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Native Abundance

Minnesota the bountiful: Diane Chilton readies Native Harvest jams for sale
Courtesy of Native Harvest

Native Harvest
33287 County Highway 34
Ogema, Minnesota
888.274.8318
www.nativeharvest.com

 

One of the goofier aspects of writing about food is that when you write about food, you almost never write about race, or poverty, or history--things that seem to take place outside of the edges of the dinner plate. Of course, the contradiction is that when you write about food, you write extensively about all that, except you do it without ever acknowledging any of it. For instance, you frequently write about capers, but you never write about cattails.

So, what are capers, anyway? They are, in fact, the bud of a plant that grows wild in Mediterranean Europe, and, sometime or other, in the mists of time, some extremely hungry native Europeans wandering through their lands got to tasting everything that grew, and figured out that if you took the buds of this plant and cured them in vinegar or brine, they became edible. History, race, and time intervened, and today you can probably find two thousand places to buy imported European capers between, say, the Mississippi River and Lake Minnetonka.

And what are cattails? You've seen them, they're cattails. But, sometime or other, in the mists of time, some extremely hungry native Americans wandering through their lands got to tasting everything that grew, and figured out that cattails can be eaten in a variety of ways--you can eat the leaf stalk like asparagus in the spring, you can eat the seed head like corn on the cob when it first gets going in early summer, and, in the fall, cattail roots can be milled into high-gluten flour, good for all kinds of things. It's one of the most generous food-producing plants in North America. History, time, and race intervened, and nowadays you can find, by my count, zero places selling cattail spears, heads, or flour between the Mississippi (from the Ojibwe language) and Lake Minnetonka (from the Dakota). We all know why: The people who lived on cattails were all relocated, or killed, to make way for the eaters of capers, tangerines, and shrimp.

So, what are you supposed to do about it? If you're like me, even reading the last sentence makes you squirm uncomfortably; this is exactly the kind of thing we don't talk about, or even think about, when we talk about food. Well, what if you did talk about it, or think about it, what could you do then? Until recently, there was no easy answer to that question. Now, there is a very easy answer: One thing you could do to taste a non-European version of our world is to shop at nativeharvest.com, the website and marketing arm of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which has been upgraded to a deluxe version in time for this holiday season. The WELRP (welrp.org) is a nonprofit founded by activist and sometime Green Party vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke. It provides community resources, economic development, jobs, language training, energy projects, and more to the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe, the people of the White Earth reservation. The organization also funds the purchase of various parcels of former reservation land that have passed into the hands of logging companies. So far, Native Harvest and WELRP have bought more than 1,700 acres of formerly logged land. They plant some of those acres with chokecherries and other native species--many of which are deliciously edible.

"Chokecherry bushes have a lot of enemies," Winona LaDuke, the visionary behind WELRP, told me when I spoke to her on the phone for this story. Enemies like logging operations, when bulldozers raze their patches; road-maintenance herbicide-sprayings; the decimation of wild honeybee and other pollinator populations by pesticides; and more. Meanwhile, chokecherry jam has a formidable enemy of its own: a likelihood of being forgotten. "The native people were picking chokecherries, but didn't have a market for them," explained LaDuke. Meanwhile, if anyone in the Twin Cities wanted to have chokecherry jam with their leftover turkey, which is a very good idea, they had almost no chance of doing so. This is exactly the gap that Native Harvest has stepped into.

First, with grant and starter money, it built a central meetinghouse with a commercial kitchen, packaging operations, computer infrastructure, a gift shop, and all of the things you would need to sell jam. The business started out mainly selling excellent maple syrup and wild rice. The syrup comes from their large stand of sustainably maintained maple trees, the "sugarbush," where all the syrup gathering is hand-done by human beings and horse wagons, which minimizes impact on the other native species, both plant and animal, that live in the forest. The wild rice, which Corby Kummer in the Atlantic Monthly called "the freshest and fullest flavored" he'd ever had, is hand-harvested, and "parched," or dried, with wood gathered from the sugarbush and other areas of the reservation. Once the syrup and wild rice operations were established, Native Harvest began to work as a small-business incubator. Here's how it works: In the case of group-made products, like the chokecherry, wild plum, raspberry, or strawberry jam, a call is put out at tribal headquarters announcing what is needed and what price Native Harvest will be paying. "This is very much a small community," Native Harvest production manager Todd Sisson explained to me when I interviewed him for this story. "The word spreads quite quickly. We have a toll-free number, so people without phone service can call us from a public phone at no cost, if they want to know what we're buying, and what we're paying."

 

(While berry-picking might not seem like a big economic engine to you, the last figures I saw, generated by the Northwest Area Foundation (nwaf.org), put per-capita income on the White Earth reservation at $9,700 and labor force participation at 57 percent, and identified more than a thousand households living below the poverty rate. The couple of hundred dollars generated by pressing the grandkids into a couple of weekends of gathering wild plums and such can make a huge difference. In addition to the cash, the tribe benefits by the simple time put in, passing on traditional ways. "How would a kid know anything about wild plums?" asks Sisson. "Wild plums grow in abundance, if you know how to find them: Part of gathering revolves around passing on traditions through example, passing on the old survival skills and the sense that our land here is rich, and able to provide for us--that it's not a negative place for a kid to be. A father teaches his son to hunt, but what else is passed on during that teaching? It's the same with gathering.")

Once the wild plums are collected at the main Native Harvest building, they're turned into jam (Native Harvest now employs about 30 full-time workers, and also hires seasonally when necessary), labeled, stored, and put up for sale on the website. If someone has an idea for another project, they can work with Native Harvest to first make a small batch and debut it in the gift shop. If they find through such test marketing that the product has legs, they'll work to expand production for a coming season. "We made our maple butter and maple candy but didn't sell it for a long time," remembers Winona LaDuke, "because I ate most of it. Seriously though, we have a really economically poor reservation, but we're very wealthy in terms of our food systems." Native Harvest is the way the White Earth Land Recovery Project hopes to activate that wealth.

The organization also helps artisans do business. If someone brings in a few crafts, Native Harvest will pay cash for them (it's not a what-if consignment situation) and try to sell them through the gift shop; if, over time, that person can boost production, the product will get moved onto the website. In this way, dozens of small cottage craft industries have been founded on the reservation: As of this writing, on the website you can buy beautifully simple handmade birch-bark baskets ($7.50 to $13); cute birch-bark birdhouses and Christmas ornaments; picture frames; beaded purses, hair sticks, and earrings; turtle-shell rattles; buffalo summer sausage; sweetgrass and chokecherry bath products; and some exquisite handmade quilts sewn by Ojibwe grandmothers, the supply of which, at $85, probably won't withstand the publicity of this article.

So, since we are in fact writing, at least peripherally, about food: How does it all taste? Fascinating. The chokecherry fruit spread tastes like cranberries with a deep wine and tobacco edge; the raspberry spread has an almost coffeelike acid and intensity; the wild plum spread has a gingery spice to it, even though it's made with nothing but wild plums, honey, and fruit pectin; the strawberry jam is dark and long cooked, making it more savory and less kidlike--I see it better paired with pheasant than peanut butter and Wonder bread. (Fruit spreads cost $4.50 for a four-ounce jar or $6.95 for an eight-ounce one.) A salad dressing made of strawberries, sumac, and shallots ($6.25) is the first of a new line of products that Native Harvest hopes to introduce using even more unique flavors of our northern forest. Sumac, that low, angular, treelike plant that you know as the first sign of fall when it turns bright red in late August, adds a sour note, the strawberries add a sweeter one. Some of the forest-food products that are now in development include a savory cedar jelly, which should be something like a mint jelly. Wild bergamot, wild ginseng, and wild hazelnuts are all in the offing too--LaDuke is even looking at developing natural body products and healing foods.

 

"Our land was once known as the medicine chest of the Ojibwes," says LaDuke. Recent history has obscured that, but Native Harvest looks to make it clear again. "What we're trying to do here is restore our traditional food system and strengthen and restore the biodiversity of our ecosystem, while at the same time creating a long-term sustainable economy," explains LaDuke. "It seems like the state of Minnesota and Governor Pawlenty have one vision of economic development [for native people]: casinos. But we have a different idea: We think this is the economy of the next millennium, one in which both the community and the ecosystem are supported, and support each other in turn."


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