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Indigenous farming, slow food events a big success

Great Lakes Indigenous Farming Conference speaker Rowen White shared a moment with conference attendee Waseyabin Kapashesit after her presentation. The conference was held March 3-7 at Maplelag Resort near Callaway. Submitted Photo

During the first week of March, the 10th annual Great Lakes Indigenous Farming Conference brought together 150 organic farmers, college representatives, USDA representatives and students from tribal schools to continue work to restore native foods on the White Earth reservation and beyond.

The conference included hands on workshops on goat cheese making, and salve making as well as many presentations on seed saving, restoration of food systems, decolonizing our diets, tribal food policies, and organic agriculture systems. 

In total, tribal representatives came from the Twin Cities, to as far away as a Mi’gmag reserve along the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec and represented at least twenty tribal nations.

All of this, in the face of a huge blizzard the night before.  However, as more than one happy participant pointed out, “this Indigenous Farming Conference at Maplelag Resort is a nice place to get snowed in.”

The conference was held March 4-7 at Maplelag, and was followed by a very successful Slow Food Dinner in Detroit Lakes, at the Holmes Center on Saturday night.

Keynote presenters included Erica Allen from Growing Power, Chicago, where a sprawling urban agriculture program works with hundreds of African American youth and families to grow food to feed their community, beautify and clean up brown fields, and share flowers with all.

Allen and her father, Will Allen are national leaders in an urban agriculture movement, which takes cardboard, green clippings and food wastes from a food stream, creates food for worms, works with the worms to make top soil and then grows food in an integrated set of greenhouses, hot houses, and urban farming areas, which feed hundreds of people in Chicago and Milwaukee. 

Rowen White presented information about Native Seed SEARCH, a non-profit seed conservancy organization from Arizona which has been working with Indigenous communities in the southwest to restore and keep traditional seeds from extinction, and brought the model of their work to the Indigenous Farming Conference.

White also led a discussion on the northern seed banking strategies, as many native seeds are in danger of extinction. In addition, she also presented a workshop on basic seed saving techniques. 

“We have to get grounded,” was a comment from one of the attendees, Blaine Snipstal, representing the Rural Coalition (a national advocacy organization for farmers and rural citizens), from his farm in Georgia. 

“We are working literally from the ground up with seeds and it is a long way to go,” Snipstal explained. “Yet there are many who are in it for the long haul to take on this work fully and responsibly.”

“We understand that we must treat the seeds as a relationship that will outlive us to pass on to our children just in the ways that our great grandmothers did,” White told conference participants.

Other keynote presenters included Scott Schumacher, a Miami man who directs the ethno-botany project at the Minnesota Science Center, whose presentation entitled “ahkawaapamankwike, ahkawaapamelankwiki-kati (If we take care of them, they will take care of us): Dormancy and reawakening of Indigenous seeds, language, and knowledge.”

Sammy Ardito Rivera and Diane Wilson represented the Dream of Wild Health, an immense seed bank and community gardening program working with heritage seeds and native youth in the Twin Cities.

Rivera is a Leech Lake tribal member, and for the past two years she has been working with a 10-acre organic farm in Hugo, Minn., protecting indigenous and heirloom seeds.

She has organized and implemented the youth work and developed the urban education and growing programs. Along with speaking, she also presented a youth session on planting seeds in used milk cartons with a plastic bottle over them to capture the moisture.

Native seed saving is of great significance to not only native communities, but to the security of American agriculture, Frank Kutka of USDA and other presenters explained.

In the past few decades, native farming and gardening had dwindled down to very minimal levels, in part, a result of the denial of access to USDA loans, and the allotment era. This was coupled with a loss of seed diversity, and an increasing concentration of seed ownership on a national and international level. 

Without diverse strains in our local ecosystems, the ecology of our planet has become threatened by “mono-cropping” and super-hybrids, which will become increasingly challenged in the future with climate change, and increasingly chemical resistant weeds and pests.  

Academic representatives from the University of Minnesota at Morris discussed the university’s yearlong collaboration with the White Earth Land Recovery Project to create an Anishinaabe Farming Curriculum.

Steve Dahlberg from the White Earth Tribal College presented on his work in sustainable agriculture and one evening, Michael Price from Leech Lake Tribal College presented a very well attended workshop entitled, Indigenous Star Knowledge.

Many White Earth tribal members also attended the conference. Tribal youth came to the conference from the Naytauwash and Circle of Life schools, and made ice cream with Amish farmers, origami seed boxes and paper. 

All in all, the conference was a great success.  Special sponsorships came from the Crookston Diocese of the Catholic Church, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, USDA Sare Program, and Northwest Minnesota Foundation, along with major support from the Americorps Vista program for staffing. 

The final event following the conference was a Slow Food Dinner, featuring some of the foods discussed during the farming conference. The  Slow Food Dinner, held at the Detroit Lakes Holmes Center had some 60 diners, supported by much appreciated volunteer labor.

The dinner also acknowledged WELRP’s 10th anniversary of winning the International Slow Food Award for biodiversity as a result of the organization’s work for the protection of wild rice from genetic engineering.

Article written by Winona Laduke and Zachary Paige