American Indian students cultivate cultural roots

Nicole Macias, a member of the Navajo tribe from New Mexico, looks over corn growing in the garden at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.MCT

LAWRENCE, Kan. — As groundskeepers mow the parched lawns at Haskell Indian Nations University, Kelda Britton leads 25 students past 8-foot stalks of dusky maroon amaranth waving in the hot, dry prairie wind. Despite drought conditions, the nutty-flavored, high-protein grain no bigger than a poppy seed soldiers on without much need for automatic sprinklers or the constant caress of human hands.

The amaranth stalks encircle a stand of flint corn and towering sunflowers, some so tall that a 6-foot-8-inch Haskell basketball player must stretch his arms above his head to harvest the seed heads. Vines bearing Hubbard squash creep around the perimeter at ground level. Velvety okra pods emerge on hip-high plants. In one corner a tobacco plant unfurls its green leaves. Smaller medicinal plots bloom with echinacea, goldenrod, yarrow, bee balm, red clover and white sage.

The language of local food

When viewed from the indigenous perspective, some terms routinely used by local food advocates seem odd.

Take the "local" in local food. Typically it is used to define a crop that is grown within a 100-mile radius of where it is sold and consumed. But someone from an indigenous background might define a local food as one native to the area and uniquely suited to the climate.

"I judge 'local' by asking, 'Could it grow here without you?' " says Brett Ramey, a tribal health liaison with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The term "community garden" could be considered redundant: Every tribal garden is about feeding first, with the idea of taking produce to market a distant second.

"Corn isn't something you commodify," he says.

The word "food deserts" — a term that has come to mean rural and urban areas that have lost their grocery stores and therefore easy access to healthy food — doesn't make much sense, since some desert tribes have learned to produce abundant food stores despite arid conditions.

Daniel Wildcat, director of Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center, says gardens are an easy way to get people to engage with the concept of climate change.

National farm-to-school programs, such as the one started by California chef Alice Waters, are a good way to expand students' knowledge of the natural world while providing fresh, organically grown food for use in school cafeterias.

But why not take the concept a step further?

Since Haskell teachers use the nearby wetlands as a living lab where students study wild foods, "why not a wetlands-to-cafeteria program?" he asks.

Earlier in the summer, Britton headed home to the Round Valley Indian Reservation five hours north of San Francisco. On her return trip to Lawrence, she worried about the state of the garden.

"I was so nervous because flying in I could see every cornfield was brown and dead," the 24-year-old graduate student says. "But our garden was holding up."

The wild garden is designed with drought-resistance in mind, but it also represents more than 500 years of land-based knowledge. Since students began returning to campus in late August, the garden has become the hub of a student-led indigenous foods movement.

"Native people have always managed and cared for crops, even if it doesn't necessarily look like row crops," says Brett Ramey, 32, designer of the wild garden plot and a tribal health liaison with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Ramey is a member of the Ioway tribe of White Cloud, Kan. He volunteered to be a co-facilitator for the class with Britton, a member of the Wailaki, Nomlaki and Konkow tribes, and graduate student Jessica Lackey, the daughter of Cherokee and Jewish parents and a self-described "urban Indian" who grew up in suburban California.

The official title of the semester-long special topics class is "Growing Change in the 21st Century: Next Generation Responsibility, Food Sovereignty, Water and Climate Change." Students enrolled in the class must present a group project on a food-related topic viewed from an indigenous perspective. Projects under way include a cafeteria-compost initiative, exploration of wetlands foods, a comparison of ancient and modern food-preservation techniques, and a sampling of nutrient-dense foods for athletes.

"We're really challenging the students to look at different approaches and indigenous methods," Britton says. "We're asking them to look at the deeper meaning of the garden ... to really think outside the box and relate to what is going on at home by gardening, protecting and preserving their traditional foods."

Daniel Wildcat is the mentor and teacher of Growing Change and an expert on climate change in indigenous communities. He sees parallels between the mainstream local food movement and the indigenous local food movement, but with the gentle candor of an elder statesman he smiles broadly and sums up his case: "We were the original. We were slow food and local before it was hip."

Wildcat is the director of Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center. He's also the author of "Red Alert! Saving the Planet With Indigenous Knowledge" (Fulcrum Publishing; $14.95). The paperback's cover illustration features a Native American man wearing a ceremonial headdress and a gas mask. He holds a baby wearing a gas mask.

Wildcat says that for anyone who is still in touch with the natural rhythms of the land through hunting, fishing, foraging or even hiking, humankind's role in global warming is not up for debate. But he concedes that the complicated web of science, culture and technology required to understand and to act on climate change can freeze students in their tracks.

"Gardening seems to be one of the low-hanging fruit," says Wildcat, a Yuchi from the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma.

"In the last 10 years, food has become a way of building communities. That's probably something we lost in the Fast-Food Nation," he says. "Whether planting seeds, preparing the harvest, cooking or acting as a host, there is no better way of getting to know someone."

When students arrive in class one morning, the word "assimilation" is scrawled on a green chalkboard.

Haskell opened its doors in 1884 as a boarding school to assimilate young Indians into the fabric of mainstream (in other words, white, Christian, European) society. That first year, 22 students were uprooted from their families and communities. They were sent to Lawrence to receive a fifth-grade education and learn a trade.

Boys learned to tend row crops — straight lines of corn, wheat and soybeans — sowed in the wetlands area south of the present-day campus softball fields. The food they produced went directly to the mess hall to defray the costs of education.

Girls were not allowed to learn farming techniques. Instead, they were given work in the kitchen or sewing room. The role reversal was rather stunning when put into the framework of traditional communities. Overwhelmingly portrayed in popular culture as a nomadic people in search of herds of bison, most Indian tribes already lived an agrarian lifestyle, and in most cases women were the farmers.

A week after the class, over a chai latte at Wheatfields Bakery and Cafe in downtown Lawrence, Britton clicks on her laptop and pulls up a 1939 black-and-white photo of her grandmother June Russ (Britton) at work in her 4-H garden. Britton discovered the photo of her now 85-year-old grandmother while doing research for a project about climate change for her summer internship. The photo was published in "We Were All Like Migrant Workers Here" (University of North Carolina Press; $55) by William J. Bauer Jr., a fellow tribe member.

"I'm from tribes that are not traditionally agrarian," Britton says. "Agriculture was pressed upon us, and that's how we sustained ourselves. Now we are stepping up and saying we want to garden on our own terms."

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