Here's how the UP's Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens build health, community, and food sovereignty

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Over a decade ago, folks at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), Michigan Technological University (MTU), and Western UP Planning and Development Region envisioned a space for gardens, gatherings, and growing community that celebrated and preserved the knowledge and cultural identity of tribal people living in and around the village of L’Anse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Through their creation of Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens (DIGs), they ended up seeking an even greater goal: food sovereignty.

Since colonizers came to the Americas, Indigenous people have been largely separated from their nourishing native foods. In their place, diets high in white flour, sugar, and unhealthy fats have brought epidemics of diet-related disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Native Americans live with diabetes than any other U.S. racial group. Having food sovereignty (the ability to control production and distribution of the food one consumes) and eating a decolonized diet are key to turning those numbers around — and DIGs is making it happen.
A DIGs workshop on how plants communicate their needs to us."Debweyendan means ‘believe in it’ [in Ojibwa]," says Karena Schmidt, ecologist with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) Natural Resources Department. "All these different, wonderful plants are here serving us and helping us honor our food sovereignty. Believing in it, we are reaching out, growing food, and people are participating."

With the purchase of a 10-acre former livestock farm, DIGs was born in 2013. The project got off to a rocky start, as the farm's former owner removed and sold the top six inches of topsoil before DIGs took possession of the land. But today the acreage boasts bountiful community gardens, an orchard, beehives, a wildlife habitat area, and wooded areas. Invasive species have been removed and replaced with original, native medicine plants like sacred asemma (tobacco), ginger, Solomon’s seal, bee balm, columbine, and ginseng.
A DIGs workshop on asemma, or tobacco."Some of our plant techs seek out the [invasive] Japanese barberry, dig it out, and in its place, they are planting medicine plants requested by the KBIC cultural council," says Valoree Gagnon, director of MTU's Indigenous Community Partnerships. " … In the place of where the barberry was, a real dynamic system is providing food sovereignty and access to medicine in a clean environment."

To amend the soil, DIGs enlisted the Village of L’Anse to bring bags of leaves collected in the fall to the gardens and till them into soil. Other waste composted on site has also helped grow healthier living soil where food plants can now thrive.

"An important component of the whole site is the composting system," Gagnon says. "It’s simple. People do use it. They bring waste and it is producing really high-quality soil."

"Our soils are now quite a bit more productive. We have quite a few loyal, repeat gardeners and their plots produce wonderfully," adds Schmidt. "An incredible teaching dynamic takes place with each of us learning what works, what we can try in the future."

For example, this year Schmidt learned to leave basil and tomato plants on the ground after harvesting them. 

"All of that really helps to build the soil," she says. "That kind of shared knowledge has been valuable."

"When we think about motivation, a lot of people are relearning. In order to do that, you need gardening neighbors," Gagnon adds. "There is so much to share when you go to water, weed, or plant. People are sharing with each other what works well, what doesn’t, diagnosing what might be going wrong. People are helping each other out."

More gardens keep growing

While some of DIGs' 20 community garden plots stood empty during the project's early years, 17 plots had been added by the 2021 growing season to accommodate an ever-longer waiting list of would-be food gardeners. Schmidt grows starter food plants for the gardens in the DIGs greenhouse.

"A lot of people would rather not come to the community garden. I grow extra plants in our greenhouse — tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, all manner of plants," Schmidt says. "Our gardeners who sign up [for a plot] have first dibs. Then, any plants that are unsold are made available to the greater community."
A DIGs workshop on mushrooms. In addition to individual garden plots, DIGs also offers a three-sisters garden, berry fields, three hoop houses, and additional raised garden beds including beds growing traditional medicines, asemma, and potatoes.

"All of those different kinds of foods and medicine, and food as medicine, are just contributing to how dynamic the site is," Gagnon says.

In the DIGs Garden for Heart, a wildlife-friendly habitat garden, volunteers gather to tend the garden, learn how to nurture fruit trees and medicinal plants, and go home with fresh surplus produce.

"We had student volunteers from the [MTU] Research Experience for Undergraduates program who were from all across the country, even Hawaii," Gagnon says. "This sparks a different kind of interest. They go back home and learn about the Indigenous and tribal nations where they are and what other service opportunities are available. They are not just volunteering. They are learning new things."

Workshops present opportunities for learning and relearning

​Beginning in May 2021 and continuing through this year's growing season, DIGs workshops have covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from naanaagadawendam, or knowledge your garden shared with you, to making salsa to appreciating manidoonsag (meaning "little spirits," or insects, in Ojibwa).

"I hold the insects in very high regard. Without the insects, there would be no food, or only wind-pollinated food," Schmidt says. "... Now, whenever I see insects, I have reverence for them, these little spirits."

The DIGs teaching center accommodates the workshops, offering electricity, water, restrooms, sinks, a large refrigerator, and ample stainless-steel counters. Currently under construction, the DIGs fish processing facility will enable ServSafe certified tribal fishers to sell their catch commercially.

"Commercial [tribal] fishermen can now go out and fish and offer the fish to restaurants and other places … and receive payment, rather than only giving it to family," Schmidt says.

DIGs is not only about growing healthy food and creating community connections, but about preserving tribal culture and caring for the environment. What began as a project that provided on-site garden utilities, supplies, equipment, and workshops is now successfully building food sovereignty, strengthening wellbeing and cultural identity, and sustaining valuable knowledge that will benefit future generations of both tribal and non-tribal peoples.
DIGs' workshops are infused with cultural traditions. "This garden has been the heart and soul of my life," Schmidt says. "The people I have met, the plants I have gotten to know better, the insects I honor, this has become my lifeblood. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this garden and see other people being there and thriving and catching spirit and enthusiasm."

Gagnon says DIGs is about reconnecting to plants, soil, community, and – most importantly – sense of self.

"There are a lot of issues in our society today that have to do with a lack of connection," she says. "That’s another really important part of this community: being human, being who we are."

A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.

Photos courtesy of KBIC Natural Resources Department.