Native Village 
Youth and Education News

October, 2013

Dream of Wild Health saves traditional Indian seeds and health
Condensed by Native Village

Minnesota: A small farm near Lino Lakes holds a distinct niche in Minnesota and likely the nation.

A corn patch near the driveway is a special white heirloom handed down by generations of Oneida Indians.

The black beans were grown for centuries by Hopi Indians.

There's squash from the Lakota tribe

There's corn from the Dakotas

 A team of urban teens learn to harvest, cook and market the plants that fed their ancestors.

The farm is the heart of Dream of Wild Health (DWH), a St. Paul nonprofit. They're part of a growing national movement to collect and save seeds once cultivated by Indian communities.

DWH's goal is to improve Indians' well-being by growing a new generation of health-conscious leaders.  For their unusual approach to fighting hunger and disease, Dream of Wild Health was named one of the state's Top 15 hunger-fighting agencies.

 Indigenous plants are labeled and stored for the Garden Warrior project.

"There is history in those plants, and [the youth] are carrying it genetically forward," said Diane Wilson, DWH executive director.

The seeds are the foundation of the non-profit's various projects.

Keeper of the seeds

Dream of Wild Health began in 2000 as an offshoot of a Peta Wakan Tipi, a housing and support program for Indians.  Sally Auger, founder of PWT, said women in the program wanted to plant a traditional garden.

The project took off when a package of seeds arrived from an elderly Potawatomi woman named Cora Baker. She had become an unofficial "Keeper of the Seeds" entrusted to her by Indians from across the region.

"I had prayed and prayed that someone would take up gardening again," Cora wrote. "I am very pleased to learn about your project."

In 2003, the nonprofit purchased a 10-acre farm for their agricultural and health care experiment. Word spread, and the seeds kept coming. One elderly donor sent seeds she had kept in a sock for decades. The Lac Courtes Oreilles band in Wisconsin shared some of its oldest seeds.

Examining plants

It was like opening a time capsule

"People at the powwow talk," said Auger. "They'd been holding the seeds so long. They wanted them alive again."

Dream of Wild Health, helped by horticulture professor Albert (Bud) Markhart, made nine rare varieties of corn viable again. But Auger and Wilson knew the project was about more than seed saving, so they launched education and outreach projects for youth.

These efforts distinguish Dream of Wild Health from most other national seed saving groups, who all have a big task before them. While Indians were the first to cultivate pumpkins, beans, corn and squash, they actually used about 1,900 types of plants for foods and 2,900 for medicines.

Fast-forward 13 years. Today the farm is planted with vegetables, tobacco and medicinal plants that were part of life for native Minnesotans. These include a tobacco variety that has been around 600 years.

The farm also grows organic vegetables.

Cora's Kids at work

Farm manager Frank Haney demonstrates how to hand-pollinate Oneida White Corn to maintain crop purity.

Jalen Morrison, 16, has worked at the farm for four years. His experience shows how the nonprofit tries to groom future health emissaries.

Morrison started in a program called Cora's Kids, a one-week farm experience project. Now he's a Garden Warrior, participating in cooking classes,  and staffing the farm's vegetable booth at the Midtown Farmers Market.

"Before I came here, I didn't know anything about making a garden, about different types of seeds, different plants to eat," Morrison said.

Breanna Greene and Gene Parker are both 14 years old.  They liked getting out of the city, working the fields, and "being able to be outside and be safe."

Greene has experimented with making salads at home with her family. Parker proudly announced, "A couple of days ago I cooked my first wild rice."

The teens are paid for their summer work and get leadership opportunities during the school year. Some can eventually return as interns and even staff.

In fact, the farm is a scientific laboratory for older students.  The farm is now hosting a university student studying how to protect its purebred crops from being pollinated and spoiled by genetically engineered varieties.

Dream of Wild Health farm's booth at the Midtown Farmer's Market.

The work doesn't stop at the farm

To reach parents, Dream of Wild Health offers cooking classes during the school year.
They also offer  "Garden in the Box" everything needed to make a raised garden bed.
They also support indigenous gardens on St. Paul's East Side.
This year DWH received funding to buy a van to start a catering business.

Dream of Wild Health relies heavily on its youth to lead the charge against fast foods and bad food.

"We're hoping that when these kids become adults, they will remember these experiences, and they will shape their lives so they can be healthy adults and raise healthy families," Wilson said.

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