A Growing ConcernAug 15th, 1994 | By jgrayreddish | Category: 6-2: Spirituality, Tribal College News
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.”