The seeds of a food revolution are growing on the White Earth Indian Reservation
MAHNOMEN, MINN. – Hours after the end of a parade marking the 25th anniversary of White Earth Tribal and Community College, Robert Shimek stands by a squash in a field, marveling at a bumblebee crawling in a flower.
“Oh, that’s a really big deal,” said Shimek, an extension worker at the college. “That tells you the soil is healthy.”
Behind Shimek rises the heirloom corn, stretching up to 9 feet into the September sky. On a platform, another staff member picked four juicy watermelons for wild rice camp this late summer weekend. And green vetch and field peas – a cover crop – grow on the black earth.
It might not look like much, but on this one-acre piece of land behind the Tribal College, just above the Wild Rice River and adjoining a deer fence, the seeds of a food revolution germinates in the Indian reservation of White Earth.
Already this fall, students and staff have harvested tomatoes and beans from the field. Last year, the school farm, now in its third growing season, produced 2,000 pounds of produce, from edible beans to squash. And all of this will go to feed the community – filling the drum hall, local convenience stores and elder homes. It is an effort to relieve the hunger that eats away at the reserve.
“The average age of our students here is 32, which means the majority of them have children,” said Lisa Brunner, director of extension at White Earth Tribal and Community College, whose campus main one is in Mahnomen. “If mom and dad are food insecure, so are the kids.”
The surrounding county of Mahnomen is a geological curiosity. One-third of the reserve is at the western end of the eastern white pine forest that extends into Maine. A deciduous forest juts out in the middle. And the tribal college rests on a patch of prairie potholes.
The area is also a federally recognized food wasteland, with few grocery stores dotting the sprawling reservation.
According to a survey released in February 2020 by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, 67% of students at White Earth Tribal Colleges had experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days.
On a Monday morning in mid-July, student Asia Bevins tends to a harvest of corn, squash and green beans, grown in the traditional Aboriginal “three sisters” pattern, where interplanting helps each individual culture to thrive.
Students enrolled in ecology courses and Brunner extension staff planted and harvested the crops.
“Last year when they would have had an abundance of anything [vegetable]they would bring it into the drum room,” Bevins said. “As students, we could go and take what was offered there.”
As Brunner walks along the field, pointing out nearby garden plots, pickup trucks carry bales of hay that nearby ranchers use as fodder. It was the results of the food insecurity survey that prompted her to plant the one-acre plot, she said.
The Temple University survey found that many students reported not only skipping meals, but losing weight in the past month. During the pandemic, food from the local SuperValu – as well as essentials like toilet paper – have flown off the shelves.
A farmers’ market pops up weekly in downtown Mahnomen, but fresh food, especially for seniors, is hard to come by. A mobile market will visit outlying communities, such as Pine Point. But those who can will head to Walmart in Detroit Lakes.
“I was once asked, ‘How come you don’t charge for food?’ Because 5,000 pounds of fresh produce is organic, that’s worth about $15,000,” Brunner said. “Our community members are hungry, which is our students. How about taking care of them first?
Community garden plots are closer to the parking lot. A smoking room is open for use.
“We get cover crop seeds,” said extension coordinator Tammy Bellanger. “Peas, white clover.”
Before the city donated the land in 2010, the field was conventionally farmed land. The extension team hopes to plant a row of conifers to filter out the chemical sprays applied nearby. The soil is full of microbes and earthworms. Bumblebees inspect the tops of potato plants.
“There was nothing,” Bellanger said, “And then little by little we saw different seed pockets and things that the birds would bring. We saw foxes. We saw Hungarian partridges. We saw birds migrating.”
They also saw tons of produce, spread across the reserve’s more than 800,000 acres. Staff say the effort is not just about promoting healthier eating, but also about restoring dignity and exercising sovereignty.
Inside the college’s extension wing, there’s a growing energy around tapping into local foodways. In late July, Jimmy Uran — a cultural coordinator for the expansion — played with gear before heading down the river to film himself fishing in a video he would later post on social media.
“I hope people can learn from what I teach them,” Uran said, noting that he learned to catch crappie, walleye and sometimes catfish with his father, uncles and grandfather. dad. “A lot of people here don’t have a father or a mother or [were raised] through foster care and never taught anything like that.”
Uran said he did other workshops, including tanning deer hides and trapping. He sometimes surprises friends cooking a local speciality: beaver.
Indigenous foods prepared for and by Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) people are attracting attention. In June, Minneapolis restaurateur Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef who uses pre-settlement ingredients, won the Best New Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation in June.
The Red Lake Nation, north of White Earth, restores a bison herd. And a community garden, organized by the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, has been named Cook County Farm Family by the University of Minnesota Extension.
On Terre Blanche, Brunner bends down and picks berries from a bush. She learned from her father, who used to distribute vegetables to relatives from the backseat of his green Ford LTD. It’s a transfer of knowledge — both cultural and practical — that is still going on with the help of the small farm.
“He looked after the community,” she said. “That’s what we do here.”