Hunger: A conversation worth having
Growing indigenous foods, Haskell students cultivate cultural roots
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.
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 composting 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 Café 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.”
Haskell’s agricultural training emphasis died out in the 1950s as it evolved from a boarding school to a high school to a junior college and finally a university. Yet two landmarks of the school’s farming past remain.
The first, a children’s cemetery, lies just east of the wild garden. The small, white headstones, each inscribed with name, birth and death date, as well as tribe, is a reminder of those who did not survive assimilation.
The second is part of a modern-day land battle over the wetlands where the row crops were once grown. Today the restored wetland is in the pathway of the controversial South Lawrence Trafficway Project, which was recently given the go-ahead by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, despite protests by Haskell students and faculty.
The morning after a cooling September rain, Ramey parks his red pickup truck on a rough patch of asphalt, slings a messenger bag over one shoulder and heads out into the wetlands off Haskell Avenue.
There’s a slight chill in the air as he forges into a muddy stand of cattails that have mostly gone to seed. He pulls up a few willowy-looking dogbane branches that grow among the cattails and strips them of green bark. Another name for the plant: Indian hemp. He slowly twists the strips until they crimp then uses an under-and-over motion to create a sinewy length of rope.
He walks a few more minutes, then bends down to point out shiny leaves of a broadleaf plantain — no relation to the banana. The shiny, almost waxy, green tear-shaped leaves appear in the ruts of a little-used road. Also commonly referred to as “white man’s foot,” the plant grew in the ruts made by wagon wheels of pioneers heading westward.
In 2004, a bronze statue of Ioway Chief White Cloud was erected in the south end of Hyde Park in St. Joseph. The chief is holding a spear in one hand and a broadleaf plantain in the other.
“He knew that it was imminent that we would be pushed out, so it was then that he signed the treaty that relocated us (to Kansas),” Ramey says before popping a leaf in his mouth.
He chews it until it has a paste-like consistency.
“Say I got stung by a bee. I would just take and put it on there,” he says, placing the green mash on the imaginary bee sting on his hand. “Plantain is really good for pulling things out.”
Ramey learned to forage as part of his biology and ethno-biology classes while a student at Haskell. The students would harvest plants, take them back in the lab and process them in appropriate ways. The field trips gave him a physical understanding of indigenous and wild foods, but it was Wildcat who urged him to integrate the philosophical components into his activism, which combines community gardens, storytelling and mural painting.
“One of the main emphases of a lot of food projects is to take it to market,” Ramey says. “Maybe someday we’ll do that, but we’re first going to take care of our needs here, our immediate family and campus and community. Then if there is something left, maybe we’ll sell some.
“But the first thought is not to be bought or sold. It turns out there are other ways of viewing the world. The emphasis is more on the cultural and physical with these projects.”
Hello My name is Nicole Macias. I was born for the Water’s Edge Clan and born to the Red-Running-Into-Water Clan. My maternal grandfather is from the Laguna Pueblo and my paternal grandfather is Mexican. I am from To’hajiilee, NM. This is who I am as a Navajo Woman.
Traditional foods that can be found along the desert in Navajo Country are acorns, antelope, beans, cedar berries, corn, deer, elk, juniper berries, pinon, prairie-dogs, pumpkins, rabbits, squash, yucca fruit, Navajo tea, and cactus berries.
After the Spanish introduced domestic sheep and goats, the Navajos began raising herds of these animals for their meat and wool as well.”
Every week Growing Change students are required to write a post of a minimum of 500 words on their personal blogs at haskellgrowingchange .wordpress.com .
“We were really looking for those personal reflections and statements,” Wildcat coaches. “This is your statement about food, garden, tradition, technology. In other words, you can’t be wrong.”
Wildcat insists there is no excuse for not getting their blogs up and running. “You may not be rich in resources, but you’re rich in relatives. You’ve got a lot of relatives here you can call on,” he says.
It’s a masterful segue. He urges the students to keep in mind that their blog must include a description of how their project will serve their community. A storyteller by nature, Wildcat then recounts the story of Alfonso Ortiz, a trailblazing Native American anthropologist and activist.
Ortiz, a Pueblo, comes back to New Mexico after his first semester doing graduate work at the University of Chicago, and his grandmother pulls him aside. She asks him to explain, in his native Tewa language, what he has learned.
“I can’t,” he tells her.
But his grandmother persists, so he struggles mightily and tells her what he has learned. It takes him a long time to translate the concepts into Tewa, but when he is done his grandmother replies: “That is good. Go back and bring more knowledge.”
The second year his grandmother again pulls him aside and asks what he has learned. “I just can’t do it. There’s no way I can tell you all these great anthropological concepts,” Ortiz replies.
Grandmother remains insistent. Again he struggles mightily, taking an entire afternoon to tell her what he has learned. And the third year is a familiar scenario, only this time, Ortiz is adamant that he cannot put the concepts he has learned into Tewa.
“It’s time for you to come home,” his grandmother replies. “How can this knowledge be good if you can’t share it with your people?”
On a Friday morning, the class is snacking on yellow-fleshed watermelon grown in a garden on the White Cloud Reservation, a gift from Ramey.
“All right! The Compost Girls are in action!” Wildcat interrupts the Growing Change project groups that have gathered to discuss their mission statements and action plans. “They would like you to save your rinds.”
The group has energy — and a catchy name.
“That’s T-shirt-worthy. I’ll be one of the Compost Boys supporting the Compost Girls,” Wildcat says.
Meanwhile, the “Compost Girls” — Nicole Macias (Navajo), Sharon Forte (Otoe-Missouria), Autumn Burtt (Washoe), Marissa Snapp (Shoshone-Paiute), Lucinda Gurrola (Pomo and Yuki) and Tara Mitchell (Prairie Band Potawatomi) — are hammering out the details.
At each meal served by the cafeteria, two students from their group will gather compost scraps in 5-gallon buckets. At the end of the meal they’ll dump the contents into a circular pit they have dug by the wild garden.
The only problem is there are a lot of cafeteria hours to cover every day. Forte suggests doing only breakfast and lunch. But Burtt points out dinner is the most important meal of the day, the one where they can make the most impact, so they decide to cover all three.
Next, they discuss making posters to instruct students how to sort the contents of their trays. Vegetables and bread, yes. Meat, gravy, soup with meat, no. Macias and Forte talk about the possibility of getting a menu from the cafeteria to customize the poster with the compostable items served at each meal.
Forte worries about how much convincing students will need to join in. “I just hope they’ll take the extra effort, otherwise we’ll have to stand there and tell them, ‘Oh, don’t throw that out. It can be compost,’ ” she says.
Although the Compost Girls clearly grasp their subject matter, Wildcat encourages them to work with their community, setting up meetings with the cafeteria director and facility management.
“Which of you is going to lunch next?” he asks.
Forte glances at the clock. Yes, she is headed to the cafeteria. Wildcat tells her to take the tray and the knife that was used to cut the watermelon back to Barbara Stumbling Bear, the director of food services. “When you talk to her, ask her for a meeting to explain your composting project,” Wildcat says.
Suddenly the Compost Girls seem to freeze in their tracks.
“That’s what you’ve got to do,” Wildcat gently reassures them. “Create these opportunities and take advantage.”
Former Vice President Al Gore calls the truth of climate change inconvenient.
Wildcat insists the truth is not merely inconvenient — it is deadly.
“Red Alert!” is an unabashed call to action. In the book, Wildcat outlines the many ways indigenous tribal knowledge can help lead to a more harmonious relationship with the Earth.
For starters, Wildcat points to the circumpolar arctic region where native hunters depend on ice for their livelihoods and survival. A relationship to a particular landscape and ecological system means these hunters have observations, both present-day and decades past, that significantly expands the length of climate-change study.
If modern society’s frame of reference is short, it’s also increasingly skewed by man-made environments, including designed interiors, computer screens and an explosion of digital media devices that reflect images of the natural world.
“The biggest challenge we have today in an advanced industrial society is to overcome the separation between the environment and mankind,” Wildcat says.
Despite the alarming subject matter, Wildcat is promoting hope, not fear.
And instead of feeling overwhelmed, his students are eagerly zeroing in on ways to employ something Wildcat refers to as “indigenuity” — a happy merging of indigenous knowledge and human ingenuity.
“What little things can you do?” says graduate student Lackey. “Sometimes looking at the world’s problems is a little scary. Sometimes our students get overwhelmed. I get overwhelmed.
“We had a conversation a couple weeks ago about climate change, and I said, ‘Look, the science is scary but you can’t just curl up into a ball and not do anything. Every little thing you do counts, and I think that’s one of the things our ancestors taught us: that we’re always working for our community.’ ”
Lackey has begun work on a prairie restoration project involving the creation of a serpent mound. She plans to hand-sculpt the mounds in the 3-acre grass field southeast of this summer’s wild garden, then use a combination of transplanted wetlands plants and USDA seeds interspersed in and around the design.
Her inspiration is the original Serpent Mound in Ohio, which measures 1,330 feet long and has serpent’s coils that average 3 feet tall. The site is considered one of the most important remnants of pre-Columbian culture. Although scholars are not sure what the mound was used for, the head of the serpent aligns with the setting sun of the summer solstice.
Through her work with professors and tribe elders, Lackey is leaning toward a mound in the shape of a plumed serpent, a mythic creature with references in Cherokee stories and legends. Typically the plumed serpent is depicted with a breath of life, or tendrils of air, emanating from its mouth.
In her mind’s eye, Lackey imagines pointing the serpent’s head toward Haskell so the creature breathes its life across the campus gardens and into the heart of her community.
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.
If you have any questions or would like to write about the activities your college or university has concerning hunger issues, please email me: RMcNary@stophungernow.org
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