This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
Over a decade ago, folks at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), Michigan Technological University (MTU), and Western UP Planning and Development Region envisioned a space for gardens, gatherings, and growing community that celebrated and preserved the knowledge and cultural identity of tribal people living in and around the village of L’Anse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Through their creation of Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens (DIGs), they ended up seeking an even greater goal: food sovereignty.
Since colonizers came to the Americas, Indigenous people have been largely separated from their nourishing native foods. In their place, diets high in white flour, sugar, and unhealthy fats have brought epidemics of diet-related disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Native Americans live with diabetes than any other U.S. racial group. Having food sovereignty (the ability to control production and distribution of the food one consumes) and eating a decolonized diet are key to turning those numbers around — and DIGs is making it happen.
A DIGs workshop on how plants communicate their needs to us.
“Debweyendan means ‘believe in it’ [in Ojibwa],” says Karena Schmidt, ecologist with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) Natural Resources Department. “All these different, wonderful plants are here serving us and helping us honor our food sovereignty. Believing in it, we are reaching out, growing food, and people are participating.”
With the purchase of a 10-acre former livestock farm, DIGs was born in 2013. The project got off to a rocky start, as the farm’s former owner removed and sold the top six inches of topsoil before DIGs took possession of the land. But today the acreage boasts bountiful community gardens, an orchard, beehives, a wildlife habitat area, and wooded areas. Invasive species have been removed and replaced with original, native medicine plants like sacred asemma (tobacco), ginger, Solomon’s seal, bee balm, columbine, and ginseng.
A DIGs workshop on asemma, or tobacco.
“Some of our plant techs seek out the [invasive] Japanese barberry, dig it out, and in its place, they are planting medicine plants requested by the KBIC cultural council,” says Valoree Gagnon, director of MTU’s Indigenous Community Partnerships. ” … In the place …….