Dream of Wild Health

23 08 2009

Gardening lessons from a Master Gardener, nutrition and cooking lessons from Graduate Students, Finances 101 from a banker and creating marketing plans for a farmer’s market sales all fit into a normal Tuesday in Hugo, Minnesota. Throw in lessons on gardening tools, harvesting, century seeds, ceremonial tobacco and traditional art lessons and you have a week at Dream of Wild Health, a summer program that 55 Native American children from the Twin Cities will participate in this summer. Pulling into the gravel driveway to the site of a tepee I had a feeling that we were in for an enlightening treat.

We walked up to a group of children being taught a lesson about seeds from a Minnesota Extension Master Gardener and ventured inside the house on the property to meet the Program Director, Diane Wilson. Inside we caught scents of herbs and fresh produce and were quickly greeted by a smiling face that couldn’t wait to show us around.

Diane led us across the 10 acres that Dream of Wild Health has called home since 2004, Three Sisters Garden by Megan Hinesafter a move from the original site in Farmington that started in 1998. Through extensive fundraising, Dream of Wild Health now owns all of the land and the house where the full time staff farmer lives without any debt, which is quite the feat for a non for profit. In addition to the house and land, Diane proudly showed off their greenhouse and walk-in refrigerator that were added in the past two years through grants from Wells Fargo. We walked around the site and were impressed with its features which included an archery range, Women’s medicinal garden, Women’s sweat lodge, permanent tepee and most importantly several gardens planted with century seeds – this was definitely no summer camp I had ever seen before.

The work is split up so that the boys and girls are not in the same areas the same time, which is not only more traditional but more efficient, she told us with a grin. It seems that everything there is done strategically. As we walked around the property, we met the full time farmer, Emily, and two lesson teachers, Ernie and Hope that all help in making the mission come to life.

Ernie is a long time practicing artist and teaches the children cultural lessons ranging from painting to archery and tobacco drying for the boys. Before lunch he took the boys out to the fields to practice using different kinds of tools, Boys Working by Megan Hinesstarting with traditional tools made with animal bones and moving to metal ones. Hope heard about the program from past participants and helps with different lessons on site, typically staying with the girls when the work is divided by gender. The girls maintain the medicinal garden and sweat house and also tend to the flower gardens from which they create bouquets to sell at the market.

Several of the gardens are all planted precisely, using a traditional Three Sister’s Garden layout, and careful attention is given to distance between breeds so they aren’t cross pollinated. Some gardens are planted in the pattern of a sun, as they would have been centuries ago when they thrived in open spaces. The fragrant medicinal garden grows each year but they don’t yet have someone on staff that can properly teach the children about it.

I was fascinated about the stories behind the seeds, and as it turns out so was someone else that was essential to the success of the program. In March of 2000, a woman named Cora Baker heard of Dream of Wild Health and felt that her prayers had been answered, as she knew she was approaching the end of her long time battle with diabetes. Cora had become known as an Indian seed saver and had more than 90 varieties of corn, beans and squash in her collection that she feared would never be used again by future generations. Her collection included Cherokee Blue Dent from the Cherokee Trail of Tears and ceremonial tobacco varieties, and upon her death she willed the seeds to the program to ensure that children will continue to realize the importance of gardening to their heritage and the seeds’ stories will not be forgotten. Some of the plants growing in the small Hugo garden were among the last of the preserved varieties.

To participate in the program, the children have to apply for limited number of coveted opportunities – and for students between the ages of 13 and 18 their four-week participation includes a stipend for their hard work on the land. This year over 150 students applied and the interest continues to grow since past participants tend to talk about how amazing the food is all summer long.  The children write an essay explaining why they want to be part of the program and I can’t help but be impressed that a younger generation is starting to recognize that they are becoming separated from their history.

We’re told that the children come excited, then there is a shock from surrendering their cell phones and ipods and tasting their first meals made from scratch with traditional food that tend to be very different from their diets at home. Diane notes that, “for the kids, once the city wears off with the hard shell of survival they’re really kids and connect and are safe and they are really having fun.”

After touring the property, we snuck inside to see lunch being prepared and it was quite a Cooking by Megan Hinesmenu line up for the day. A neighbor had donated antelope which would be featured in pot stickers, a fragrant brown rice was being prepared with fresh green onion from the garden, and a vegetable stir fry was coming together using a colorful array of vegetables and a quick sauce. Antelope pot stickers? Yes, antelope pot stickers. In no time we were working along side the kitchen crew because we were so fascinated by what our lunch would be.

Marcellius, Shane, Alberto and Sean were on cooking duty, learning how to cook each item from Cassandra, a graduate student studying Nutrition at the University of Minnesota that had owned her own restaurant and was completing her field experience at Dream of Wild Health. Shane got a lesson in chopping vegetables, something that he found to be a lot harder than he expected after watching Cassandra’s expert hands quickly slice carrots into even thin slices. Marcellius quickly became a pro in the art of making pot stickers, rushing back and forth between filling the wonton wrappers on the kitchen table with Sean and the stove where he was in charge of cooking them. Alberto darted back and forth between the kitchen and the walk-in cooler in the garage to make sure that everything was ready while simultaneously The Ready Dishes by Megan Hinescombining the ingredients to finish the brown rice. The kitchen was a bustle and the aromas of ginger, sauteing vegetables and hot pot stickers made it hard to wait for everything to be ready.

Finally the meal reached completion and each item was carried outside where the hungry kids started to swarm around the fragrant warm dishes. As the final plate reached the table, the group formed a circle to participate in a prayer led by Ernie. We were invited to eat first as guests and spooned the warm delicacies on to our plates. I couldn’t wait to try an antelope pot sticker and I wasn’t let down. They had a fabulous texture with hints of grated carrot that was incredible with the dipping sauce Cassandra had made. The stir fry was crisp, colorful and a wonderful mix of textures that brought us back for seconds. We listened to the kids chat about the meal and we could hear their interest grow as they examined the vegetables on their plate.

Dream of Wild Health does more than just serve as a summer camp, it connects children to their history while teaching them important life lessons. In 2007, less than 1.2% of Minnesota’s population was from American Indian decent, the majority of which live in the Twin Cities area*. Living in a major metropolitan area is rapidly separating younger generations from their rich history with a close connection to the land. The changes in the landscape have forced many to forgo agricultural practices and traditional diets, both of which have had dramatic effects on the average American Indian body. American Indian children and adults alike statistically report higher levels of Type 2 diabetes, in some areas of the United States at rates of twice the national average, which has been attributed to high levels obesity**. These are problems that can’t be ignored, and Dream of Wild Health is actively working to educate younger generations to the culture of their ancestors and how to lead healthier lives.
To view more pictures from Dream of Wild Health, view the Flickr slideshow.

*U.S Census Bureau “Minnesota Quick Facts.” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/27000.html
**American Diabetes Association “Total Prevalence of Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes” http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-statistics/prevalence.jsp

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