Soul Food

A nonprofit’s mission to teach Native American youth how to farm healthy foods with traditional methods.

IN A FARM HOUSE in Hugo on a fine afternoon in early June, a group of Native American kids is dining on venison-and-veggie tacos, butternut squash, wild rice, and fresh strawberries. A bowl of big, firm berries is no match for a dish of small, mushy ones, they determine. “The small ones from the garden had more flavor,” says a surprised 14-year-old, Jordan Buck, as the others nod in agreement.

The garden is one of many planted by kids through Dream of Wild Health—some in rows, some in circles, one planted in the shape of a butterfly, a tepee of beans. Weeds are often revered and referred to as wild edibles. A patch of succulent sedums and kid-created scarecrows distracts deer as effectively as pesticides.

The program was started in 1999 on a small plot in Farmington by St. Paul-based Peta Wakan Tipi (the name is Lakota for Sacred Fire Lodge), a nonprofit founded by Abenaki Sally Auger. Startled by the numbers of Native Americans afflicted by diabetes and obesity, Auger set out to inspire a community to return to traditional, healthier foods. “If you’re going to make social change, you have to start with the kids,” she says. A grant helped purchase the 10-acre Hugo farm, where the gardens moved in 2005.

Word of Auger’s garden grew quickly, and heirloom seeds, some as many as 800 years old, began appearing in her mailbox. When University of Minnesota scientists studied the produce harvested from those seeds, they were stunned to find it much richer in nutrients and antioxidants than its conventionally grown counterparts—antioxidants in some of the beans outnumbered those in grocery store beans 20-to-1. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” Auger says.

All summer, kids from the St. Paul American Indian magnet school and affiliated organizations plant and sow—and reap what others have planted and sowed before them. The crickets greet many to the country for the first time.

“The first day the kids wanted to come with telephones, with beepers,” says Auger. “We turned them off. We said, ‘You’re going to listen to the birds sing. You’re going to reconnect with nature. You’re going to put your hands in that soil.’ We’re keepers of the earth, and we have no earth to keep, many of us. By the end of the day, they’re won over. They understand why they’re here. And they can’t learn enough.” Including a sobering lesson about obesity and type 2 diabetes: “It could kill you,” says 15-year-old Serina Solis.

In the garden, lessons continue: how, for example, to plant a traditional Three Sisters garden, with corn providing a structure on which the beans can grow, and squash encircling the corn and beans to protect them from weeds and other encroaching plants.

“We have things that are grown together that work on helping each other,” says Kara Ferguson, the program’s garden coordinator. “It’s really good for the kids because they need to think about it on a whole new scale. And they become stewards of the land: each group eats the food others have planted, and continues planting for the next.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.