2019 Indigenous Farming Conference Recap

The annual Great Lakes Indigenous Farming Conference, sponsored by the White Earth Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation was a blast, again!

Here is a recap of some of what I saw and did at the conference.

The seed exchanges are always fantastic at these events (check out the fava bean seed art that one participant made):

And our favorite potato expert, the University of Wisconsin’s Ruth Genger of the Organic Potato Project, brought some of the potatoes she has been growing from seed. She roasted them, and offered a potato tasting.
Since they are all grown from seed, and relatively recently, they don’t have names — the numbers are’t just about creating a blind taste-testing situation. There were several crowd favorites, including this one:

Another highlight was Kevin Finney‘s hominy-making workshop.
(Disclaimer: I’ve never made hominy by myself from start to finish, so this is not a how-to guide, but I’ll describe what I experienced in the workshop.)

We started outside, stirring a pot of corn, water, and wood ash for about an hour — but it was too cold outside for my camera to function. During this time, Kevin periodically checked on the kernels to see how loose their skins were becoming, and whether the germ was separating from the rest of the kernel. Once they reached this stage, we brought the giant pot inside to strain the mixture.

Here’s a close-up of the hominy-and-ash mixture. This brew is surprisingly caustic – when you reach a hand in, you can feel your skin becoming slippery in the same way it does when you touch bleach. This is the beginning stages of it dissolving! Therefore, this strong brew is more than enough to separate the skins and germ of corn seeds from the kernel.

The next step was washing the kernels in water, using this ash basket as a strainer:

We washed it until it was no longer slippery to the touch. From what Kevin said, it will have to be boiled several more times to remove the remaining lye before it is edible. Hominy is a lot more work than I thought, but it’s delicious enough to be worth it!

At another workshop, Sioux Chef Sean Sherman worked with the youth attendees, showing them how to make a snack of puffed wild rice, berries, and maple syrup, which they shared with the rest of us:

And in another workshop, two Indigenous carrot farmers from Canada, one Métis and one Secwepemec, discussed their work. This picture illustrates what they were saying about saving carrots to overwinter, for use in the spring. This is a cross-section of 2 carrots. The one on the left has its growth tip cut into (on the top), but the one on the right is healthy and ideal to save.

Some Bear Island Flint Corn, an Anishinaabe heirloom, in Kevin Finney’s birch basket. I was surprised how much this corn species resembles Mandan Bride Corn. (Underneath is a Haudenosaunee white flower corn he was selling.)

And here’s a pic from the seed exchange! This person had fava beans and several other interesting and unusual seeds. I wasn’t taking many pictures, because I was busy giving seeds away.

One of my favorite part of these Seed Exchanges is when they lead to the rematriation of indigenous seeds to their original owners. I was honored to be able to share some Mandan Bride Corn seeds with Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara) tribal member and ND House of Representatives member Ruth Buffalo.

I also had a chance, during the seed exchange, to share White Buffalo Calf Woman tobacco seeds, which originated on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, with the Tribal Chairwoman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, another of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ bands. It’s always an honor to be able to facilitate getting rare and special seeds into the hands of people whose nations have a long cultural and spiritual relationship with these plants.

Here, Kevin Finney demonstrates the use of a Haudenosaunee corn-planting tool:

Chi-miigwech, phidámayaye, and many thanks to everyone who made this year’s conference so great — I hope to see you again next year!

Wókpaŋpi kiŋ ǧú: Toasting cornmeal

Winter projects, a continuation of the series: Toasting the wókpaŋpi (cornmeal) I ground from Standing-Rock-grown indigenous flour corn. This was one of many steps from field to table — I was in the process of making it into cornmeal wasná, a great traditional food.

Cooking it over a medium flame on a cast iron pan produces good results, but don’t turn your back on it for more than a few seconds, or it could burn.

Čhaŋšáša Waȟpékȟalyapi

Today, I visited an Anishinaabe friend in White Earth territory (MN) who, awhile back, taught me about the use of the red outer bark of Čhaŋšáša (Cornus sericea, a.k.a. Red Osier Dogwood or red willow [sic]) as a tea for energy. According to my friend, they drink this tea during the labor-intensive sugarbush (maple syrup) season that immediately follows čhaŋšáša-harvesting season.

I’ve been saving the red bark since I learned about this, but I never got around to making the tea — sometimes it’s best to exercise a little extra caution around stimulants. But now, visiting this friend again, I tried the tea for the first time.

It was interesting to see the red bark lose its color as it steeped. The tea turned the color you can see in the pics.

You don’t need much of the outer bark to make a strong tea, and this is an infusion (not a decoction). It has a good, clean taste.

Winter Foods: Wagmú na Waȟčázi

Sitting on the table in the library at Sitting Bull College.

Months after Tiffany Baker won the Halloween pumpkin carving contest with her design on this pumpkin, it’s in good shape, and still edible. No special preservation needed: it’s just sitting on the table.

Of course, sunflower seeds last a really long time, too.

Saving these two traditional foods is a good way to have fresh, local food throughout the winter.

Čhaŋšáša in Winter

I realized I’ve never posted a good picture of what this shrub looks like in the winter. I guess I’m usually too busy scrambling over snowbanks to get it, and trying to keep warm. I don’t usually pull out my phone, or take off my glove to memorialize the occasion.

Thankfully, Sitting Bull College has planted a few shrubs by the dorms. The landscaped setting provides a good backdrop for this pic.

Waȟčázi sú kiŋ / Sunflower seed

Waníyetu wóečhuŋ/ winter projects.

This is another entry in my series of winter projects.

Wahčázi sú kiŋ / the seeds of the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) are one of my favorite Indigenous North American traditional foods that many people don’t realize originate in the Americas. Then and now, they’re an important source of food and oil. The ones we use for those 2 things have been bred by Indigenous farmers to have much bigger seeds than their wild cousins.

While it’s possible to get food/oil from wild sunflowers, that is an extremely labor-intense process that probably consumes more calories than it produces. (Yes, I’ve tried it, but that’s another story for another time — the cliffs notes version is that that they are very tiny, I’d be lucky to get about a tablespoon of useable seeds for each hour spent picking through seedheads and sunflower detritus, and I would not recommend this except in extreme survival circumstances.)

Back to this particular waníyetu wóečhuŋ: The sunflower seed heads from my garden had been carefully hung on the walls in a spot where mice could not climb to find and eat them (they are especially attracted to these seeds). 

 

Over the past few months of winter, the sunflower seedheads had finally dried out enough to process and bag, to save for spring planting and sharing. While this could have been a fall task, fall is a pretty busy time in the lives of people who work with plants and seeds — and plus, I learned my lesson years ago by making the mistake of putting seeds into storage bags when they aren’t fully dry yet (warning: nasty mold).

Mistakes made this time around:
-Going too fast. (I got splinters — there are some pretty sharp parts in the seedheads!)
-Not sorting carefully enough, and saving nonviable seeds. (If you pay attention, you’ll notice that fertile seeds — the ones that will produce viable plants — are thicker, and won’t bend).
-Not labeling my sunflowers in the garden. (Major seed saver mistake. While I could describe the sunflowers physically, I didn’t save the info…luckily, I was only growing these for the pollinators, and I don’t have any rare varieties!)
-Underestimating the time this task would take. (This process takes a LONG time. And with the mice circling hungrily, I had to get it done and stored. I had to put away a number of still-unprocessed seedheads…hopefully I’ll be able to use them in a seed-saving class I’m teaching soon.) 

 

Wagméza kačháŋ / Winnowing corn

Waníyetu wóečhuŋ / winter projects.

When working with traditional foods and plants, especially in a climate like Standing Rock’s where we have at least 5 months of winter, the work we do is highly seasonal.

Some people would assume this means that there is nothing plant-related to do for 5 months out of the year. Ask the people of our grandparents’ generation, though, and they will tell you a different story: winter is not an idle time. It is project time and work time.So, this is the first in a series of posts where I will discuss some of the different waníyetu wóečhuŋ (winter projects) that I am doing.

There are certain types of work that can only be done this time of year (plants that can be harvested or are ready for harvesting at this time), others where the time of year creates perfect circumstances for this work (indoor heat creating very dry condition), and still other tasks that can be done any time, but are better done in this season with a more relaxed pace. 

Corn winnowing falls into the second category I mentioned.  The dry indoor heating in the early part of the winter finally allows corn (which stores well hung up in braids) to dry out enough to be processed for storage or consumption.

A key step here is shelling the kernels from the ears. Of course, this is messy work, and bits of corncob and dust and cornsilk wind up in the basket alongside the good corn kernels. So, before it’s ready to be ground into flour or otherwise processed, the grain needs to be separated from the chaff. So, it’s time for some winnowing!

 

 

Final product:

Note: This is all local corn (grown in Fort Yates and Porcupine, ND) by residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. While I grew some of it, it’s not all my corn; some friends were kind enough to share their harvest with me. The nature of Fort Yates, where many people are growing different corn varieties in close proximity, leads to some interesting crosses and makes preserving traditional varieties impossible without use of a corn glove (or “corn condom.”) While I wouldn’t save it for seed, it’s good for eating. The corn pictured here includes some (genetically unadulterated) Dakota Black popcorn, as well as some intriguingly-shaped, genetically mixed ears that appear to have both Glass Gem and Mandan Bride parentage.

Napé oílekiyapi / Dogbane / Apocynum cannabinum

Waníyetu wóečhuŋ/ winter projects, latest installment:


My cousin and I spent Christmas (not our religion, but a day off from work) making some Dogbane cordage. It creates a strong string or rope, and is fun to make. Here, you can see all 3 stages, from the dry stalks to the broken-down fibers, to the final cordage.


The Lakota name for this plant, Napé Oílekiyapi, talks about fire in the hands. The name refers to the seeds, which go up in little flaming puffs and explode like tiny firecrackers if you light them with a lighter. This aspect, plus the calming nature of making cordage, makes the plant a good choice when teaching distractible kids about botany.

On a botanical note, while this plant does have seeds (hence the name), it mostly propagates through rhizome.

Also, the leaves are poisonous — let this plant dry out before you work with it.

Wagmú waȟčá waŋ

Looking back, posting a pic from September: A late-season squash blossom.

I had bought some Mexico-grown kabocha squash in early spring and thrown the seeds out onto the compost pile. A few of them grew into squash vines, but the compost pile doesn’t get great sun, so I transplanted them into the garden.

Here is a flower, with a bee pollinating it:

And with no bee:
While a flower so late in the season will not have time to grow into a full squash before the first frost, I did enjoy some still-green, disc-shaped fruits that were slightly smaller than a basketball by the end of the season. I chopped these up to use like summer squash (ie, similar to zucchini) and freeze for the winter.

Another alternative, for late-season squash blossoms, is to dip them in a cornmeal batter or stuff them and then fry them. I didn’t get around to that this year, but I will take some pictures the next time I do!

Winter food resources: Crabapple

Crabapple branch. Covered in frost, but still perfectly edible.

Pic taken in Bismarck; there are more food resources than you might think (for people and animals) out there in the winter, even in cities.

I have not researched this myself, but I heard from Prof. Linda Black Elk that certain kinds of crabapples are native to North America. I’m not sure if this is one of them. Fun fact, though: apples and crabapples are close relatives of uŋžíŋžiŋtka (roses, both wild and domestic).