Against the Grain? Native Farming Practices and Settler-Colonial Imaginations in Empire: Total War

By Thomas Lecaque

Creative Assembly’s 2009 game, Empire: Total War is a 4X strategy game—Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate—that allows players to take over one of the “Old World” empires and conquer the world in the eighteenth century. Players can take over a variety of kingdoms in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, or the Maratha Confederacy, and fight, build, trade, negotiate, and occupy lands on three maps: North America, the Mediterranean, and the India subcontinent. But of the three maps for play and conquest, North America offers no Native polities for the player in the base game. The Native groups represented are given ahistorical territories, tribes, and polities are subsumed into oversimplified landmasses representative of colonial treaties like Fort Stanwix and Hard Labor rather than existing land claims and interrelations, and deliberately turned into “primitive” cultures. Among other areas, this is particularly apparent in the depiction of Native agriculture, something that has been repeatedly debunked in scholarly literature. All of this is, of course, a representation of ongoing white supremacist mythologies, the narrative of settler-colonialism that demands replacement of indigenous peoples—much like in the game itself. Native groups are put in place only to die. Quests are given to destroy them. Playing as them is impossible. They are made to be backwards, whose structures must be leveled by their conquerors in order to “progress.” And this is, of course, not limited to Empire: Total War—these problems exist in Greedfall (2019), This Land Is My Land (2021), Civilization VI(2016), the Red Dead Redemption series,[1] and most other pop culture representations of Native power and culture.

This fundamental flaw proceeds to bleed into everything else. The game cannot conceive of a reality in which Native polities were wealthy, advanced, prosperous, and powerful. One of the many absurd and egregious examples is agriculture. The starting farming structure available on Native-controlled lands is called “subsistence farming,” and the game describes it as such:

An area set aside for the care and cultivation of livestock and crops. Livestock and crops were a valuable commodity, allowing the population to grow without relying on what food can be found by hunting and gathering. They provide a constant food source, more than the meat brought in by hunting parties. Although the processes involved in keeping farms went against the grain of Native Americans’ religion, they did keep crops. They tended to favour corn, beans, and squash, crops they referred to as “the three sisters.”[2]

This description sets up a number of weird and incredibly problematic ideas. This first and most important is the concept that “the processes involved in keeping farms went against the grain of Native Americans’ religion.” Farming originates across the Americas in numerous regions independently, with zones in what we call the “Eastern Agricultural Complex” in the Ohio-Missouri-Mississippi river basin, the Andes, and the Mexican highlands. This is not secret knowledge—you could get this from the National Geographic resource library.[3] But it’s also not obscure knowledge that farming has deep roots in North America. In April 2009, the same year Empire: Total War came out, Bruce Smith and Richard Yarnell wrote a piece using archaeology and genetics work to show the initial emergence of domesticated plants around 3,800 before present, offered open access through PNAS.[4] None of these were the “three sisters,” which came out of Mexico in the early Middle Ages, but rather bottle gourds, sunflowers, marshelder, two forms of chenopod (goosefoot), and possibly little barley and field pumpkins. But even this—again, from the year Empire came out—is an expansion on work that had already been done significantly earlier on the long sequence of farming across Eastern North America, the map setting for the game. Gayle J. Fritz’s “Multiple Pathways to Farming in Precontact Eastern North America,” from 1990, surveyed archaeological sites of early seeds finds from domesticated plants across the Ohio River Valley and American southeast.[5] These early sites may or may not have been agricultural centers—through the Hopewellian era, the term “low-level food producers” has been used, but as Gayle Fritz puts it in 2019’s Feeding Cahokia, “The main goal is to present the evidence for significant changes in foodways that by AD 400, the end of the Middle Woodland period, had come to include production and consumption of an impressive number of starchy and oily native seeds, along with edible parts of the Native ovifera squash that rarely survive the ravages of time.”[6]  And corn, of course, is an indigenous creation, which was under domestication before the end of the fifth millennium BC.[7] Agriculture, then, is part of the life of Native polities in North America from before the fall of Rome.

By the time you get to the Middle Ages, to the era of Cahokia and the Mississippians, corn is king, but corn is also part of a broader agricultural and religious landscape. As Amber M. VanDerwarker said, “Cahokia’s monumental architecture, its dense urban population, the spread of Mississippian religious and political powers throughout the American South—what fueled it all was the humble field crop maize, or Indian corn.”[8] Corn became the crop that made massive urbanization possible. Cahokian flint clay statues from the BBB Motor and the Sponemann sites include female figures intertwined with serpents and plant motifs, which “seemed to portray an almost stereotypical association of women with agriculture, serpents, fertility, and life renewal.”[9] The greatest culture center of North America, the largest city north of Mexico before 1780, was built on corn, and corn followed its cultural spread—“against the grain” indeed. 

And this is not just a medieval phenomenon. As Andrea Sanchez writes, “All aspects of foodways—hunting, harvesting, planting, preparation, and the serving and eating of food—can be accompanied by ceremonial activities such as dancing, praying, and singing.”[10] Agriculture was and is part of Native life. Hidatsa women sang corn songs, and Waheenee (often referred to as Buffalo Bird Woman), wrote that:

In the garden vegetable family are five; corn, beans, squashes, sunflowers, and tobacco. The seeds of all these plants were brought up from beneath the ground by the Mandan people. Now the corn, as we believe, has an enemy–the sun who tries to burn the corn. But at night, when the sun has gone down, the corn has magic power. It is the corn that brings the night moistures–the early morning mist and fog, and the dew–as you can see yourself in the morning from the water dripping from the corn leaves. Thus the corn grows and keeps on until it is ripe. The sun may scorch the corn and try hard to dry it up, but the corn takes care of itself, bringing the moistures that make the corn, and also the beans, sunflowers, squashes, and tobacco grow. The corn possesses all this magic power.[11]

And this was also religious in nature. The Haudenosaunee Creation story includes agriculture—Teharonhia:wako planted sunflowers, strawberries and other berries, plums, and corn.[12] Lisa Brooks has shown how the metaphor of the “common pot” that feed and nourishes and sustains becomes a way of describing the broad reaches of the Native community and the land they lived in in the Northeast.[13] Cherokee women grew corn in the valleys of southern Appalachia from AD 1000 onwards, and as Theda Perdue wrote, they believed “that their ancestral mother, Selu, had given them the corn on which the depended for subsistence,” making it part of the central creation story.[14] She was not only the source of corn, but her name became the word for it.[15]

Let us say that we can move beyond the bizarre ideology that agriculture was against the religion of Natives—which has clearly been shown to be false. If you upgrade the structure from “subsistence farming,” it can only go one further, to “communal farming.” That upgrade fixes nothing. It reads:

An area of farmland worked by the tribe as a whole, to raise crops or livestock. Communal farming allows a tribe to expand its farmed lands, as the workforce moves beyond simple subsistence. The rough division of labour creates farming specialists, experts in husbandry or crops. Their knowledge enriches the tribe. As European influence increased, the tribes recognised the need to hold more territory, if only to deprive the invaders of the best lands.[16]

The idea that Natives did not already have experts before this is absurd, but certainly the idea that it was European influence that pushed Native polities to expand their territories—and that that was to “deprive the invaders of the best lands”—is monstrous. Susan Sleeper-Smith’s Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792 is not only an aggressive rebuttal of this nonsense but points out how much more effective Native agricultural practices in the Ohio were than settler farming practices were. The best that can be said is that Natives adopted European plants and animals as much as Europeans adopted Native plants and animals, engaging in commercial agriculture and livestock raising and bringing their previously existing expertise to bear on new markets.[17]

On a broader level, Empire: Total War cannot conceive of anything other than European modes of knowledge and values. Creative Assemblies’ continues the long history of ignoring Traditional Ecological Knowledge in favor of bland, universalizing narratives of Indigeneity as primitivism. All of the factions are indistinguishable from one another. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Indigenous Knowledge as a category, is “the many place-based knowledges accumulated across generations within myriad specific cultural contexts.”[18]And this is not only deeply specific, with individual knowledge clusters focused on places and people—be it long term clam gardens, oyster farming, and fisheries work in the Pacific Northwest,[19] or the way Haudenosaunee cosmology engages in

symbolic interconnectedness – an abstraction of a moral code. It would be a way in which to view the world – the basis for an epistemological stance. From a Haudenosaunee worldview, this is what happened. Further, Haudenosaunee systems, peoples, territories, etc. are affected by this relationship between the Three Sisters. It is more than a lesson, a teaching, or even an historical account. Their conscious and knowing agreement directly extends to our philosophies, thoughts and actions as Haudenosaunee peoples.[20]

And as Margaret Bruchac writes, “over time, Indigenous peoples around the world have preserved distinctive understandings, rooted in cultural experience, that guide relations among human, non-human, and other-than human beings in specific ecosystems.”[21] That knowledge includes the relationship between humans and fish, the way pipestone is kin in Dakota territory, or how fossil fuels, plastic even, can be kin—worldviews that are different than Euro-American visions, but which also require accepting a multiplicity of Indigenous identities, knowledges, and worlds.[22]         The reason for diminishing Native agriculture, then, is not historical—Native polities practiced advanced farming, incorporated it into the rich power structures, urbanization, land ownership, ceremonial practices, and religious life that every other human society did. It remains important—Indigenous food sovereignty is one way that Traditional Ecological Knowledge is part of Native resistance to the ongoing violence of settler colonialism. Instead, Creative Assemblies is guilty of the same settler colonial logic that Nick Estes’ describes in American foreign policy:

Initially, Indigenous subsistence hunting, gathering, and agriculture had provided the means to effectively resist settler encroachment. But by separating Indigenous producers from the land and attempting to make them dependent on treaty annuities or cash economies, the colonizers waged total war on Indigenous life. The Oceti Sakowin were not the first to confront US total war. Haudenosaunees, for instance, call every US commander in chief ‘town destroy’—a title bestowed on the first US president, George Washington, who ordered a bloody, punitive campaign that burned forty Haudenosaunee towns in New York during the Revolutionary War. Haudenosaunee cornfields were also burned to thwart the reclamation of the land and impose starvation. To consummate possession by mixing blood and soil, the troops responsible for razing the Haudenosaunee towns were afterward rewarded with title to Indigenous lands.[23]

This is the game Creative Assembly made. Native agriculture is minimized, Native technology ignored, Native prowess written out of the game, the Haudenosaunee and Oceti Sakowin and Wendat and Inuit and Tsalagi and all of the other people and polities that Empire erases turned into caricatures. Farming is a symptom, not the disease—the disease is the settler colonial imagination that cannot conceive of Natives as equals.

Thomas Lecaque is an Associate Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, located on Baxoje, Meskwaki, and Sauk lands. He is a scholar of religious violence and apocalypticism, from the crusades to contemporary America. He teaches broadly in medieval world history, vast early America, and video games and history courses. He can also be found @tlecaque.

Title Image: A page from the Tovar Codex depicting a priest of the rain god Tlaloc, responsible for the success of crops such as maize and beans. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading:

Brooks, Lisa. The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. Minneapolis: University   of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Estes, Nick. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long       Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London and Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019.

Fritz, Gayle J. Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North American Heartland. Tuscaloosa: The         University of Alabama Press, 2019.

Nelson, Melissa K. and Dan Shilling. Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous 

Practices for Environmental Sustainability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Pauketat, Timothy R. and Susan M. Alt, eds. Medieval Mississippians: The Cahokian World. Santa Fe:       School for Advanced Research Press, 2015.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River    Valley, 1690-1792. Williamsburg, VA and Chapel Hill, NC: Omohundro Institute of Early American       History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 


[1] Sara Humphreys, Manifest Destiny 2.0: Genre Trouble in Game Worlds (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

[2] Creative Assembly, Empire: Total War, Sega, March 2009. PC.

[3] National Geographic Society, “The Development of Agriculture,” July 8, 2022,, accessed 1/30/2023

[4] Bruce D. Smith and Richard A. Yarnell, “Initial formation of an indigenous crop complex in eastern North America at 3800 B.P.,” PNAS 106:16 (April 21, 2009): 6561-6566.

[5] Gayle J. Fritz, “Multiple Pathways to Farming in Precontact Eastern North America,” Journal of World Prehistory 4, no. 4 (December 1990): 387-435.

[6] Gayle J. Fritz, Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North American Heartland (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2019), 51.

[7] Bruce F. Benz, “Archaeological Evidence of Teosinte Domestication from Guilá Naquitz, Oaxaca,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 98, no. 4 (Feb 13, 2001): 2104–2106. 

[8] Amber M. VanDerwarker, “Mississippians and Maize,” in Medieval Mississippians: The Cahokian World, eds Timothy R. Pauketat and Susan M. Alt (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2015), 49-50.

[9] Thomas E. Emerson, “The Earth Goddess Cult at Cahokia,” in Medieval Mississippians, 57.

[10] Andrea McComb Sanchez, “What are Native American Foodways, and How are They Religious,” in Indigenous Religious Traditions in 5 Minutes, eds Molly H. Bassett and Natalie Avalos (Sheffield, UK and Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2022), 188.

[11] Waheenee, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden: As Recounted by Maxi’diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) (ca.1839-1932) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe, Originally published as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation, ed Gilbert Livingstone Wilson (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota, 1917), notes page 7.

[12] Brian Rice, The Rotinonshonni: A Traditional Iroquoian History through the Eyes of Teharonhia:wako and Sawiskera (Syracuse: Syracuse State University, 2013), 53-54.

[13] Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 3-5.

[14] Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 13-15.

[15] Perdue, 17.

[16] Creative Assembly, Empire: Total War, Sega, 2009. PC.

[17] David Andrew Nichols, “The Economic Revolution in Indian Country,” Age of Revolutions, October 23, 2017,  

[18] Tyler D. Jessen et al., “Contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to Ecological and Evolutionary Understanding,” Front Ecol Environ20, no. 2 (2022), 93. 

[19] Leslie Reeder-Myers et al, “Indigenous Oyster fisheries persisted for millennia and should inform future management,” Nature Communications 13 (2022); Dana Lepofsky et al., “Ancient Anthropogenic Clam Gardens of the Northwest Coast Expand Clam Habitat,” Ecosystems 24 (2021): 248-260.

[20] Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency amongst Humans and Non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!),” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2, no. 1 (2013), 26.

[21] Margaret Bruchac, “Indigenous Knowledge and Traditional Knowledge,” in Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed C. Smith (New York: Springer, 2014), 3814.

[22] Zoe Todd, “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada,” Études/Inuit/Studies 38:1-2 (2014): 217-238; Todd, “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in Amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory,” Afterall: A Journal of Art Context and Enquiry 43 (March 2017): 98-9.

[23] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London and Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019), 90-91.

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