A Growing Concern

Aug 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-2: Spirituality, Tribal College News
By Jennifer Gray Reddish

Leech Lake Community College’s Project Grow is growing like a weed. Project Grow began as a way to encourage the planting of food gardens on the Minnesota reserva­tion. But it has also helped inspire a renewed interest in traditional cul­ture, according to college President Larry Aitken.

The high incidence of diabetes on the reserva­tion inspired the program (see Tribal College, Winter 1994 for an article about the program). Although patients were told by their doctors to change their diets from processed to fresh foods, few people followed this advice.

Believing that people who grow their own veg­etables are more likely to eat vegetables, Project

Grow founders encour­aged the planting of gar­dens and, especially, the cultivation of traditional food crops, such as beans, corn, and squash. As sim­ple as it sounds, the gar­den program has been what President Aitken calls a “tremendous boon” to the community.

The project has grown from 75 gardeners to 139 this summer. It also encourages the gathering of wild berries, such as chokeberries, pinchberries and blueberries for can­ning, and hunting of non-domesticated animals.

“We encourage people to eat wild foods, such as rab­bit and deer, because they’re healthier than cow or pig,” says Elaine Flemming, Ghee-Ti-Gon director. “You get exercise from gathering and there are no preserva­tives.” Ghee-Ti-Gon means gardening in the tribal lan­guage.

Students also can earn college credit while learn­ing to grow traditional Indian foods—and find a spiritual connection with the earth. There are class­es on native American perspectives of gardening, and the connection with all living things.

But perhaps most important is the resur­gence of Indian identity at Leech Lake, inspired, in part, by Project Grow. “The project has turned the lives of the Leech Lake Community around,” says Aitken. “It is the least controversial topic of all time. It is so healthy, and such a natural way of life. It triggers the natural heal­ing mechanism.”

As he notes, “The elders came out of the woodwork when the pro­gram started. Now we have scads of older women and men sharing the old ways, to talk about the three sisters— corn, squash and beans. They had been waiting for people to ask about the old gardening ways…. Now it’s like, let’s talk about tanning hides.”

The garden project’s philosophy of sharing and exchanging with others the harvest has spread to daily life. Where crafts were made to sell, people have begun to make them for each other again.

As the project brings the Leech Lake communi­ty together once again, the non-Indians in the area also have begun to learn from the project. “They show up at the har­vest feast to listen and to share,” Aitken says. “But not to out-do us.”

It seems Project Grow has helped heal more than diabetes patients. Living from the fruits of a garden means healing the earth as well. Aitken notes that, “Humans need to learn to respect the earth once again and learn about the ecosystem for the world.”

This is what he calls a “silent healthy revolution.”

“We always knew [these ways of treating the earth]. We just forgot it for a while. And now it’s back, and so are we.”

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