The beautifully lyric name of Dream of Wild Health (DWH) brings to mind a dream anyone might have—to cure all of a body’s ills with the perfect diet, with pure, unadulterated foods. There is certainly no shortage of diets these days that promise just that. However Dream of Wild Health (DWH) has less to do with dietary dreams and more to do with an organization of hard working people offering smart and compassionate solutions devoted to improving health, nutrition and well being in Native communities. DWH is a place where youth and families can learn and practice traditional Native foodways.
Diane Wilson, DWH executive director, speaking Monday evening at the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, explained that before contact with Europeans, indigenous people of this region possessed sophisticated knowledge about the seasons, cycles and management of the land. As settlers moved in and plowed the prairie to establish small farms, the disruption to indigenous “food ways,” inextricably part of the web of landscape, community, family and religion, resulted in profound, pervasive and dispiriting loss.
Food traditions such as hunting wild game, gathering, growing, cooking and preserving nutritionally dense food native to the area, were replaced with “high fat, high starch commodity food” and a sedentary lifestyle. Preventable diseases, particularly diabetes, rose to epidemic rates in Native communities.
Wilson went on to describe how the disruption continues with the rise of modern industrial agriculture and its emphasis on monoculture. These singular crops are more vulnerable to disease and pests which leads to pesticide and herbicide use which depletes the soil and pollutes the water. Monsanto, Wilson says, has created and dominates a worldwide commercial system for control of seeds, which she describes as a sort of “genetic manifest destiny.” She added, “The food that we eat is tied to the environmental issues we face. Understanding the place where we live, in balance and harmony, is essential to our survival.”
To bring light to this dark place is what DWH is about. Wilson says that recovering knowledge about traditional foodways is essential to addressing the challenges ahead and for healing from historical trauma. Wilson says that the process of healing begins with acknowledging what was taken away. She quoted Lower Sioux Historian David Larsen, “If you know what was taken away, then you can reclaim it.” Wilson states, “Food has always been at the center of our culture.”
Wilson says the vision of DWH is to understand the essence and values of traditional food systems. That means learning and tending to traditional knowledge about growing and gathering indigenous plants, cooking, eating and working together as a way to recover the values these activities embody. The farm provides a place for all of this to happen. Wilson, who is Dakota, brings her spiritual perspective to the mission, “We are all related. We Native people have a responsibility to be a good relative to everyone on this earth. We are co-creating a healthy world.”
Saving seeds is an important part of the organization’s work. Thanks to Cora Baker, a Potawatomi elder and Keeper of the Seeds who entrusted her collection of seeds to DWH, indigenous varieties of corn, beans, and squash, sunflower, indigenous tobacco, and medicinal plants are carefully preserved. More than 300 different varieties of seeds are in the DWH collection. The University of Minnesota assists annually in “growing out” the seeds to keep them viable. Wilson noted that their plants must be pollinated by hand to protect them from wind born contamination from surrounding fields.
On of the program’s founders , Sally Auger, was in the audience on Monday. She along with John Eichhorn started Peta Wakan Tipi a transitional housing program for people in treatment. In response to client requests for a way to connect with the earth and traditional foods, the Dream of Wild Health program was started in 1998. What began as a half acre site in Farmington is today a 10-acre organic farm in Hugo, Minnesota.
DWH is now focused on seed saving, an organic farm and programming for youth and families. Auger said that starting the classes for youth was a way “to get kids out of the city and off concrete” and to provide access to good food. The Garden Warriors Apprenticeship program offers a way for teens like Jalen Morrison of St. Paul and Trinity Wagner to feel successful. They not only plant seeds and pull weeds but they also run the market business, bringing the harvest to urban communities. Morrison says of the experience, “It has helped me grow as a person.”
The talk about Dream of Wild Health was hosted by Healing Minnesota Stories an initiative of the Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN) and is co-sponsored by the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches. These dialogues are a follow-up to the 2014 Fall SPIN Interfaith Dialogue Series on the Doctrine of Discovery. This series will showcase some of the healing work undertaken by Native leaders, and create an opportunity for more learning, dialogue, and relationship building.