Students Meet the Plant Tribes

Nov 15th, 2008 | By | Category: 20-2: Native Green, Features
By Mary Annette Pember

BUILDING THE MEDICINE WHEEL GARDEN. The students moved earth and rock while creating the college garden. Photo by Jim Garrett

A rather unlikely collaboration of students from urban and reservation colleges produced a remarkable project at Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC, Fort Totten, ND) last summer. Eight students from California Polytechnic University of San Luis Obispo, CA, (Cal Poly) journeyed by car to Fort Totten to work with eight CCCC students in creating a native garden in the shape of an 80-foot medicine wheel. The garden contains traditional native plants mostly used in medicines and ceremonies.

The project was the brainchild of Jim Garrett (Cheyenne River Lakota), the vice president of Land Grant Programs at CCCC, and Dr. Kathleen Martin, assistant professor in Ethnic Studies at Cal Poly. The two educators met as students at the University of California in Santa Barbara and have long wanted to collaborate on a project that would communicate the importance of place in learning about environments and communities.

Martin brought together funding and in-kind support from Cal Poly for her students. The Cal Poly students were enrolled in Martin’s “Ethnicity and the Land from an Indigenous Perspective” course. Garrett received support from the tribal college and the Spirit Lake Tribe to involve students from his traditional plant identification class. The main goal was to build the garden with the two groups of students interacting.

“We wanted the students to connect and mentor each other,” reports Martin.

Since many of the CCCC students may go on to larger urban schools, Garrett wanted them to hear from other Native students about life at such institutions. Most of the Cal Poly students are Native Americans from urban areas. Martin wanted her students to learn about communities from different reservations and experience the Plains region from an Indigenous perspective.

Having 16 participants in the project was important. According to Garrett, the number 16 is a significant number for Lakota and Dakota peoples and reflects their worldview. Four quadrants of the garden are currently completed. Another ring will provide eight more sections; each ring builds on the number 16.

The students began each day’s work with prayer. They took breaks together and ate together as they worked on the raised bed gardens, which contain such plants as prairie sage, prairie coreopsis, echinacea, cudwort sage, and dotted gay feather. The four beds represent the four directions. Gravel paths run through the beds, allowing visitors to closely observe the plants.

Working with tribal elders, CCCC students are researching the significance and use of the plants. They will produce a book later this year. Student interns are currently caring for the garden daily. For the Cal Poly students, the course included a fieldwork component with resulting research.

Martin and Garrett have been invited to present the research and information about the project at the American Academy of Religions at its annual convention in Chicago this November. They will speak about helping students make a personal connection with plants, seeing the plants as peoples or tribes that carry traditional knowledge about the organisms themselves as well as the communities and cultures who use them.

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