10th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference

December 31, 2013 | Comment

Indigenous Farming and Slow Food Rock On

Winona LaDuke and Zachary Paige, 2013

This first week of March, the tenth annual Great Lakes Indigenous farming Conference brought together a hundred and fifty Native American, 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.

Mohawk woman, Rowen White, represented 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. Rowen also led a discussion on the northern seed banking strategies, as many Native seeds are in danger of extinction. Rowen 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,“ Blaine 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,” Rowen 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 represented the Dream of Wild Health, along with Diane Wilson, an organization that the White Earth Land Recovery Project, according to staff, had long hoped would be able to attend the conference. These women braved some pretty tough roads to get North. The Dream of Wild Health is an immense seed bank and community gardening program working with heritage seeds and Native youth in the twin cities.

Sammie Ardito Rivera, is a Leech Lake tribal member, and for the past two years she has been working with Dream of Wild Health, a ten acre organic farm in Hugo, Minnesota protecting indigenous and heirloom seeds.  She has organized and implemented the youth work and developed the urban education and growing programs.  As well as speaking, Sammie presented a youth session 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 explain. 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.  A snapshot of the problem is here:  The northern most corn growers in the world are Anishinaabeg people, pushing corn to the north of Manitoba. Agro-biodiversity was abundant. We grew some 120 distinct vegetable varieties. Most is gone. In Canada, three quarters of seeds that existed before the 20th century are extinct. Those figures are mirrored in the US.
Rowen White and Friend IFC
While it took over 10,000 years to create the world’s agro-biodiversity, today, 90% of the world’s nutrition is provided by only 30 different food crops. Four of which – wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans – provide 75% of our calories. 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 arrived from the University of Minnesota at Morris, which has been in a year long collaboration with the White Earth Land Recovery Project to create an Anishinaabe Farming Curriculum, United Tribes Technical College (Bismark) where a new seed bank is underway, and as far away as Brown University, where Mohawk Elizabeth Hoover is an Assistant Professor, and has directed research work on food systems.  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 and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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, featured Hugh Duffner purple potatoes, Red Lake Fisheries Walleye Fillets,  heritage squash bisque, supported by much appreciated volunteer labor.  The dinner also acknowledged WELRP’s tenth anniversary of winning the International Slow Food Award for Biodiversity in the organization’s work for the protection of wild rice from genetic engineering.  The White Earth Land Recovery Project wishes to thank all participants and supporters for their hard work, and to the Maplelag Resort for its fine accommodations.