Members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa share their generations-old farming practices
Standing in sturdy boots in the middle of her 1/8-acre garden plot, Deb Smith pulls several garlic plants and decides they’re ready to harvest. Among the garlic grow corn, tomatoes, sunflowers, beans, cauliflower, and amaranth. Smith sells some of these items at local farmer’s markets. It’s her fourth year here at the Gitigaaning, “the place of the gardens,” on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s reservation near Duluth. “First year, we battled deer; I was joyful when the tribe put up a fence,” Smith says. “Last year we got running water, and this year we have irrigation pipes. It gets better every year.”
Smith works at the Band’s health clinic, Min No Aya Win, and she’s seen diabetes and other consequences of unhealthy eating habits.
“We need to learn how to prevent diabetes; we need to learn how to eat better,” she says. “We need access to land to grow our own food; we need allies to help us keep the water clean for wild rice and fish. We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us.”
Smith is speaking to nearly 50 attendees at a farm tour organized by the Fond du Lac Band and Marbleseed, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the Midwest’s organic and sustainable farmers. A mid-August drizzle fades gently away as the audience learns about Anishinaabe farm and garden practices.
We’re shepherded through the day by Nikki Crowe, tribal conservation collaboration coordinator. She tries to convey a broader concept of gardening than most of us are used to. “Anytime you harvest from the land, you are gardening. Gathering is farming.” She reminds us that early European arrivals in North America were astonished at the park-like beauty of the forests. “They didn’t realize the woods were managed by the Indigenous people,” Crowe says.
A sense of reciprocity, central to Anishinaabe culture, permeates every aspect of the farm and woods here. “We take care of the land and the land takes care of us” is a recurring theme.
Crowe and other leaders at the Fond du Lac Band seem to have a genius for putting together various grants to accomplish their goals. Funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) helped pay for land preparation and training sessions for the gardeners participating in the program. The local Soil and Water Conservation District helped plant three orchards. During the coronavirus epidemic, a CARES grant helped sink wells and erect a fence against the deer. A special USDA program funded by a settlement in a discrimination lawsuit bought farm tools. Minnesota’s Lawns to Legumes program is helping build a pollinator patch.
The farm manager is Erika Resendiz Alonso. A native of Mexico, she learned traditional methods of agriculture from her grandparents; she has worked at Fond du Lac for six years. She helped start a Food Sovereignty Committee four years ago, which launched the Bimaaji’idiwin Gitigaan, which can be understood as a “garden to save each other’s lives.” It includes a seed library featuring Native American heirloom crop seeds, the community garden plot, and educational programs for growers. More than 20 families are participating this year; most are growing for themselves, their families and elders. A few are selling their produce.
In another part of the garden, Band member Jeff Savage takes a break from squishing potato bugs. “Some in my family are interested in farming and selling but not much in weeding or squashing bugs,” he says ruefully.
In addition to the crops Savage is growing here, he has about 100 maple trees around his house, and the family collects 15-20 gallons of syrup each year. “As a boy, my grandpa told me what his grandpa told him, and now I’m telling my grandkids. Adding it up, that’s seven generations.” Indian people have trouble getting access to land, Savage says, “and it’s easier to feel the connection between the people and the land when you’re on land that’s been tended by generations.”
Three acres of this farm are devoted to vegetable crops, other land is planted in barley, oats, and clover, and a dome-shaped greenhouse extends the seasons.
Near the fenced gardens is a brand-new building ready to help participants process the ripening vegetables. A large, spotless, garage-like room is for butchering meat. The Band hopes to attain USDA certification soon; frozen venison or dried berries could be a business venture for Band members. A huge, bright kitchen has an astonishing array of equipment, including a dehydrator, flash freezer, and a special corner for filtering and bottling maple syrup, even a machine for turning it into candy.
Just outside is the entrance to a modern, energy-efficient root cellar. The group had help designing it from a neighbor, John Fisher-Merritt, whose family has operated an organic Community Supported Agriculture farm for many years.
Manoomin, wild rice
A short ride down narrow gravel roads takes us to a landing on Zhaaganaashiins Odabiwining (Deadfish Lake). Fond du Lac’s Natural Resource Manager, Tom Howes, stands with his back to this 70-acre lake as he tries to convey the reliance of Band members on wild rice, manoomin. It’s both a staple and a sacred food. “I feel bound to wild rice,” he says. “It made it possible for my forefathers to live for so many generations, all the way up to me. It’s a two-way relationship, a close bond between the people and the rice.”
He explains that when the Ojibwe signed treaties that relegated them to reservations, this Band chose to settle here because the forest was studded by a chain of shallow lakes. These five lakes are the only ones that support rice within a 100-mile radius, he says.
Early in the 20th century, this land was ditched to drain swamps and make it more suitable for growing crops. But that ditching, along with dams built for hydroelectric power, changed the land’s hydrology, contributing to flooding, making the lakes unreliable for rice-growing. Today we look at a sparkling lake that has only a sparse crop of rice, and the plants that grow are so short, Howes tells us it would be hard to bend them over the edge of a canoe. “This is basically a crop failure,” he says.
The Band is surveying the lakes in detail to figure out how to avoid flooding. They’ve put water control structures at the top and bottom of the lake to slow the flow and keep it at a more consistent level. And they’ve begun breaching some ditches for better water control. Progress is slow because the problems are complex and the tribe only controls 42% of the land base.
A nearby lake, Aka Aatawemegokokaaning, offers 400 acres of good wild rice water. It has a rich organic bottom and stays at a fairly constant level of four feet, which is good for wild rice, but unfortunately also good for Ginoozhegoons (pickerel weed, moose ear, pontederia cordata).
A native perennial, this aquatic plant has the advantage over wild rice, which grows from seed each year. Howes and his crew use custom-made boats to cut the upper part of the weed, or to cut at the root zone, which requires them to remove the material from the lake to prevent the roots from taking hold again.
“People have been living here for thousands of years,” Howes says. “In the old days, sometimes they wrapped rice in bundles to claim ownership or to leave the rice for older people to collect.” Late summer-early fall is a happy time for the Band. “The community comes together at ricing time, Howes says. “We talk and joke, we tease each other.”
As we are learning, controlling the water levels, cutting back weeds, and keeping the water pure are all ways of farming for wild rice. Another farming activity here is burning for blueberries. Along with wild rice, blueberries are a key species for the Anishinaabe. Certain ceremonies include blueberries, and no substitutions can be made, according to Damon Panek. A member of the White Earth Nation, Panek is a wildland fire operations specialist at Fond du Lac. He chooses his words carefully to convey his thoughts. “Our way of life is from this place,” he says. “We’ve always tried to live the way our ancestors did, but sometimes other agencies get in the way.”
Anishinaabe people have practiced using fire to shape the ecosystem for thousands of years, Panek says. Certain species of trees and other plants thrive in places that experience frequent small fires. Pines, oaks, and blueberries are among them. “We perpetuate the ecosystem that perpetuates our identity, and our identity perpetuates our landscape,” he says.
Blueberries grow in a four-to-five-year cycle. They’re rejuvenated by fire, growing and producing heavily for a couple of years, then start to decline until the next fire. Other plants have the same cycle, Panek says, including ferns and many plants the Anishinaabe use for medicines. And it’s probably not coincidence that it takes four-to-five years for the pine needles on the forest floor to accumulate enough fuel for another fire.
Since their beginning in the early 1900s, the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry agencies have poured huge amounts of energy into preventing and suppressing wildfires. This is changing now, but Panek says in the past, Ojibwe people would see signs saying, “No Indian Burning.” This kind of intervention was designed to discourage the traditional practice of burning for blueberries. Panek says in those days, some tribal people would wrap a rock with birch bark, light the bark and toss it into the woods in an attempt to cultivate berry growth and keep traditions alive.
Current forest management activities are aimed at getting the woods back to that stage of healthy production for the species so valuable to the Anishinaabe. Panek estimates that perhaps in about a hundred years the Band will have done enough work to recreate the pine barrens that are the perfect place for blueberries.
The people who attended the farm tour say “Miigwech,” “Thank you,” and climb back into their cars for the return home, minds swirling with new ideas about community, reciprocity, and what it means to farm.