Nurturing Natives

Nurturing Natives

Indigenous gardens bring health, beauty, and culture to Native Americans in Chicago

A chain link fence encases a lush, unexpected garden at the corner of Pulaski Road and Wilson Avenue in Chicago. Within the fence, green stalks of corn shoot skyward, bright Indian blanket flowers dot the raised beds, and milkweed lures passing butterflies.

Welcome to the First Nations Garden. The Chi-Nations Youth Council — a group that supports Native American youth in Chicago through arts and activism — started the garden in 2019. The organization spent months converting the abandoned land, which was contaminated with heavy metals, into a flourishing Native garden, prairie restoration, and educational space.

Today, the garden includes raised beds, available to Native Americans and local community members; prairie mounds — a traditional style of planting; and edible and medicinal plants. The youth council’s primary goal: to offer a healing space to the Chicago area’s thousands of Native American people.

“The garden will help local Native American youth keep a connection to the land and our plants because we are such a land-based culture. The garden also offers ceremonial space for Native people to practice their own spiritual practices. We also offer lodges and medicines that we grow in the garden,” says Janie Pochel (Saulteaux).

Pochel is an “auntie,” — an advisory position with the Chi-Nations Youth Council — and one of the garden’s managers. She and her nephew, AJ Pochel, co-founded the garden and acquired the land for it.

The First Nations Garden isn’t the only Native garden in Chicago. The American Indian Center is part of a growing Indigenous movement to reclaim ancestral food practices. “We are restoring food sovereignty to our people, reclaiming our right to plant traditional, nutrient-dense foods that are healthy for us rather than having our diet dictated to us by outside forces,” says Executive Director of Chicago’s American Indian Center, Melodi Serna, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians and the Oneida Nation.

Moving away from processed food

The effort toward healthier food is crucial. Native Americans are three times more likely to have diabetes than white people, due to increased diet-related health risks such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, according to the U.S. Department or Health and Human Services (HHS). And in a recent survey of Native people in the Chicago region, the American Indian Center found that 88% of respondents had no access to the nutritious foods of their ancestors’ diets.

To create more access to ancestral foods and healthier diets, the American Indian Center recently received a three-year federal grant of $1 million from HHS’s Administration for Native Americans. The Center will use part of the grant to plant crops using ancestral agricultural practices in community garden plots in Albany Park and Jefferson Park, as well as in the rooftop garden of its building in Albany Park. The grant will also fund cooking workshops and other food-related activities.

Serna says the American Indian Center will distribute the fresh, nutritious food free of charge to members of the local Native community. “We have to decolonize our diet,” she says.

For millennia, Indigenous people hunted, fished, foraged, and planted crops, creating a well-rounded nutritional diet. All of that changed with the arrival of settlers from Europe, who wanted to claim land and establish homesteads for themselves.

In 1830, the federal government signed the Indian Removal Act, forcing many Native tribes to move west of the Mississippi River. The act confined them to reservations on land far from their ancestral homes, where they were separated from their traditional food practices. The U.S. government provided foods such as lard, sugar, and canned meat, — replacing a healthy diet with one high in empty calories and low in nutrients.

The commodities were detrimental to Native people’s health, and now, Serna says, “Native people suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.”

She adds, “We had been eating off the land from time immemorial, but we are a group of people who were part of a genocide. [The U.S. government] killed off our food sources because if you starve a people, you don’t have to deal with them.”

A growing Indigenous food movement

Beyond the group efforts of the First Nations Garden and the American Indian Center, Jessica Pamonicutt, Menominee founder and executive chef of Ketapanen Kitchen, wants to create a large community farm in Chicago using traditional indigenous practices. Like the American Indian Center, she plans to make the foods harvested available to Native people in the Chicago area.

Pamonicutt will also use the food in her thriving catering company, which offers a wide variety of dishes made with traditional Native ingredients. For her catering menu, Pamonicutt, whose name means Walks First, uses organic and GMO-free foods she sources in part from tribal and Native-owned businesses and foragers. Sous-chef Cherokee Sperry, a member of the Cherokee tribe, will oversee the farm.

Sperry majored in political science and anthropology at the University of Illinois Chicago and studied the political economies of pre-Columbian indigenous people in the Great Lakes region.“We live in a city and a landscape that was so bountiful and where the economy was so vibrant and sophisticated a couple of hundred years ago. We’re trying to revive, regenerate, and re-establish that through food,” he says.

Farming for the future

In sharp contrast to industrial monoculture farming, involving chemical fertilizers and pesticides that pollute the water and air, Indigenous farming practices emphasize biodiversity. These practices involve planting multi-purpose crops that complement each other and increase productivity. The approach follows the environment’s natural patterns to preserve land for future generations — of crops and people.

Traditional Native farming practices include companion planting, in which farmers grow plants that benefit each other together. A prime example is known as the three sisters — in which corn, pole or running beans, and squash are planted in a mound together. Corn grows first, creating a tall, strong stalk; the thin vine of the beans then rises and swirls upward around the corn stalk, as the plant provides nitrogen to enrich the soil; the squash spreads out along the ground, acting as mulch that prevents weed growth and shades the soil, keeping it moist, and protecting against harmful pests. On the table, the trio make nutritious companions: The corn brings carbohydrates, the beans provide protein, and the squash offers vitamins. Pamonicutt unites the three in tamales and bruschetta.

Pamonicutt says that sunflowers were a common addition to Indigenous farming. In an urban setting, they are especially beneficial because they detoxify soil. They also attract pollinators and birds that feast on undesirable insects. Pamonicutt adds the leaves to salads and includes the tuber or sun choke on her menu; the dried seeds are also edible.

At the American Indian Center’s garden, Serna says they will use no-till, also known as no-dig, gardening. Turning over the soil damages its healthy structure and destroys the living organisms within that benefit plants’ growth. Instead, to protect and enrich the soil, they will layer organic mulch over it.

Phenology is another ancestral agricultural practice. “It is the art of observing nature for cues, such as the arrival of migratory birds or when flowers bloom, to know when to plant certain crops,” Serna says. “For example, corn can be planted when oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, peas when forsythia bloom, squash when lilac flowers fade.”

Seed-saving also was essential to Indigenous farming. Native people traditionally saved seeds with desirable traits, perhaps because of their color, size, taste, or texture, or because they had adapted to certain locations or conditions. Some of those heritage seeds have survived and are being used today.

“We get seeds gifted to us by tribal farmers,” Serna says. “Their purity is protected by planting different kinds of seeds far from each other. We also collect seeds by participating in seed exchanges with local tribes in order to expand what we grow.”

Indigenous people have suffered enormously throughout history. Native gardens are an important step for Native Americans to reclaim their history, their health, and to safeguard their legacy for future generations.