Here’s How UP’s Debweyendan Indigenous Gardens Strengthen Health, Community and Food Sovereignty


This article is part of Health, a series on how Michigan communities are mobilizing to address health challenges. It is made possible by funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

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

Since the arrival of colonizers in the Americas, indigenous peoples have been largely separated from their nourishing indigenous foods. In their place, diets high in white flour, sugar and unhealthy fats have led to outbreaks of diet-related illnesses. According to Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention, more Native Americans are living with diabetes than any other American racial group. Having food sovereignty (the ability to control the production and distribution of the food that one consumes) and having a decolonized diet are key to reversing these numbers – and the DIGs are helping.
A DIGs workshop on how plants communicate their needs to us.
“Debweyendan means ‘believe it’ [in Ojibwa]”Says Karena Schmidt, ecologist in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resources Department (KBIC).” All of these different and wonderful plants are here to serve us and help us honor our food sovereignty. By believing in it, we reach out, grow food, and people participate. “

With the purchase of a former 10-acre livestock farm, DIGs was born in 2013. The project got off to a rocky start, as the former farm owner removed and sold the first six inches of topsoil beforehand. that DIGs does not take possession of the land. But today, the area has many community gardens, an orchard, beehives, a wildlife habitat area and wooded areas. Invasive species have been removed and replaced with original native medicinal plants like sacred asemma (tobacco), ginger, Solomon’s seal, lemon balm, columbine and ginseng.
A DIGs workshop on asemma, or tobacco.
“Some of our plant technicians are looking for [invasive] Japanese barberry, dig it up, and in its place, they plant medicinal plants requested by the KBIC cultural council, ”explains Valoree Gagnon, director of indigenous community partnerships at MTU. “… In the place where the barberry used to be, a real dynamic system ensures food sovereignty and access to medicines in a clean environment.

To amend the soil, the DIG called on the Village of L’Anse to bring bags of leaves collected in the fall from the gardens and bury them in the ground. Other wastes composted on site have also contributed to the growth of healthier living soil where food plants can now thrive.

“An important part of the entire site is the composting system,” says Gagnon. “It’s simple. People use it. They bring in waste and it produces very high quality soil.”

“Our soils are now a little more productive. We have quite a few loyal and loyal gardeners and their plots are producing wonderfully,” adds Schmidt. “There is an incredible teaching dynamic taking 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.

“It all really helps build the soil,” she says. “This kind of shared knowledge has been invaluable.”

“When you think of motivation, a lot of people relearn. To do this, we need neighboring gardeners, ”adds Gagnon. “There is so much to share when you go to water, weed or plant. People share with each other what works well, what doesn’t, diagnosing what could go wrong. People help each other.”

More and more gardens keep growing

While some of DIG’s 20 community garden plots were empty during the early years of the project, 17 plots had been added by the 2021 growing season to accommodate a growing waiting list of future gardeners. Schmidt grows starter food plants for gardens in the DIGs greenhouse.

“A lot of people prefer not to come to the community garden. I grow additional plants in our greenhouse – tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, all kinds of plants,” says Schmidt. “Our gardeners who register [for a plot] have the first dibs. Then, all unsold plants are made available to the larger community. “
A DIGs workshop on mushrooms.
In addition to the individual garden plots, DIGs also offers a three sister garden, berry fields, three hoop houses and additional raised beds, including flower beds cultivating traditional medicines, asemma and potatoes.

“All of these different types of food and medicine, and food as medicine, just add to the vibrancy of the site,” said Gagnon.

In the DIGs Garden for Heart, a wildlife-friendly habitat garden, volunteers come together to tend the garden, learn how to grow fruit trees and medicinal plants, and return home with excess fresh produce.

“We had student volunteers from [MTU] Research experience for undergraduates program that came from across the country, even Hawaii, ”says Gagnon. “It sparks a different kind of interest. They return home and learn about the indigenous and tribal nations in which they are located and other service options available. They don’t just volunteer. They are learning new things. “

Workshops provide opportunities for learning and relearning

Starting in May 2021 and continuing throughout this year’s growing season, DIG workshops have covered a wide variety of topics, from naanaagadawendam, or knowledge your garden has shared with you, to preparing for the salsa at the discretion of the manidoonsag (which means “little spirits” or insects, in Ojibway).

“I hold insects very highly. Without insects, there would be no food, or only wind-pollinated food,” Schmidt says. “… Now, every time I see insects, I reverence for them, these little spirits.”

The DIGs teaching center hosts the workshops, offering electricity, water, toilets, sinks, a large refrigerator and plenty of stainless steel counters. Currently under construction, the DIGs fish processing plant will allow ServSafe tribal fishermen certified to sell their catch commercially.

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

DIG is not only about growing healthy food and building community bonds, but also about preserving tribal culture and taking care of the environment. What began as a project that provided utilities, supplies, equipment, and on-site gardening workshops now successfully builds food sovereignty, strengthens well-being and cultural identity, and maintains valuable knowledge that will benefit to future generations of tribal and non-tribal peoples.
DIG workshops are steeped in cultural traditions.
“This garden has been the heart and soul of my life,” says Schmidt. “The people I have met, the plants I have come to know better, the insects I honor, this has become my lifeblood. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of this. garden and seeing other people being there and thriving and captivating the spirit and the enthusiasm. “

Gagnon says that DIGs are all about reconnecting with plants, soil, community, and – most importantly – a 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 writer Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness and the arts. She is the editor-in-chief of development news for Fast growing medium and L’Arbre Amigos chairs, Wyoming City Tree Commission. His greatest achievement is his five incredible adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or

Photos courtesy of the KBIC Natural Resources Department.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.