Menominee encouraging home gardening through seed distribution

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski - Scott Krueger with the Menominee Tribal Clinic talks about seeds with Rachel Peters, of South Branch, during the Menominee seed distribution event Thursday at Keshena Primary School. The event included a dinner and a green corn dance to bless the seeds.

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski - Darren Zhuckkahosee, of Keshena, goes through the food line at the Keshena Primary School cafeteria with his children, Jackson, 9, and Matilda, 8. The dinner was part of the seed distribution event put on by the College of Menominee Nation, Menominee County University of Wisconsin-Extension and Menominee Tribal Clinic.

Much of the Menominee reservation is covered by trees, but at one time, the Menominee people planted food for their survival.

“We have archaeological evidence that the Menominee were the first farmers, and we had some very sophisticated farming methods,” said Jennifer Gauthier, community, natural resources and economic development agent for the Menominee County University of Wisconsin-Extension office. “We just want to help everyone remember and reconnect to it.”

The Extension office, along with the College of Menominee Nation and the Menominee Tribal Clinic, are hoping to bring its tribal members back to its roots by providing seeds to plant at home and in community gardens. More than 2,000 seed packets were distributed Thursday at Keshena Primary School.

In addition to handing out the seeds, a number of nonprofits showcased health alternatives. Dinner was also served, and a green corn dance was held as a blessing for the seeds.

The tribe has a wellness initiative, and providing resources for tribal members to produce their own food is one way to ensure the healthy well-being of the tribe as a whole, according to Brian Kowalkowski, dean of continuing education at CMN.

“Every year, we’ve done a seed distribution, but this is the first time we’re doing the green corn dance,” Kowalkowski said. “It’s a blessing of the seeds for healthy growth and making sure they get good produce.”

In previous years, the seed distribution has taken place during the reservation’s farmers market or providing seeds directly to tribal members in community visits.

“We go through all the seeds,” Kowalkowski said. “It’s usually a pretty good turnout.”

Distributing the seeds will have an impact on the reservation’s status as a food desert, Gauthier said.

“We do have a grocery store that has fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It makes it a little easier, but it’s still a long way for many people to drive.”

Tribal members living in Zoar and South Branch still have to travel a long way — 25-30 miles — to get to the reservation’s grocery store, Save A Lot. Being able to grow those fresh fruits and vegetables will allow them to not be so dependent on off-reservation resources for sustenance, Gauthier said.

Another challenge is the amount of produce available at Save A Lot, Kowalkowski said. The reservation only has 4,615 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 population estimates, which provides a limited number of customers, he said. Therefore, there is only so much fresh produce that can be stocked.

“Being able to get that local food grown here will make it healthier for people so people aren’t so dependent on those off-reservation resources,” Kowalkowski said.

Gauthier believes the relocation to reservations was what caused the Menominee to stray from their farming roots. The tribe once lived on 10 million acres of land, she said, but now are on a reservation of 235,000 acres.

The tribe already supports family gardens and community gardens, Gauthier noted, and the seed distribution is one more way to encourage members to self-sustaining.

“We want to support our community members who want to engage in gardening — grow their own fruits and vegetables and grow their own relationship with the outside,” Gauthier said.

In addition to the seed distribution, there are plans for a food summit to discuss food sustainability and eating healthier, according to Kowalkowski. The summit will take place June 6-7.

“This was kind of the kickoff to that,” Kowalkowski said about the seed distribution.