Bit by bit, the farm at Little Earth is growing.
So, too, is a movement among American Indians in Minnesota and elsewhere to improve their health by rediscovering ancestral foods and connections to lands once lost.
Far from access to natural maple syrup, wild rice and game available Up North, 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 settlers arrived.
Some adherents even have a name for this concept: the decolonized diet.
“It’s 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.”
Lakota 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.
Across 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 than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“The 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 and Fitness.”
Sowing seeds of good health
When 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.
“Type 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.”
Fry bread — a flavorful, deep-fried dough served at many Indian gatherings — is not an indigenous food, Mihesuah argues. 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.
But despite some resistance, the decolonized diet movement is spreading seeds nationwide.
In New 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.
The 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.
Through 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.
Reversing that trend remains a formidable challenge.
“It’s 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 business council.
A 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.
Watso thinks there’s something revelatory about rekindling this connection to the land.
“I 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.”
A cultural awakening
The Shakopee Mdewakanton garden is called “Wozupi,” a Dakota word meaning “a place where things grow.”
Since starting in 2010, the garden has more than doubled in size.
Now in 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.
Planting 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 the Wozupi.
“When you pull the seeds out, people just light up,” she said.
Far 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.
“They’ve been really generous,” Fagrelius said. “There’s been a process of awakening going on at Little Earth.”
She 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.
If 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 farm’s corn.
He is 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.
He 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.”