MTU Builds and Broadens Food Sovereignty with Indigenous, State and University Partners

People stand in a field of waist-high tobacco plants, using shears to pick leaves.
People stand in a field of waist-high tobacco plants, using shears to pick leaves.
The Debweyendon Indigenous Gardens (DIGs) are part of the Bemadizijig ogitiganiwaa (People’s Garden) in L'Anse, Michigan. DIGs events included harvesting asemaa (tobacco), manoomin (wild rice) and other traditional medicines. Photo Credit: DIGs

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded funds for a gathering next fall focused on revitalizing Indigenous food traditions.

Michigan Technological University is partnering with the Intertribal Agriculture Council and local Indigenous communities including the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians as well as Northern Michigan University, Ferris State University, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College and Michigan State University Extension. The NSF-funded event, Build and Broaden Indigenous Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Symposium, is one of only a few regularly occurring conferences in the nation dedicated to Indigenous food sovereignty and will take place in person if possible.

About the Researcher

The KBIC Natural Resources Department, which continues to work with Michigan Tech to keep an eye on heavy metals and other pollutants in fish and strengthen community and medicinal gardens, describes food sovereignty as “A movement of reclaiming Indigenous food traditions, emphasizing the ability of Indigenous people to feed themselves and feed themselves well.” The Build and Broaden symposium connects Indigenous knowledge holders, researchers, practitioners, producers and community members through four themes: food ecology, economy, diversity and sovereignty (FEEDS). The hope is to share teachings, foster group learning and explore what FEEDS the body, mind, spirit and community. The call for demo and presentation proposals is open through May 15.

University-Indigenous Partnerships

Working closely with the KBIC is Valoree Gagnon, director of University-Indigenous Community Partnerships in the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Tech and one of the co-principal investigators of the NSF grant, all of whom are Indigenous scholars.

“Food sovereignty is critical to Indigenous nation-building and requires deliberate and necessary work,” Gagnon said. “As the original farmers, producers, fishers, hunters and gatherers of this land, the process for remembering is tied directly to Indigenous food practices. Indigenous peoples cannot, and need not, do this work alone but choose to work in partnership with like-minded others, including non-Indigenous academics, communities, seed keepers, producers and governments.”

Gagnon, who is also a mentor for the new summer research program TECH SCEnE, another MTU-KBIC collaboration, explains that the Build and Broaden symposium will span three days, with the first day co-hosted by Michigan Tech, KBIC and the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Part of the gathering will be held in the Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens in L’Anse, Michigan.

“Our community garden is a truly special place where family and friends gather,” said Karena Schmidt, a Build and Broaden collaborator and ecologist for the KBIC Natural Resources Department. “It has affectionately come to be known as the DIGs — the Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens, debweyendon meaning ‘believe in it!’ — and is a place where our affection is centered although not bounded.”

Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens

DIGs, which started in 2013, is part of the Bemadizijig ogitiganiwaa (People’s Garden) that offers garden plots for rent, beehives, a hoophouse with strawberries and summer vegetables, fields of pumpkins, potatoes, asemaa (tobacco) and a Three Sisters garden of squash-corn-beans that support each other’s growth and restore soil nutrients. Part of the Build and Broaden symposium will be held here, along with the Pow Wow grounds and Sand Point area’s Fishermen Tribute and mine tailings restoration site

“There will be so much sharing of practical knowledge to support and inspire people yearning to strengthen their kinship with native food plants,” Schmidt said. “The sharing of seed hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart will give participants the inspiration and resources to sow enthusiasm for healthy foods and alignment with good health.”

Evelyn Ravindran, director of the KBIC Natural Resources Department, agrees: “Food sovereignty brings us back to what’s important about living and staying connected to our land. Being in the land is a reminder that we are a gifting community and it’s also a way to stay aware of the health of our community. The land and the people’s well-being — we are reflective of each other.”

Build and Broaden Symposium

As the Intertribal Agriculture Council writes in their news release, food sovereignty is important throughout many Midwest and Great Lakes native communities, especially with treaty hunting, fishing and gathering rights and harvesting traditional foods like manoomin (wild rice). Protecting water and preserving wetlands — the “medicine cabinets” of Ojibwa plant lore —are part of the bigger cycles and environmental relations that support Indigenous food sovereignty. The symposium builds and broadens networks of people, history, environment and possibility.

“This gathering will provide opportunities to engage in reciprocal learning, to revitalize and strengthen our connections to each other and to rebuild capacity for planning in our rapidly changing landscapes,” Gagnon said. “The process for healing our communities is tied directly to sharing knowledge, understanding and experiences with people of many kinds.”

The Build and Broaden Indigenous Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Symposium is a chance to draw attention to regional food sovereignty initiatives and expand these efforts with academic, extension, producer and community partners.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.