immigration practices, lower nutrition and poisoned environments. These are all issues being addressed right now by Black activists in Toronto and Montreal and throughout the USA. Cascadia continues to play its role. I’ll be addressing these issues in coming posts. Here’s how I think it will work out:

  • 1. Mixed Beginnings and Some Hope (And here we are.)
  • 2. The Death of Indigenous Fruit Growing
  • 3. Health, Fruit-Growing, and Poison
  • 4. The Survival of the Confederate South in Washington State’s Apple Industry
  • 5. The Survival of Indigenous families from British Columbia, escaping residential schools in Washington orchards
  • 6. Peaches, the Civil War, and the Survival of the South
  • 7. Racialized Work Forces, Mechanized Production, Marketing and Retail
  • 8. Portuguese, Mexican and Indian production
  • 9. Food costs, land prices, and privilege.
  • 10. Ways forward.

Let’s see how that goes.

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