The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is investing heavily in health and wellness initiatives. Food sovereignty is a major thrust.
As John Houle, agriculture coordinator for the band, put it, “We can’t really exercise our status as a sovereign nation if we can’t feed our people and do it well.”
Until a few months ago, Houle was emergency services coordinator for the band. A project under the auspices of emergency management was the creation of small community gardens near homes on the reservation that enable families to start growing a portion of their fresh produce needs. In a state of emergency, such as a government shutdown, band members could be cut off from the commodities programs. Being able to produce food locally was seen as a way to mitigate situations like that.
Kristian Theisz, Community Services staff at the Mille Lacs Government Center in Vineland, also works in emergency management for the band. He explained that the commodities program is analogous to Supplemental Food and Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), except that the bands receive commodity food distributions and members can pick them up right on the reservation.
“The more the Mille Lacs Band and other communities can become reliant on locally grown produce —meat, milk and eggs — the less they are at the mercy of government disruptions, natural disasters and transportation or energy interruptions,” said Theisz.
Theisz said that as the band recognized the effect of long-term reliance on non-perishable commodity foods in terms of increased chronic metabolic and other health problems, it reached out to Winona LaDuke for assistance with developing a food sovereignty plan. LaDuke is known for her involvement in the White Earth Land Recovery Project and the non-profit environmental group, Honor the Earth.
“Goal number one is about changing community norms with regard to food and diet,” said Theisz. “If we can begin by involving the children and young people, they will accept a healthier way of eating as the norm and create their own sustainable food future.”
The Mille Lacs Indian Reservation is divided into four districts. District I is at Vineland where the government center is located, District II is the East Lake district south of McGregor, District III is in the Hinckley area and District IIa is the Isle-Wahkon area. The food sovereignty plan envisions a food-producing farm in each district, complete with livestock, organic produce, fruit and some traditional grain production. District 2 already has a farm near East Lake that has yet to be activated. District 1 has a farm called “Sodbusters” south of Onamia.
The Sodbusters farm is being expanded by land acquisition from 20 to 70 acres. The original farm has gardens and orchards that already produce food for the band’s food shelf and to supplement the commodities program.
Houle said that last year the 200 mature apple trees at the farm produced 6,000 pounds of apples. The gardens and high tunnel produced 8,000 pounds of fresh produce. All of this was fed into the food shelf and commodities programs of the four Mille Lacs districts. Started vegetable plants grown in a greenhouse near the government center are used to plant community gardens around the reservation as well as to grow food at the farm. The greenhouse was originally used to grow microgreens as an addition to meals prepared by elder services and Eddy’s Resort and has expanded from there.
Ag coordinator position
Houle’s background is in farming.
His family owned a large beef and dairy cattle farm in Fond du Lac, Wisc., where he spent his summers growing up doing chores and making hay. The agriculture coordinator position was created recently under the band’s Department of Natural Resources; because of his farming background and experience with the community gardens, Houle was chosen for the coordinator position.
One thing Houle saw right away as he started to lead the band’s food sovereignty work was that people were unfamiliar with the skills needed to cook and preserve fresh food.
“It was hard to move the fresh produce last year when people didn’t know how to cook with fresh produce or even how to handle it to preserve the freshness and quality,” he said. “This is no different than any other modern community, but we realized we needed to start building and reinforcing that skill set. To move forward with the necessary training for that will require additional staffing and support from the band.”
Community garden work will continue throughout the reservation; there is already a large vegetable garden near the assisted living facility the band operates at East Lake, and the community gardening program will continue to supplement food production as the district farms develop.
Houle also wants to start small and build grassfed beef and buffalo herds as well as developing some poultry enterprises. These livestock projects will increase the diversity of production on the farms, but will also begin to build soil fertility. Young people from all four districts have visited the farm and had the chance to get their hands in the dirt. Houle’s vision is to bring the Mille Lacs Band as a whole together around sustainable food production.
Traditional food culture
A key component of tribal food sovereignty is traditional ways of gathering and using wild foods and herbs, both as food and as medicine. To that end, the band recently hired Linda Black Elk as ethnobotanist for the band.
The Mille Lacs Indian Museum has a display showing dozens of traditional foods, herbs and medicinals (plants, roots, seeds, bark and fungi) that were used to promote health and well being.
“Traditional foods were our medicines, and the band’s goal is to return to a culture of reliance on those to promote health and vitality,” said Theisz.
The band will be initiating a program of internships for produce farmer and ranch hand positions. Young adults will be trained to fill positions that further the food sovereignty work, give them marketable job skills and allow them to be part of building a secure food future for their communities.