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Homegrown: Leech Lake woman raising food sovereignty awareness

Members of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project feasted on Red Lake Walleye, Leech Lake wild rice, locally harvested squash and fried bread at Leech Lake Tribal College Wednesday. The metro-based racial justice group was in Cass Lake to discuss food sovereignty. Crystal Dey | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Jon Finn of Leech Lake Fish and Wildlife fried Red Lake Walleye for the food sovereignty dinner.2 / 2

CASS LAKE -- The Benny Tonce drum room at Leech Lake Tribal College resonated with multi-cultural energy Wednesday evening. Separated by 200 miles and a three hour drive, metro residents unified with members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe over an element essential to all their lives -- food.

Nicole Buckanaga, Ojibwe language coordinator at the college, hosted a dinner and discussion on food sovereignty as part of her participation in the Organizing Apprenticeship Project. The Minneapolis based organization focuses on racial justice and equity.

"I was given the opportunity to host because not many rural folks are involved with the Organizing Apprenticeship Project," Buckanaga said. "It's always people from the metro area."

Buckanaga said the event is to show people in the metro area that people in Greater Minnesota are sharing the same challenge. The challenge is a lack of accessibility to natural, healthy, local food.

On average, food is travelling 1,500 miles to reach most Americans' dinner plates. The Red Lake walleye, Leech Lake wild rice, locally grown squash and fried bread the OAP group feasted on Wednesday is all located within 100 miles of Cass Lake.

Buckanaga chose food sovereignty as her focus in part due to the lack of non-GMO food on the Leech Lake reservation and surrounding area. Genetically modified organisms are plants and animals modified from their original state through biotechnology.

Unlike the rest of Minnesota, reservation lands are protected from aerial pesticide spraying by the Department of Resource Management.

Buckanaga said it's hard for people to access healthy food on the reservation due to historical and political reasons as well as oppression. She said most people get their food from Walmart, Teals, Family Dollar and food distribution where people receive government issued commodities.

"When people think about Ojibwe people, they think of hunters and gatherers. But, we were agriculturists, we were great agriculturists," Buckanaga said. "We showed the French and English people how to garden when they came here."

People on the Leech Lake reservation continue to grow family gardens and barter as their ancestors have always done on their land.

This year Buckanaga is growing a three sister garden that is traditional to Leech Lake. The white beans, Bear Island corn and squash in the three sister garden grow off one another, Buckanaga explained. Beans can be used in soup. Some staple food sources indigenous to the area include walleye, flint corn and Bear Island corn. Flint corn is ground into flour.

In order to know the food your are planting is pure, the seeds need to be tested, Buckanaga explained. Members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe know their heritage seeds are pure.

"For example, I have squash seeds and they are hundreds of years old," Buckanaga said.

As Leech Lake makes advances, that knowledge is shared among the other Ojibwe bands in Northwest Minnesota. "We work with White Earth and Red Lake so we're all on the same page," Buckanaga said.

Community members Shirley Nordrum and Simone Senogles of Red Lake and Jeff Harper from Leech Lake are all working on food initiatives. The three made up the panel of speakers on Wednesday.

Nordrum, University of Minnesota Extension Educator for Water Resource Management at the Leech Lake Tribal College, discussed the practice of seed keeping and taking small steps toward a healthier diet no matter where a person lives.

"This is everybody's problem, not just a Native problem," Nordrum said. "Really think about that."

Nordrum introduced the term "nutricide." Nutricide is the intentional bringing about or causing the death of large numbers of people through nutritional manipulation, she explained. Nordrum said a recovery of nutricide is happening now. The recovery follows the way Native Americans were treated when forced off their lands in the late 1800s.

"Rations were really unhealthy in the first place. Flour, lard, salt, sugar, what are you going to do with that stuff when you were used to eating buffalo, corn, fish and all these good things?" Nordrum mused. "We made fried bread."

Senogles, Food Sovereignty Coordinator for the Indigenous Environmental

Network in Bemidji, stressed the importance of eating seasonally by not trying to control the ecosystem, but rather living with the ecosystem.

"Indigenous people have a history of incredible health," Senogles said. "When we really embrace our full identity, we're stronger."

Harper, a Water Quality Specialist with the Leech Lake Division of Resources Management, said people need to start paying more attention to their surroundings. He addressed the decline in children learning how to procure food in nature.

"When I was growing up, I was expected to rice, hunt, fish," Harper said. Over the years, those traditions began to decline. Harper now works with a children's summer program that shows them how to connect with the world outside of technology and what has become the norm, how to identify blueberries and chokecherries in the wild.

"I think I have the message pretty clear. Leech Lake is working toward a healthier community," Buckanaga said. "I want to achieve awareness in that people can be in control of their own food. People have to say 'I want to own my own food, I want to grow my own food and I want to know what I'm feeding my kids.' People need to want that."

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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