MAHNOMEN, MINN. – Hours after a parade ends marking the White Earth Tribal and Community College’s 25th anniversary, Robert Shimek is standing near some squash in a field, marveling at a bumblebee crawling into a blossom.
“Oh, that’s a great big one,” said Shimek, an extension employee with the college. “That tells you the soil is healthy.”
Behind Shimek rises heirloom corn, stretching up to 9 feet in the September sky. On a platform, another staffer has plucked four juicy watermelons for wild rice camp this late summer weekend. And green vetch and field peas — a cover crop — sprout over black dirt.
It may not look like a lot, but on this 1-acre field behind the tribal college, just above the Wild Rice River and abutting a deer fence, the seeds of a food revolution are germinating on the White Earth Indian Reservation.
Already this fall, students and staff have harvested tomatoes and beans off the field. Last year, the school’s farm, now in its third growing season, produced 2,000 pounds of produce, from edible beans to squash. And it’ll all go to feed the community — filling the drum hall, local convenience stores and the homes of elders. It’s an effort to provide relief to gnawing hunger on the reservation.
“The average age of our students here is 32, which means the majority of them have children,” said Lisa Brunner, director of extension at White Earth Tribal and Community College, with a main campus in Mahnomen. “If mom and dad are food insecure, so are the children.”
The surrounding Mahnomen County is a geologic oddity. One third of the reservation sits on the western edge of the eastern white pine forest that runs to Maine. A hardwood forest juts through the middle. And the tribal college rests on prairie pothole land.
The area is also a federally recognized food desert, with few grocery stores dotting the sprawling reservation.
According to a survey published in February 2020 by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, 67% of White Earth tribal college students had experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days.
On a Monday morning in mid-July, student Asia Bevins tended to a crop of corn, squash and green beans, grown in the traditional, Indigenous “three-sisters” model, where interplanting helps each individual crop thrive.
Students enrolled in ecology classes and Brunner’s extension staff planted and harvest the crops.
“Last year, when they would have an abundance of whatever [vegetable], they would bring it over into the drum hall,” Bevins said. “As students, we could go and take what was offered there.”
While Brunner walks along the field, pointing out nearby garden plots, pickup trucks haul away bales of hay for nearby ranchers to use as forage. It was the food insecurity survey’s results that prompted her to plant the 1-acre plot, she said.
The Temple University survey found many students reported not only skipping meals but having lost weight in the previous month. In the pandemic, food at the local SuperValu — along with essentials like toilet paper — flew off shelves.
A farmers market shows up weekly in downtown Mahnomen, but fresh foods, especially for elders, is hard to come by. A mobile marketplace will visit outlying communities, such as Pine Point. But those who can will drive to the Walmart in Detroit Lakes.
“I was asked once, ‘How come you’re not charging for the food?’ Because 5,000 pounds of fresh produce, that’s organic, that’s estimated to be worth around $15,000,” said Brunner. “Our community members are hungry, which is our students. How about we take care of them first?”
Community garden plots sit closer to the parking lot. A smoker is open for use.
“We’re getting cover crop seed in,” said extension coordinator Tammy Bellanger. “Field peas, white clover.”
Before the town donated the land in 2010, the field was conventionally farmed land. The extension team hopes to plant a row of coniferous trees to filter spray from chemicals applied nearby. The soil teems with microbes and earthworms. Bumblebees inspect the tops of potato plants.
“There was nothing,” said Bellanger, “And then little by little, we’ve seen pockets of different seeds and things that the birds would bring. We’ve seen fox. We’ve seen Hungarian partridge. We’ve seen migrating birds.”
They’ve also seen tons of produce, distributed across the reservation’s 800,000-plus acres. Staff say the effort is not simply about promoting healthier eating, but also about restoring dignity and exercising sovereignty.
Inside the extension wing of the college, there’s a growing energy around tapping into local food pathways. In late July, Jimmy Uran — an extension cultural coordinator — fiddled with tackle before heading off to the river to film himself fishing for a video he’d later post to social media.
“I would hope people would be able to learn from what I’m teaching them,” Uran said, noting he’d learned to catch crappies, walleye and sometimes catfish with his dad, uncles and grandpa. “A lot of people around here don’t have a dad or a mom or [were raised] through foster care and never taught anything like that.”
Uran said he’s done other workshops, including on tanning deer hides and trapping. He sometimes surprises friends with cooking a local delicacy: beaver.
Indigenous food prepared for and by Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) people is garnering attention. In June, Minneapolis restauranteur Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef who uses ingredients predating colonization, won the best new restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation in June.
The Red Lake Nation, north of White Earth, is re-establishing a bison herd. And a community garden, organized by the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, was named the Cook County Farm Family by the University of Minnesota Extension.
On White Earth, Brunner bends down and picks up berries from a bush. She learned from her father, who used to distribute vegetables to relatives from the backseat of his green Ford LTD. It’s a transference of knowledge — both cultural and practical — that is still happening with help from the small farm.
“He was taking care of community,” she said. “Which is what we’re doing here.”