Reclaiming the Right to Healthy Food

When she was younger, my grandma was on our tribal council. She’d always take us around with her, to Madeline Island, to Red Cliff, all over. She’s elderly now, and when I moved in with her she wasn’t doing very well. I got worried about her sugar addiction, and about all the medications that she takes. And she wasn’t eating very much, either, so I wanted the stuff she did eat to be really good stuff.

Photos by Megan Monday

Geneva, Mike, & Joy | Odanah & Ashland, WI

“But the food at the store that she had access to was pretty low quality—sometimes the vegetables were even rotting. She’d tell me to hurry up and use the tomatoes because they would probably go moldy the next day. Like a lot of elders here, my grandma doesn’t have access to a car or a way to get to town, so she’s stuck with what’s at this store. 

“She had been walking there and filling up with what she could. Even if she could have gotten to town, we just have the Wal-Mart, which is the cheapest, and then the Co-op, which is mostly local, but also the most expensive.

But the food at the store that she had access to was pretty low quality—sometimes the vegetables were even rotting. She’d tell me to hurry up and use the tomatoes because they would probably go moldy the next day. Like a lot of elders here, my grandma doesn’t have access to a car or a way to get to town, so she’s stuck with what’s at this store. She had been walking there and filling up with what she could. Even if she could have gotten to town, we just have the Wal-Mart, which is the cheapest, and then the Co-op, which is mostly local, but also the most expensive.

Being with my grandma, seeing her health and the quality of food she and a lot of the elders were eating was what got me interested in food. I wanted to learn everything I could about growing and harvesting healthy food.

The first job I got in food was on a blueberry farm. It was super hard work, but I loved it. Most of the work is seasonal, so I’d go from place to place. I worked at an orchard here in Wisconsin, and later I moved to California to work on a small farm over the winter and to learn about sustainable practices.

But after being out in California for that winter, I started to really feel the pull to come back. I missed the lake so bad. In California, I felt disconnected—like I didn’t know the land at all. So I moved back with Grandma again in Bad River. Then, once I got back here, I learned that Bad River had started a food sovereignty program. I didn’t even know what food sovereignty was; I had to Google it! I learned that it’s the right of people to healthy, sustainably harvested, and culturally appropriate food. I was like, ‘Okay, this makes so much sense,’ and I got involved. In the program, we garden, grow food in high tunnels, and harvest wild foods.

When I was little I didn’t know about any of this stuff, even though our people traditionally have done it. We had a few generations that stopped, and so those practices weren’t getting passed down as much. Our work on food sovereignty right now is about reclaiming our food and getting our health back.”

-Geneva | Odanah, WI

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“I have Elders who have been guiding me now that I’ve been back. Helping me figure out what to eat, and how to heal myself with plants especially. Right now I’m trying to study medicinal uses. I like to take my time to understand the plant before I even go out into the woods. I pick it apart, learn how it looks. When I find it I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, there they are!’ I find plantain a lot because it’s so abundant and pretty identifiable. You can use the leaves for sores and bug bites, and you can use the root for snake bites. I’m starting a little medicine chest.

I’m 19 now, and my plan moving forward is to study agriculture and natural resources. I’m going to go to the tribal college. Eventually, I hope to make a farm here so we can produce more local foods. I also hope we can wild harvest more, and educate our people every step of the way, so they can be a part of the harvest and really incorporate those foods into their diet.

I smile because it’s like, ‘Whoo! I’m learning my lands every day.’ It’s so fun. I’m excited to learn, and eventually, I’d like to teach. There’s so much we have to do to reclaim the culture that we lost. But the work is starting. I mean, I have little brothers and sisters that know Ojibwe now. I was not taught it when I was younger, so that makes me so happy. Kids are going out ricing, we’re harvesting vegetables, and I’m proud that now I can give my grandma access to high-quality food. It makes all the difference in the world.”

-Geneva | Odanah, WI

“I’ve lived on the Bad River Reservation almost all my life. Up here in Northern Wisconsin, we have so much that represents a high quality of life: shorelines, connectivity to water, and natural healthy foods through hunting, fishing, and gathering.

Historically, hunting, fishing, gathering, and all things that go with that subsistence lifestyle were really, really strong in our tribe. It’s really strong in the Ojibwe tribes throughout the region and in the Lake Superior area. Gardening used to be really strong too, but being close to the earth is one of those things that oftentimes get sacrificed by the rigors of work outside the home. In our area, when you have single parents working two, three jobs, or you’ve got two parents working all the time, people get really busy in a hurry. So, some traditions started to fall away.

The reality is that American families, in general, are struggling. When you have low incomes, food can be in short supply, and having food doesn't always necessarily equate to having nutrition. And, today folks are realizing that some of the big industrial processes that have been used to churn out cheap food aren't very desirable. There's a growing awareness that food quality and water quality are very important.

That kind of consciousness is really strong within the tribal communities, and we’re trying to build on that movement. Growing food, hunting, fishing, gathering—some of the things that were inherent in our treaty rights—can bring freedom, independence, nutrition, and self-reliance to our families.

On the Bad River Reservation, there was a project some years ago called the Gitigaaning Project. Gitigaaning means ‘a place of the old gardens.’ It was some of our Elders, back in the ’90s, really pushing growing nutritious natural food. I was younger then, working with youth programs, and it always stuck with me.”

-Mike | Odanah, WI

“The Gitigaaning Project supported the health of our people, but it was also an economic statement. The work required to produce good, local, nutritious food can create jobs, which we need in this area. If you build an economy around food and get people to buy the locally produced stuff, that’s true sustainability. People will forever need to eat. And those types of jobs can be an alternative to the other jobs that were coming into this area, like resource extraction.

The Gitigaaning—the gardening vision—rose up as an example of prosperity itself. It was an example of a viable alternative to destroying aquifers and rivers for short-term jobs and temporary money. We need jobs. But we need to employ long-term thinking about it.

Fast-forward a bunch of years from the Gitigaaning Project, and we still have tribal members in Bad River teaching our kids greenhouse gardening and high-tunnel gardening—techniques to extend the growing season because of course in Northern Wisconsin, we have harsh winters.

The main lesson we are trying to teach is that every tribal member is a potential food-producing dynamo. Every kid can learn ways to produce and harvest enough food for themselves, for their families, and enough to share and take care of others within the tribal community. And actually, that’s how we’ve always made it as tribal people before there were ever Europeans here. Tribalism is sharing, taking care of each other, recognizing we’re a part of, not apart from, our community, and that we’re also a part of the natural world around us.

We now have a  program devoted to food sovereignty here in Bad River. Tribal members were doing this work together, and then I had the opportunity to partner with Tom Wojciechowski, who works for UW–Extension out of Ashland, Wisconsin. He reached out with this idea that we should create a support position to promote food sovereignty and expand the work we were already doing here. I put together a letter that laid out how that would be beautiful for the Bad River Tribe.

That position is envisioned for a tribal person ultimately, but a non-tribal woman who had a lot of botanical and food systems expertise and wanted to lend a hand and was asked to apply. Her name is Joy, and she’s been doing amazing work with our kids.”

-Mike, Bad River Tribal Chairman | Odanah, WI

“When I was growing up in Rhinelander in the ‘80s, I didn’t know much at all about the Native people in the area. In school, we were taught about Native American cultures in a general way, and as if they were past tense—extinct. There was a real lack of cultural awareness in the school system. So, incredible as it sounds, I was unaware of the Native people that were here, of course, way before me—and still were all around Wisconsin.

As I’ve grown up and those gaps in knowledge became obvious to me, I’ve really had to step into learning. I see it as a moral crossroads: When I realize I’ve been ignorant, I can choose to further the ignorance, or I can choose to learn from it. Because there were important cultural things that I should have known growing up, but didn’t, I had to start actively seeking out that information.

I’ve been up in Northern Wisconsin, working with the Bad River Tribe, and working on food systems and gardening for a while now, but my journey to this work started years ago, with a call that would change the trajectory of my life.

Back when I was in college in Madison, studying botany, I picked up the phone and heard a woman’s voice. She said, ‘Hello, Joy. This is Hope. Someone gave me your phone number, and I really need your help this summer.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god. Hope calls Joy. I don’t know what she’s asking me, but I have to help!’

She said three tenement housing buildings were torn down in a Chicago neighborhood, and about 300 families were displaced and had moved to Madison. She and her partner, Will Allen, had a garden program in Milwaukee and wanted to expand it to Madison. ‘We want your help to build a children’s garden,’ Hope said.

I had never really worked with kids before—I didn’t even really have that much experience gardening yet—but Hope found Joy, and so I said yes.

On the first day, I can remember meeting those 15 kids at the end of South Park Street, right by the Beltline. The first thing we did is take a field trip into a community garden. A Laotian elder man was there and he welcomed the kids and me to stand around him and watch him work on his garden.

I realized this man had retained his skills and knowledge to grow food. He had come to this new place with his traditional knowledge intact. I also realized that the same could not necessarily be said for these kids, or for me. My own ancestors—who fled Lithuania during World War II—gave up their heritage in favor of assimilation. It may have been more of a sacrifice than any of them had understood at the time.

As I began to understand more about what Hope and Will Allen were doing—through a program called Growing Power—I began to think about how food can be used as a tool of oppression or a tool of freedom. Gardening wasn’t just a fun, healthy activity for kids to do as a summer program. It was a service to a community struggling with access to healthy food. Gardening, in this case, was a response to poverty.

During those eight years working with Growing Power in Madison, I began to learn from important voices—like Vandana Shiva and Winona LaDuke—who speak about food and freedom and our human right to eat healthy food and identify ourselves culturally through our foods.

I’m so grateful that I trusted myself to step towards Hope, this stranger who would point me in the direction I would go for the rest of my life, even though I had no idea what that meant yet. I had no idea.”

-Joy | Ashland, WI

“The next chapter of my story was to get back ‘Up North.’ It came with relative ease because I met a man who was also originally from Up North, and together we decided to head back to the quiet. We headed up and just kept going until we reached Ashland.

In Ashland, I got a job working for the U.S. Forest Service and ran a Wisconsin Conservation Corps Crew, which was a job-training program for at-risk adults to learn about natural resources. But all while I was working there, I kept thinking about my time gardening with those kids back in Madison. I was drawn to plants, but maybe it was more than just plants. Maybe my skill set was working with youth.

Then, a position with the Federal Food Stamp program opened and I applied. I remember going into the interview and gushing about Growing Power, about connecting people with their food, inspiring health, and teaching nutrition. But at that time, the USDA was not at all interested in that approach. They said ‘We teach people how to buy food, not how to grow it.’ I was not hired.

About a year and a half later, the regional supervisor for the Food Stamp program sought me out and said, ‘You remember your interview? You talked a lot about gardening, and now I think there’s something to that. Let’s figure something out.’

I was hired and worked for the Federal Food Stamp program for 17 years. I spent most of that time being—as I call it—‘thanked and spanked.’ The program was through the Extension and the USDA, and gardening wasn’t really part of the official curriculum, so people were like, ‘Wow, the garden initiative is so beautiful! The kids will love it!’ And then someone else would say, ‘You’re not supposed to garden. You’re wasting time and resources. Don’t do it anymore.’ But that was okay. I could take the spanking for the thanking.

For my last five years with Federal Food Stamp, I coordinated the program for Iron County. At that point, I was able to take on a position as the county horticulturist, as well. We built a beautiful garden in the Mercer community and a beautiful garden at the Hurley school. We filled the planters along Hurley’s Silver Street. We had beans and cucumbers growing up the walls of the taverns.

One of the most beautiful things about that job was that at that time, Northern Wisconsin was embroiled in an emotionally charged debate over a proposed iron ore mine, which was set to be the world’s largest. What I was doing with the kids became this different conversation about what’s possible. For every person that told a child in Hurley that we needed this mine for jobs, we were planting food. We were showing how our futures could be different up here—how we could literally grow jobs in other industries. This is also the time that I started to connect more deeply with the Bad River and Red Cliff communities here. I really respected the work they were doing to protect our resources, and there were increasing opportunities to work together and fortify relationships and friendships.

A little later on, I heard about this new, unique position that opened up at the Bad River Ojibwe reservation to help with food sovereignty issues. Because I had been doing work through Federal Food Stamp for so many years, and because this is where I live and I know many tribal members, I was interested and hopeful that I could lend a hand. That idea got proposed, and there was a lot of conversation in Bad River about whether I was the right person for this position because it does address culture, language, and food sovereignty. In the end, I was asked to apply. So now my job—funded by the UW–Extension to support the work being done on the reservation—is to further food sovereignty in Bad River. I define food sovereignty as our human right to eat the foods that nourish us and represent us culturally and as a community.

Ojibwe people were the original foodies. They were extremely healthy, well-fed people with such an abundance that when people would pass through, they were fed and would leave with an armful of rice. Today, we have Native people suffering from high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and shorter life expectancies. That’s very connected to food. Through food sovereignty, we’re trying to both restore traditional foodways and create access to healthy foods.”

-Joy | Ashland, WI

“I see my work with the Bad River tribe as my human responsibility to share what I know from a botany and gardening perspective, and the children around me have been wonderfully receptive. The unique aspect, of course, is that I’m a non-Native woman, but one with an education in botany, so I know these plants and I’ve had the privilege of studying plants and eating healthy food. And as I share what I know, in turn, the kids are teaching me culture and the beautiful language.

I partner with the program at the elementary school to teach the Ojibwe language in the garden, and I take young Bad River tribal members and their family members on hikes to wild-harvest and identify traditional plants, food, and medicines.

I also support the tribe in their goals to get kids out spearfishing and ricing. That has brought me to places I never would have thought I’d ever be able to go. To be out on a beautiful Northern Wisconsin lake in the middle of the night with children who are reclaiming their rights and skills to feed themselves has been profound.

One thing that we don’t teach in schools are treaty rights and how people use them, why they exist, and what they mean. I find myself explaining these things to the kids when we go out harvesting in ceded territory. I start off by reminding kids that treaty rights were not rights that were gifted. As the negotiation was happening around how we were all going to live here together—Natives and non-Natives alike—the leaders met on equal terms as sovereign nations to reserve people’s right to feed themselves.

It can be very intimidating to try to honor and integrate a culture into your classroom that isn’t the one that you came from. But I try to use the ignorance that I know I possess as an opportunity to invite the kids to learn with me. I’m working with the school district to provide teacher training to help build some bridges and help non-Native teachers understand how to create an environment of curiosity and learning for everyone, too.”

-Joy, Ashland, WI

“A fairly new development is that we now have a director for the Bad River Food Sovereignty Program, Loretta Livingston. Loretta has a deep history in administration and leadership in the tribe. She was the chairwoman at one point, and on the Tribal Council. She’s a lawyer by training, and she’s also a gardener and a great-grandmother—she’s sort of a powerhouse person. So I am really thrilled to have her leadership and support to guide me now. I tease her that we’re like this dynamic duo because I bring ‘the silly’ and bring the kids along, and she brings her expertise in politics, fundraising, administration—and also, of course, her traditional knowledge and gravitas as an Elder in the community.

Her involvement has deepened this program’s connection to the Bad River community because the Elders are connected to everyone. It’s been really meaningful to have others approve of what we’re doing. There’s no way that I could have done that on my own. I have incredibly meaningful personal relationships with people in Bad River, and I know all the kids and it’s super fun, but Loretta’s leadership as an Anishinaabe woman has really taken our food sovereignty work to a new level. Loretta’s strength provides me with an extra layer of confidence and energy, as well.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by Loretta and others who have been mentors to me in this work. People I seek counsel and support and guidance from—people who are restoring vitality and carrying culture forward with humor, grace, and strength.

Greg Biskakone Johnson, from Lac du Flambeau, is a culture keeper. Sandy Gokee is an Ojibwe language teacher, and she’s also a plant woman, a harvester, and a hunter. Dylan Jennings is a youthful leader, restoring cultural knowledge and spirit to his community. Edith Leoso is caring for the history here and helping to protect the future. Mike Wiggins has dedicated his life to leading his community towards independence and interdependence.

Ultimately, I think someone who is a tribal member could take this job further. I’m hoping that as I work with youth, there will be some that grow really interested in what we’re doing, and excited about taking this position as a vehicle for teaching their community.

This is the most intense, beautiful work I’ve ever done. I really see all my story leading to this place. It’s like I’ve been on these tributaries of myself, and now I made it to the big water.”

-Joy | Ashland, WI