Dream of Wild Health is a 10 acre non-profit farm in Hugo MN, about 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities that works to connect urban Indian people with not only healthy fresh produce, but the knowledge of how to grow and prepare this food. From a small garden in the city to a full scale vegetable farm, over the past decade and a half Dream of Wild Health has directly touched the lives of thousands of people through summer gardening programs for youth, year-round internships, cooking classes, and the tons of fresh produce brought to the city through farmers markets and their indigenous CSA boxes.
In 1986, Sally Auger and John Eichorn started Peta Wakan Tipi (“Sacred Fire Lodge” in Lakota), a transitional housing program for Native men in St Paul, and then the Mother Earth Lodge for Native women, also in St Paul. Their clients expressed an interest in traditional foods and a way of connecting with the earth, and so in 1998 Sally and John created the Dream of Wild Health program. They leased a half acre in Farmington, and Sally started growing out her grandmother’s seeds, as well as other seeds that people began donating. In 2000 Pottawatomi elder Cora Baker donated her collection of heritage seeds to the program, which helped to increase interest in the program as well as the need to preserve traditional foods. After a lengthy search to find the right property to grow the program, DOWH purchased a 10 acre farm in Hugo MN, complete with a house, pole barn and two car garage, that collectively serves as the Learning Center. The program was fortunate to pay off the loan on the farm just before the mortgage crisis of 2008. Diane Wilson (Dakota) came on as a full time employee in 2008, and became executive director in 2011 (although she told us “I keep changing that title. Some days I call myself a desk farmer because I grow a lot of paper. And some days I call myself a seed keeper and that’s the title that resonates with me about the work that I do here. So I’m all those things.”)
I had the pleasure of volunteering a few times out at the DOWH farm in 2011, and hearing the Garden Warriors youth present at the Indigenous Farming Conference at White Earth. On August 14 we stopped by the farm to visit with the youth and staff, and tour the new and expanded crops.
Every summer, DOWH offers programs for American Indian Youth from the Twin Cities. Cora’s Kids (named for Cora Baker who donated her seed collection to the program) is a one week program for kids 8-12 that teaches about organic farming, culture, and healthy eating. In addition to learning how to plant, grow, and harvest vegetables, the kids also take part in crafts, like learning how to make a tobacco pouch. There are two sessions each summer for this age group.
Garden Warriors is a four week summer program (with two sessions each summer) where Native teens (ages 13-18) learn to plant, grow, harvest, cook and sell vegetables, working closely with University of Minnesota interns and extension agents, a registered dietician, and the cultural director. A different team of youth each day learns the basics of cooking (measuring, chopping, reading a recipe), and prepares lunch for the whole group, using ingredients from the farm (check out the photo below of the amazing lunch we were served). These youth also learn archery and traditional crafts like making pouches, beading or birch bark baskets. Twice a week the youth have the opportunity to work at the farmers market in the Twin Cities, learning customer service, how to recommend different recipes for vegetables, and how to handle money. Each young person accepted into the program is given a stipend, and those who go to market earn extra money. The youth are also taught how to handle their money, including how to open a checking account. Garden Warriors who excel in the program and do well in school are invited to join the year round Youth Leaders group. Youth leaders meet to learn public advocacy and discuss issues of food justice and food sovereignty, diabetes prevention, and connecting the community with better food. Each year they choose a project—one year it was a skit about healthy lifestyles. Another year it was providing a healthy meal at some of the winter powwows. This year DOWH also added on two internships for Garden Warriors who had outgrown the program, but wanted to come back. One of these interns is Dwayne, who had been in the program for seven years, and who is headed to Augsburg College in the fall, where he told us he plans on majoring in Biology, English, and American Indian Studies, as well as participating in the wrestling program. He told us he likes the peace and quiet of working on the farm, and the family-like atmosphere, although he admitted that it took a couple of years of being a Garden Warrior before he would eat many vegetables.
There are strict rules at the farm: no pop, no hot Cheetos, no junk food at all. And when they climb out of the van in the morning, the youth have to leave behind all of their electronic gear—including cell phones. As Diane described, “We want them hearing the birds, we want them observing what is around them and you can’t do that if you are disconnected from your surroundings. Out here we have really gifted teachers, but the most profound teacher of all is the land and the plants.” In addition, the kids talked to each other, and to the staff who have developed great rapport with them over the years as they work along side them, because they’re not all plugged in to their individual music. Kids come to enjoy the peace and quiet of the farm—Ernie Whiteman, the Cultural Director of the program, described several occasions in which he had a hard time getting youth back into the van to go home—they wanted to stay in the peace and quiet rather than going back to the city. About 60 youth total come through these programs each summer. The van holds 15 people, which provides a practical limitation for the size of each group.
DOWH recognizes that it is hard to change the life of youth if they are returning home to the same food habits. To address the whole family, they began the Mino-wiisinidaa (We All Eat Well) program, a 6 week (1 class per week) curriculum that teaches families the basics of safe and healthy food preparation. Follow-up sessions are held throughout the year to include season-appropriate activities (such as gathering wild foods and preparing hominy).
In addition to selling produce at the farmers market, DOWH offers a Native CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), selling shares at the beginning of the growing season, and then dropping off boxes of produce weekly. These boxes include organic vegetables, fruits, herbs, fresh eggs, honey, dried beans, wild rice and other indigenous gathered or produced foods (like maple syrup). DOWH buys fruit jams and syrups from the Red Lake Reservation and maple syrup and wild rice from Fon du Lac and White Earth reservations, as a way of supporting Native producers, and making these foods available to people in the cities. Shares are $500 each (about $20 per week), but they also offer half shares for smaller families, and accept cash, credit cards, EBT, or even a good trade—in an effort to make the boxes accessible to families who need them most. They started with 9 shares in 2013, and increased to 20 shares in 2014.
In addition to market crops, one of the focuses of the DOWH farm is the propagation and preservation of indigenous heritage seeds varieties. In 2000 Pottawatomi eder Cora Baker gifted her extensive collection of indigenous seeds to the DOWH program. When word of this project spread, they began receiving seeds in the mail from other indigenous seed keepers. Currently DOWH has over 300 different varieties of saved seeds in their collection, and are working with a collective of other seed keepers in the area, the Indigenous Seed Alliance, to keep these seeds healthy. The Alliance currently consists of participants from DOWH, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Shakopee, United Tribes Technical College, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. As Frank, the farm manager at DOWH explained to us, at the beginning of each growing season representatives gather to share seed, and decide which crops to focus on. They grow the seed out, hand pollinating them to ensure purity, and then in the fall combine the seed together, and then split them up among the group members. In this way they are able to keep their seed genetically viable and avoid inbreeding.
Ernie Whiteman (Arapaho), the Cultural Director, described the importance of the youth working with these heritage seeds: “I told them we have our ancient seeds that have been handed down to us, and those are like our ancestors. That’s what we have that, our ancestors touched something that we have in common, those seeds, so they’re like our ancestors and they have spirits. You will see and you will feel that energy here and those spirits, the ancient ones are here.”
Diane lights up when she describes some of the changes the kids go through in DOWH programs. From the boy who discovered he liked to work hard, to the kids who discover they actually like eating vegetables and some who find they have a gift for cooking. She described youth in recovery, some from foster programs, and some working to avoid prison sentences, working along youth from more stable homes and nurtured by a caring staff. She highlighted that the program aims to work on “the whole teenage being,” by addressing cultural identity in addition to food. Ernie also expressed to the youth “you should make a connection to the earth, it’s in your DNA as native people.” He described his efforts to teach the youth that “food is medicine. It’s not just food but it’s also a medicine and so we have to look at it that way. Because it has the ability to help us and to heal us in many different ways. And it’s glad that we are recovering it, we’ve created that bond again it’s like old family members being separated for generations and then finding your ancestors again that’s what we’re trying to do is to recover that element that has been void from our culture for so long.” For the urban Native youth who get the chance to participate in this program, and those who have the honor of working and volunteering at the farm with them, this program has provided a wealth of practical experience and cultural knowledge.