— Bit by bit, the farm at Little Earth is growing.
too, is a movement among Native Americans across the nation
to improve their health by rediscovering ancestral foods and
connections to lands once lost.
from access to natural maple syrup, wild rice and game, the
residents at Little Earth of United Tribes — a south
Minneapolis low-income housing complex — are finding new
old ways to grow crops that existed long before European
adherents even have a name for this concept: the decolonized
growing in the last 10 years within the native communities
in the United States," said Susen Fagrelius,
coordinator of Little Earth’s community health
initiatives. As more people realize they can grow a
significant amount of vegetables on a small parcel of land,
they discover that "they have the ability to take back
their food system."
sage appears where once ordinary grass grew. Rows of Oneida
cornstalks tower 6 feet in the air. Raspberries — the kind
once blanketing North American forests — cover a small
patch of the farm.
the country, projects like the Little Earth Urban Farm are
taking aim at the staggering obesity and diabetes rates that
plague American Indian communities. Indian adults are twice
as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as the general
population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
health problems among native people have just become so
profound you have no place to go but up. It has to be
addressed," said Devon Abbott Mihesuah, a University of
Kansas professor and author of "Recovering Our
Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet
Indians were forced onto reservations, government
commodities replaced the unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods
they were used to eating, said Mihesuah, a member of the
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who runs the American Indian
Health and Diet Project at the University of Kansas.
2 diabetes didn’t start showing up until after the Civil
War," she said. "Up until that time there weren’t
any pictures of (Indian) people being fat."
bread — a flavorful, deep-fried dough served at many
Indian gatherings — is not an indigenous food, Mihesuah
contends. She has a bumper sticker on her car with a red
line crossing out the words "fry bread." She’s
taken some heat for that statement from other Indians who
have called her "anti-Indian," she said.
despite some resistance, the decolonized diet movement is
spreading seeds nationwide.
Mexico, indigenous food programs are working to preserve
seeds from hundreds of years ago. Tribes in North Carolina
are restoring native fruit and vegetable plants in newly
established gardens. Closer to home, the White Earth Land
Recovery Project aims to preserve original land practices.
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is at the forefront of
these efforts. Lori Watso, a former public health nurse and
Shakopee tribe member, was the inspiration for the expansive
garden and natural health store established on tribal land
in Prior Lake, Minn.
food, she wanted to "help our community and other
native communities address acute and chronic
conditions," she said. The diabetes rate among Indians
in Minnesota is a whopping 40 percent.
that trend remains a formidable challenge.
very difficult to change people’s minds about something so
personal as (the food) they’re going to put into their
bodies," said Watso, secretary-treasurer of the tribe’s
number of plants in the garden come from heritage seeds.
Once harvested, the fruits and vegetables are dispersed
among Shakopee tribe members as well as other Indian
communities. There’s even a tribal service agency, similar
to the CSAs popular in organic food co-op groups.
thinks there’s something revelatory about rekindling this
connection to the land.
believe in our bodies, our DNA or whatever, (we have) the
ability to recognize those foods," she said. "It’s
in our genetic makeup. Those things sustained us and I
believe our bodies recognize those things."
Shakopee Mdewakanton garden is called "Wozupi," a
Dakota word meaning "a place where things grow."
starting in 2010, the garden has more than doubled in size.
its fifth growing season, the 12-acre Wozupi has an orchard
with trees bearing indigenous fruits — June berries,
elderberries and wild plums. Goats and chickens roam the
newly added Children’s Garden. There’s also a Heritage
Garden, where ancient seeds given to them from other tribes
grow. Chokecherries, prairie onions, Cherokee tomatoes and
Lower Sioux corn are among the native plants recently
brought back to life.
heritage seeds is part of the "cultural recovery"
phenomenon sweeping across Indian country, explained Rebecca
Yoshino, who was hired by the tribe to serve as director of
you pull the seeds out, people just light up," she
from the wide open spaces and roaming goats in Shakopee,
urban farmers at Little Earth in Minneapolis work a tiny
strip of once-vacant land bordered by the Hiawatha Avenue
sound wall. The sound of cars buzzing by does not distract
them from tending to budding crops. The ground is
contaminated, they say, so the Little Earth farmers use wood
chips mixed in compost to create the raised beds. They add
fertile soil donated by the Shakopee tribe, which also
shares seeds and best practices with this small community.
been really generous," Fagrelius said. "There’s
been a process of awakening going on at Little Earth."
hopes one day the urban farm will become fully sustainable.
Plans are underway to add a greenhouse that would allow for
more indigenous fruits and vegetables. If the farm really
takes off, they’d like to jump on another hot trend:
starting a food truck.
these goals are going to be achieved, Little Earth will need
the help of avid urban farmers like George Lussier. The
68-year-old has embraced the decolonized diet and tends the
known for his gift of making corn hominy. A member of the
Red Lake nation, he grew up watching his grandmother and
mother tend gardens full of vegetables. He learned how to
make hominy from watching them and to this day, he prepares
it the same way. He doesn’t rush, spending all day boiling
water and adding a special blend of ingredients —
including ashes — to produce his signature dish.
said he now tries to live by the words his grandmother, who
lived into her 80s, would often say: "Remember the
things that you were taught when you were young."