On a warm August morning, a group of Native American teenagers sits patiently in a circle, surrounded by fields of market vegetables—such as tomatoes, green beans, and carrots—while a tractor hums nearby. A young man offers burning sage to each person, followed by another young man carrying a bowl of traditional tobacco grown at the farm. Each person holds a pinch of tobacco as Arapaho elder Ernie Whiteman offers a prayer for the day. Afterward, Ernie greets the group with his favorite saying, "Good Native American morning!" His greeting brings smiles to the faces of several sleepy young people. Only then do we begin the lesson of the day: learning to plant a pollinator meadow.
The 14 teenagers in this circle are Garden Warriors, participants in a four-week summer program hosted by Dream of Wild Health, a 10-acre organic farm near Hugo. As a Native-led nonprofit founded in 1998, Dream of Wild Health offers educational programs that help Native American families in the Twin Cities reconnect with indigenous foods and medicines. On the farm, we raise vegetables, bees, chickens, and a berry orchard. The produce goes to two farmers' markets and members of our Indigenous Farm Share, a form of community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Planting a pollinator meadow on the remaining two acres of sandy, low-fertility land will complete the farm community's vision of a holistic learning environment.
Central to this vision is teaching Native youth—many of whom come from inner-city, low-income neighborhoods—how to live a healthy life. While many face significant challenges, including homelessness, poverty, racism, and abuse, they know they are safe at the farm. Without exception, this group is bright, articulate, and eager to learn.
Each lesson reinforces cultural teachings and shared values that help them slowly rebuild a relationship with the earth. This is the deeper work of cultural recovery, of reclaiming knowledge displaced by boarding schools, relocation programs, and the loss of Native homelands.
Like many city kids, these teenagers often know little about pollinators. Most of them have been raised to fear spiders and snakes and to kill bees before they can sting. The Garden Warrior program helps to change those perceptions by teaching the importance of being a good relative and maintaining a respectful, equal relationship with all beings. As we say in Dakota, "Mitakuye Oyasin"—"We are all related."
Ancestral Ways. Elder Hope Flanagan, a highly skilled traditional plant gatherer of Seneca heritage, teaches that seasonal foods and a wide variety of wild plants were important parts of our ancestors' diet. "I was taught that every single plant has a gift to share with the people," Hope says. "Every plant provides food, utility, or medicine. Our job is to figure out what that gift is."
Just as plants share their gifts with us, we have a responsibility to support them in return through reciprocity. Farmer Aidan Shaughnessy, also known as Aido-Potato, works with Hope to explain the basics about pollination. He asks, "Who knows what a pollinator is?"
A few tentative answers: Butterflies? Bees?
"Yes, along with moths, flies, and beetles," Aidan says. He explains that about 75 percent of all flowering plants rely on pollinators to help set seed or fruit. From these plants comes one-third of our food, even more for wildlife. An estimated 4,000 species of native bees in the United States help ensure a healthy and diverse food system. With a little more than 1 percent of our original prairies remaining, bees struggle to find adequate plants for foraging and nesting. By restoring a pollinator meadow with native plant species such as prairie smoke, gray goldenrod, and wild bergamot, we will provide a diversity of pollen and nectar sources throughout the growing season. As native prairie plants are re-established, the meadow will become a place to teach plant and pollinator identification, as well as the traditional uses of these plants.
"Pollinators evolve with native plants," Aidan says.
Garden Warriors also help care for a collection of rare, indigenous seeds—corn, beans, squash. The heritage seeds were a gift from Cora Baker, a Potawatomi elder and seed keeper. Cora believed that returning to traditional foods was the best way for Native people to recover their health, especially from diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.
"We are the designated seed savers for these seeds," Ernie says. "These are more than seeds that we are growing; these are the ancestors that we are taking care of. We are taking care of something that has sustained our people for generations. Once these seeds begin growing, they need to be pollinated. We are planting our pollinator meadow so that our seeds will be pollinated."
Preparing the Land. Hope and Aidan lead the group out to the site of the future pollinator meadow. The terrain is rough, pocked by gopher mounds and a mix of native and nonnative perennial grasses. Native big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and nonnative smooth bromegrass, fescue species, and rye grass were originally planted as a cover crop to help restore organic matter to sandy soil. Plants considered invasive, including knotweed and thistle, are also present. Overhead an immense utility tower buzzes with the force of electricity carried in its thick cables. Hope points out wild blackberries and other plants along the fence line.
"There is no word for weed in Native languages," Hope says. "Stinging nettles are good for making a medicine tea. Wild bergamot, or bee balm, was used by the Ojibwe to fight flu and colds. The Lakota called it elk medicine and used it in ceremony." Hope shares traditional knowledge about the use for each plant.
As the teenagers begin removing invasive tansy and thistle, Aidan talks about the seed mix that will be broadcast in the fall. Many of the seeds require cold weather before they can be spread. Our prairie seed mix, especially designed for dry soil, includes plants such as wild bergamot to attract mason wasps, sweat bees, and cuckoo bees, in addition to providing nectar for monarchs and other flying insects. As the day becomes increasingly warm and humid, the 14 teens and several staff members spread out through the field, chatting and laughing. Using pitchforks and shovels, the youth dig beneath clumps of deeply rooted weeds that the tractor has been unsuccessful in tilling. Hope and Aidan pause frequently to point out pollinators already present in the area, including bumblebees, monarch butterflies, and native flies.
After preparing the pollinator meadow, the youth move to an area of bare soil near the garden of saved seeds. Following Aidan's instructions, Garden Warriors learn how to create a pollinator strip so that pollinator-friendly plants will be spread throughout the farm fields. Still using pitchforks and shovels, they carefully cultivate the soil.
To teach plant identification, Aidan brought small native seedlings from a native-plant nursery, including prairie clover, rough blazing star, and purple coneflower. Stopping often to wipe sweat from their faces, several Garden Warriors use trowels to dig small holes, just big enough for each seedling and spaced to provide room for growth. They gently tap soil around the roots and stems of each plant, then other Garden Warriors with watering cans gently sprinkle each new seedling.
As they plant, Alayna, a 13-year-old aspiring journalist, interviews Garden Warriors about their understanding of pollinators. Miiskogihmiiwan, a 14-year-old first-year participant, says, "If there were no humans, the world would be fine. But if there were no bees, or no pollinators, we wouldn't be good because we need a way to spread the pollen."
Honoring Connections. Alayna grasps the vital connection between pollinators and our saved seeds. "At the farm, we youth have come to understand that native pollinators need native seeds to grow for them to pollinate. As native seeds are becoming scarce, the native animals are following suit," she says. "Dream of Wild Health teaches youth about saving the pollinators from the danger of extinction that they are in by teaching us the ways we can help."
"In rock writing the heart line moves back and forth but always returns to the center," Ernie says, referring to ancient petroglyphs. "We have no control over global warming, but we have control over what we do as people to plants and insects. What we can do is help plants and insects survive. We can think ahead. This is part of our culture to plan for the next season, to save the corn."
Each season we grow out several varieties of corn from seeds given to us by Cora Baker. A Cherokee corn from her collection came from seeds carried on the Trail of Tears, protected by women who made the difficult choice to save seeds while people were starving.
By teaching that these seeds are sacred, we encourage young people to take responsibility for keeping seeds safe from modern-day challenges, especially pollen from genetically modified plants. In 2015 we planted, harvested, and preserved two varieties of Dakota corn, which were hand-pollinated to protect them from wind-borne pollen from GMO or transgenic corn. Not only are we protecting the genetic integrity of our corn from cross-pollination, but we are also protecting the organization from a potential lawsuit for stealing patented genetic material.
A Good Life. The plants are often the best teachers. "When I began growing the sacred tobacco seeds, I noticed that it was bringing around the native bees," Ernie says. "I know from this experience that bringing back these ancient seeds also brings back the native pollinators that existed here with these plants. We are not creating something new. We are bringing back something that has existed for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. That's the connection of the people, the land, the plants, and the insects. We are restoring the connectedness that once existed between everything. This pollinator meadow is a very important part of that."
As we restore the "connectedness" that is such an important part of traditional life, we gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a tribe, with everyone working together.
"It's not a ceremony, so to speak," Ernie explains. "They learn here about the roles and responsibilities that they will have to have in order to live a good life. That's the bottom line that we try to teach: to live a good healthy life. We teach cooperation and respect. Here we teach the foundation of the web of life, that connectedness, that we are all part of a tribe here."
Ultimately, our meadow will help strengthen the circle, our web of life, so that we all thrive. Teaching our young people, transferring knowledge from one generation to the next, ensures they will be prepared for the future, to become stewards of the earth.
As Hope says, "Our best gift to the kids is to teach them how to see all plants as gifts." At Dream of Wild Health, we believe our young people are the seeds of the future.