TRAVERSE CITY — Nikki Nelson drove her family van through a series of back roads in Mason County, with a jiimaan, a traditional Anishinaabe canoe, strapped to the top.

It’s a trip she makes each fall, and a road she knows well. The trek along a rutty, mud-mired two-track takes her deep into the northern Michigan woods, far away from the bustle of the nearest city. And then, the van passed a camp of about 20 men, duck hunters.

Nelson sighed.

She was close to her destination: manoomin (wild rice) beds, growing on a lake in the heart of her ancestral homelands. The rice only grows in near-perfect conditions, and is easily destroyed by human activity or invasive plants. Nelson is a citizen of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and her family once owned more than 600 acres, including the land surrounding the lake where she now harvests manoomin.

Seeing duck hunters in the area worries Nelson. She has seen the damage some cause to the delicate plants by running their boats through the crop, and shooting near Anishinaabek harvesters.

The interactions occur despite signs planted throughout the area by the tribe that explain the manoomin is protected.

Still, neither worries about hunters in the area, nor storm clouds on the horizon detered Nelson as she drew her boat to the water’s edge.

“It’s just like coming home, it feels like home here,” she said, tilting her gaze around the shallow lake.

FOOD WITH ROOTS

Nelson came home in another way through learning the sacred steps of gathering and processing manoomin.

Her family was involved in gaining federal recognition for her tribe, but she didn’t grow up with much access to her culture.

“The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, and the more everything else in life makes sense when you understand the land around you,” she said.

She said she has found herself through food sovereignty.

The National Family Farm Coalition defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

But the food sovereignty Nelson and other Anishinaabeg practice is deeper: it’s a connection with the land. Nelson forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant — whether manoomin, or in her home garden — that depends on mutual respect and never taking more than what her family needs.

Nelson helped start a tribal community garden, something that has helped bring her community together while providing educational tools and access to fresh produce.

“Our entire spirituality really centers around our food and our medicines and plant life or connection to the land so it’s not just food,” she said. “It’s where we came from.”

Her commitment to food sovereignty is about more than nurturing her own roots, it’s about helping her two children find their way.

“They probably have more knowledge than me, honestly,” she said proudly of children, River and Gunnar. “Because they sit, they pay attention, they absorb everything. It’s just definitely not a life that I ever even imagined. … It’s changed my life.”

A FOOD RESURGENCE

Today’s threats to Indigenous food sovereignty began with hundreds of years of U.S policies that destroy Indigenous culture and well-being.

By the 1850s most tribes had entered into some sort of treaty negotiation with the United States government, collectively ceding millions of acres of land. The majority of Native communities were pushed hundreds-if not thousands-of miles from their homes, onto unfamiliar land in closed-off reservations.

The 1851 Indian Appropriations Act made it illegal for Indigenous people to leave designated reservations. Unable to access hunting and gathering regions, communities were forced to rely on an unhealthy diet of governmental commodities — rations of lard, sugar, flour and milk.

The quick shift in diet and relationship to the land drastically changed the health and well being of Anishinaabe, who have not fully recovered.

Broadly, Indigenous people have disproportionately higher rates of chronic diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease, cancer, and other diet-related diseases are the leading causes of death among Indigenous communities.

Treaty rights to access hunting, fishing and gathering grounds were only granted after years of court battles between tribes and state and federal governments.

And those treaty rights continue to be threatened by everything from resource exploitation to racist harassment from some non-Native harvesters.

RECLAIMING KNOWLEDGE

Indigenous people throughout Anishinaabe territories are reclaiming their foods in creative ways, working around the social, economic and environmental hurdles.

Not far from where Nelson harvests rice, Victoria (Vicki) Wells sits at her kitchen table cutting Xs into a batch of chestnuts. Another citizen of the Little River Band of Odawa Indians, her face glows with warmth when she explains how she’ll turn the nuts into baking flour.

Wells began decolonizing her diet for health reasons — she had a serious talk with her doctor and decided she needed to change how she was eating.

She enrolled in Northwestern Michigan Community College’s Culinary Program.

There, one of her instructors introduced her to Sean Sherman’s “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” — a cookbook that focuses on how to incorporate Indigenous ingredients with modern-day flair.

She was inspired by Sherman and has since worked to reclaim her ancestral foods by cooking with traditional ingredients and sharing the recipes on her blog, “Makwa Eats.” She hopes to open a catering service for her tribe to educate other Anishinaabe, and get them excited about Anishinaabe foods.

Wells’ blog follows her cooking experiences, seed saving with heirloom plants, and raising quail and rabbits in her backyard.

Like Nelson, Wells only hunts and gathers enough to sustain her family. She also deals with daily threats to her sacred foods. She’s particularly concerned about the impacts of climate change on sugar maple trees and traditional sugaring, or syrup-making.

She said, rising temperatures have resulted in an earlier sugar season. The past few seasons, her trees were ready months before normal.

“The trees are starting to run earlier,” she said. “It’s important to keep traditions, but tapping the trees when they’re ready to be tapped is what needs to be done.”

SLOW FOOD IN A FAST WORLD

Today’s mass-produced food landscape is often detrimental to food sovereignty efforts.

Indigenous ancestral teachings are anchored in creation stories, and cover science, math, history, and sociology. They shaped the food systems of each community for thousands of years before colonization.

“Our foods speak their own ancestral language,” said Kirsten-Kirby Shoote, from the Tlingit tribe in what is now Alaska. Shoote has dedicated her life to bringing back Indigenous foods to her communities through seed saving.

She works for I-collective; a nonprofit organization of Indigenous chefs, farmers, activist, seed and knowledge keepers, and refers to herself as a “food activist, seed saver, chef and urban farmer.”

She grew up in Chinook territory in what is now Oregon, and moved to Waawiiyatanong (Detroit) in 2015 to explore urban Indigenous food sovereignty. Her project Leilu’ Gardens focuses on “cultivating relationships with plants to heal generational wounds through revitalizing urban gardening and seed saving. She hosts pop-up dinners for the community to explore dishes together.

Shoote is uncomfortable with non-Native definitions of food sovereignty that reduce it to simply growing and harvesting to sustain a community.

“[It’s about] going back to original agreements that we have always had with the seeds in order to be able to feed ourselves,” she said.

A lack of accountability is what worries her about farm-to-table movements in restaurants, and recent increased attention on Indigenous foods in mainstream media — things like wild rice, leeks, and a variety of mushrooms.

“There’s a lot of our traditional foods that have been fed into a colonialist super extractor. It’s very unsettling seeing how they’re treated as a commodity and not not a living thing with rights and autonomy,”

Many traditional foods are already under threat from overexploitation, and non-Indigenous consumption of them, without limits, is dangerous.

“It’s interesting to see non-Native chefs with these ingredients, because there’s a huge disconnect,” said Shoote.”

She notes that repackaging Indigenous cuisine for white approval perpetuates that disconnect.

Some food knowledge and teachings are simply off limits to non-Indigenous communities. Many Indigenous people only saved their foods from colonial destruction by hiding seeds and medicines away, to plant when they were safe again.

“It’s very bold of, non-Indigenous people to think that that information would be completely accessible,” Shoote said.

BUILDING COMMUNITY

Food sovereignty movements are premised on communities caring for their own, and the work often involves helping others overcome barriers to food access.

Anishinaabe farmer Rosebud Bear Schneider calls hosting a community meal in her hometown, Waawiiyatanong, and offering traditional foods to Indigenous guests, one of her greatest ever experiences.

“To see their spirits returning to them, or their spirits being lit back up...I can’t say enough how much I love that work.”

Schneider is still devoted to helping heal people in that way — by revitalizing traditional practices when it comes to food and community.

She manages Ziibimijwang Farms for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

The tribe founded Ziibimijwang (which means “farm where the river flows”) with the goal of providing a reliable food source independent of large food system chains. Schneider’s work focuses on meeting people where they’re at in their journey to Indigenize their diet.

Produce grown at Ziibimijwang is sold at the tribe’s farm stand, purchased by local schools to feed students at lunch, and given to community members (and even other Indigenous communities) that are in need.

But because the farm’s main goal is not to make money, Schneider sometimes feels the work she’s doing is looked down upon or dismissed by a structured system that puts profits first.

She said it’s a struggle to work in the same space as large corporations with different goals and different rules. Instead, she focuses on community efforts.

“It’s hard to decolonize something that doesn’t want to decolonize,” she said. “So I like to think about indigenizing spaces, rather than decolonizing something,”

Schneider spoke with the Record-Eagle during her return trip from a cross-continent tour to honor Indigenous farmers, growers and foragers. It also involved bringing seeds, donated along the way, to an Indigenous farmer on the West Coast who had recently lost seeds to weather damage.

“To be entrusted, to carry those relatives across country to me and trust them to her. It was just, it was just amazing,” she said. “I feel really strong. And I feel really good on this path.”

A DELICATE BALANCE

A soft ripple from a Leopard frog emerged next to the jiimaan as Nelson paddled toward the shore.

She greeted the frog as one of her relatives as she explained that it’s encouraging to see a threatened species in the lake. The frog is a hopeful sign the lake is healthy, she said.

“I have the opportunity to give others, especially my children, what I missed out on in my childhood,” she said.

That’s why it’s so important for her to keep coming back every year and have rice camp, to touch the water, talk to the manoomin and build her community.

She has committed herself to rebuild her connection with the lake and the land that surround it, a place that was taken from her family, and today exists in a tenuous balance.

As she left the lake for the last time this year, she carries with her both hope and worry. Hope she will continue to regrow her family’s connection to the land. Worry that the delicate balance she leaves behind each year will be tipped while she’s gone.

This reporting project was produced in partnership with the Mishigamiing Journalism Project, a grant-funded effort that grants journalism fellowships to emerging Indigenous journalists.

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