In recent years, a food sovereignty movement has swept Native American communities. Tribes seek to have agency over their local food systems and improve access to healthy, traditional food. Tribal nations across Wisconsin are doing just that.
Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians
It’s important to know where your food comes from, both literally and figuratively. Over the past five years, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band has created a food sovereignty committee, established an agriculture department, planted community gardens and obtained heirloom seeds.
Kellie Zahn, agriculture agent, says more than 20 kinds of vegetables are grown in the 1-acre community garden, with the bounty going directly to support the Shawano County-based reservation. About 40 community members participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), while others eat the produce at the Elderly Center or casino. “People can be touched by the food grown here in a number of different ways,” Zahn says.
Last year, members tracked down seeds from two heirloom corn varieties – Sehsapsing, a blue variety, and the white Puhwem – plus four varieties of beans and two varieties of squash. “We want to create a seed bank so community members can grow some of these traditional crops and pass them down again,” she says.
Additionally, classes offer sessions on how to prepare food. “After the novelty of growing them wears off, the community has to be able to identify with these foods and eat them as part of their daily meals,” says Zahn. “We’re trying to bring back some of that knowledge that’s been lost somewhat over the past few generations.”
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
The Bad River People were led to “food that grows on water” – wild rice on the south shore of Lake Superior. Their ancestors planted gardens, fished the waterways, and gathered wild rice, berries, plants, and maple sap.
The Bad River Food Sovereignty Program strives to reconnect community members with the land, improve nutrition and reincorporate traditional harvesting in their lives.
Two high tunnels – unheated plastic-covered structures – yield crops almost year round. Food Sovereignty sponsors classes using traditional foods and plants with a meal that is served and made from foods that are grown on site, sourced locally or traditionally harvested. A community farmers market has been formed, and produce is distributed to the Elder Dining, Head Start, and Boys & Girls Clubs meal programs.
Efforts have been well-received by adults and youth, who are the best hope for carrying the program forward. Joy Schelble of the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program leads many youth activities, from the traditional game of lacrosse and carving wild rice sticks to navigating canoes and water safety.
Although not a Band member, Schelble’s teaching and horticultural experience play a role in the effort. “There is a restoration of vitality and strength in this community that I am bearing witness to,” she says.
Oneida Nation of Wisconsin
Many tribal communities look to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, west of Green Bay, as food sovereignty leaders. With beef and bison ranching, an apple orchard, an aquaponics operation, a 10-acre field of white heirloom corn, a market, and a cannery that processes foods grown on their lands, the Oneida were well-positioned to begin hosting national food sovereignty summits. These summits bring Native Americans together to share information on ways to build healthy food systems within their communities.
The cannery, an FDA-certified food-processing facility, is the “gem” of the Oneida community, says Jamie Betters, cannery manager. The cannery processes about 10,000 pounds of heirloom white corn in a growing season.
That corn is grown conventionally on 10 acres, but in a smaller community garden, the heirloom corn is hand-planted with traditional tools. At harvest, the corn is picked by hand and husks are braided together and hung to dry, according to Betters. Anyone can attend these annual Harvest and Husking Bees, which bring tribal members together to celebrate their culture while hand-shelling the corn – the same way it was done for an Oneida gift of white corn to George Washington, keeping his troops alive in 1777 at Valley Forge.