Turtle Island Stories: The Sustainable Agriculture Movement

As a response to our November 2021 theme of Ecolution, Maija Hecht submitted this story she wrote this year as an intern with Harvest Nation. We retained her non-journalistic styling (first-person names and a few other minor details) to retain the integrity of her essay.

Nikki Pieratos didn’t always believe she deserved to eat fresh, healthy foods — much less foods specific to her culture. As one of four founding women of Harvest Nation, an environmentally sustainable aeroponic farm startup in Tower, Minnesota, she now confronts this thought daily as a part of her work. As Harvest Nation’s Treasurer, and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, she knows that she is not alone in her struggle to leave behind her guilt.

For many like her, the aversion to spending money on fresh foods comes down to a few things: logistics, knowledge, and finances. “Sometimes I feel I don’t deserve to spend my money on good food, it feels like an indulgence. I can only speak for myself but I know that I have heard our family and community echo this,” Nikki said while looking around the circle of tents at her friends and relatives.

Our conversation took place late one morning in June during the Lake Vermilion Traditional Pow Wow, less than a mile away from her family home where her mother and sister live and work on Harvest Nation. Nikki and her two children had traveled north from Minneapolis with her friend, Marisa Miakonda Cummings, for the gathering. While we talked her kids ran in the grass, following older ones to join their games.

“What helps,” Nikki continued, “is knowing that when we talk about decolonization and coming back to wellness, food is wellness. Health is wealth — all of these little buzz phrases — they are true. This is not a luxury. We are conditioning ourselves back to knowing that this is what it is supposed to be.”

Harvest Nation was born out of that desire to return to ‘what it’s supposed to be.’ The farm will be a local supplier of fresh, culturally specific and staple foods year round even through the region’s frigid winters. The farm’s aeroponic system is a groundbreaking design created by Nikki’s mother and business partner, Denise Pieratos, with multifaceted goals. The farm will surpass sustainability standards by cutting water use by 90 percent, and nutrient use by 75 percent, compared to standard large-scale soil farming. They plan to offer organically certified, heirloom produce to the Bois Forte Reservation and Iron Range region, a recognized food desert by the Center for Disease Control.

By doing this work, Harvest Nation assumes a receiving role within the large movement known as Rematriation, the returning of seeds to their mother land to be reunited with the earth and its people.

As discussed in a talk given by Micmac & Mohawk descendent Dr. Elizabeth Hoover for the Harvard Design School, this definition intentionally side-steps ‘repatriation,’ the more commonly used term, in favor of honoring the way that seeds have been traditionally kept and cared for by women. Matrilineal seed-keeping has even been likened to the female reproductive process because of its cyclical, interconnected nature.

Harvest Nation’s plan to grow produce using heirloom seeds is more than an offering of fresh produce to their community. It is a gesture to reconnect Bois Forte Band members with their collective history through the broad network of Turtle Island heirlooms, while also introducing speciality items from other geographies. During a conversation with LeAnn Littlewolf, a friend to Harvest Nation and community leader in the Minnesotan Food Sovereignty movement, we discussed the shift back from viewing seeds as monetized commodities to the living, history-holding beings they are.

“Those seeds are my relatives and they should not be incarcerated, they should be growing! They should be receiving ceremony with us.”

Marisa Cummings and baby at the Bois Forte Pow Wow. Photo by Maija Hecht

During the early years of colonization in what is now known as North America, crop destruction was a popular tactic adopted by colonizers to weaken Indigenous peoples. After all, where there is an abundance of good food, there is health — and along with good health comes strength.

Forced migration contributed to food-system destruction by leaving tribes displaced without the seeds and environment that had previously sustained them, resulting in a gradual loss of community knowledge. Some seeds were haphazardly collected by institutions such as universities and museums. Of those collectors, some did so in the name of research and preservation, but not always, said LeAnn Littlewolf.

“When we go [to reclaim our seeds], it is not the way they approached it. We go saying ‘we need to have a ceremony,’ because we are reuniting. This is a powerful moment for us — and for universities to try and grasp that? Their intent was to try and save these seeds, which they have done, but their approach has been harmful.

“It is a relationship,” she told us. “When I was talking about those seeds, I heard someone say ‘those are our relatives.’ Now they are in storage, they are locked up. It is like our seeds are incarcerated. Those seeds are my relatives and they should not be incarcerated, they should be growing! They should be receiving ceremony with us.”

As the call for rematriation gains traction, seeds are slowly being returned home. A growing movement of Indigenous-led seed-banks have cropped up as well, such as the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, who return seeds each year to tribes across the continent. By returning the seeds home, parts of history are being returned as well. Whether it be a type of squash, fruit, or — in the case of Dr. Elizabeth Hoover’s story — corn, when you hold those seeds “you are holding the decisions made by every generation of seed-keepers that came before you. What makes that corn long or short, and a particular color or flavor, is a decision made by prior seed-keepers.”

Those decisions may have been to breed a crop more resilient against harsh winters, or yield sweeter fruit — it is all knowledge slowly amassed through generations of adjusting with the land to learn from its tribulations and easements.

After waves of crop destruction, displacement, and widespread violence, the Indian Boarding School Policy, adopted in the late 1800’s, began a long and dark period of further cultural destruction against Indigenous people. Children were forcibly removed from their families to attend boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking Native languages, practicing traditional ceremonies, or wearing cultural clothing. Many families yielded to assimilation to escape the harsh consequences, and those years of disconnect resulted in a devastating loss of community, including traditions involving food.

The ground where the Lake Vermilion Boarding School once stood now holds a beautiful community center, and a Head Start building with facilities for children, a medical center, and nutrition center. The sidewalk that once ran between the buildings is half-hidden by long grass and ends in an empty field. There is a playground, basketball court, and Pow Wow grounds. These Pow Wow grounds are where I sat with Nikki Pieratos and her friend, Marisa, in late June. While people gathered to eat food, visit, and dance, we sat down in a shaded spot to talk about the resurgence of traditional foods within Bois Forte & beyond.

“It has been lost, and even as you are recording at this Pow Wow, I know later we will be having fry bread tacos and, while it is tasty, that is not traditional food,” said Nikki. “We are seeing a resurgence though. In other communities, they are doing impact tracking where they look not just at economic impact or the usual metrics, but at how a project impacts the surrounding ecology: if a project supports and reinforces connections to homelands; if it reintroduces traditional plants, foods, medicines back to the community.

“Those are the ways we are looking at impact now — because we Indigenous people have a very different idea of what a performative economy means. It is not just the margins or the ROI, squeezing blood out of a turnip, it is ‘what is the effect on wellbeing?’”

The effect on wellbeing is not always a measurable metric. It may be a feeling of recognition in your body, an improved sense of health within a family or a community, or more obvious and ‘quantifiable’ change. Harvest Nation was founded on the Pieratos family’s belief that food is medicine as well as sustenance, and that it should be our first-line defense in preventing and curing illnesses.

“I could go on and on about our foods as medicine,” said Marisa Miakonda Cummings, CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) in Minneapolis, MN. “I am Buffalo Clan and we represent the buffalo in many ways. We are the physical and spiritual sustenance for the people. We offer ourselves to the people for life to continue forward into the future. All of our plant-based foods are medicinal and seasonal. When we pick them, we talk to them and tell them what we need. We offer tobacco as our gift to them for their gift to us. We form a relationship with the plant and harvest in a way that allows the plant to also live and carry life forward.”

The following quotes took place later, over email, but during our conversation at the Pow Wow I asked about her work with the MIWRC, and how she sees women as central to the fight for fair food. Marisa held Nikki’s two-year-old daughter, Dani, on her lap while we talked.

“When I was growing up, my father would always tell me that our women would lead the future. We literally carry seeds of life from birth. We help our sisters and female relatives bring life into the world. We are connected to the moon and water and plants accordingly in their cycles, just as we have a cycle. So, it only makes sense that seed keeping was and is a woman-centered practice.”

Most of the planting, Marisa said, is done communally. This includes harvesting, processing, and seed keeping — among several generations of women working collectively to meet needs as the seasons change. It is a way for everyone to work together for the collective rather than an individual practice. “My daughters learn alongside me by doing. We also discuss these concepts and provide teachings as we go.”

From the ashes, new seeds will grow.

Photo by Maija Hecht

Back in Duluth, LeAnn Littlewolf told us about a time when she reaped the benefits of the community effort to reconnect with traditional foods — when her body recognized a food she had never tasted before.

“I went to the Native American Nutrition Conference and they fed us a meal, gave a prayer and told us where each food came from. Some of those foods, when I ate it, I felt my body recognize that food, like a sensing. Like my DNA knew that food. I myself had never tasted that food before, but something in here knows and recognizes it. Do you know what I am saying? It brought tears to my eyes, and not sad tears. The first time I took a bite of food with ash in it, I thought ‘what is that?’ Everything in my whole body came alive, and I thought that is ash. That was a powerful moment for me. I couldn’t wait to call my dad. I called my dad and said: ‘Do you know what I just ate? I am going to make you something with it.’”

He said, “What is it?”

“It is ash,” I told him.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You take the wood and burn it, and you put some of the ash in the batter,” I said.

“I have never heard of that,” he answered.

“I know, neither have I, but when you taste it, I guarantee you are going to know it.”

“Now we put ash in our food, and we do ceremony with it.”

LeAnn continued: “My son and I cooked with ash together. We gathered the wood, burnt the wood, and then we had some blue corn meal to make these little biscuits. We stood there for about an hour taking turns stirring — you have to cook it slowly. While we did it, we kept telling stories. My arm would get tired and I would pass it to him. The whole time we are standing over this pot for about an hour, telling stories and visiting. That is something we will never forget. Me and him, we will never forget it.

“We put our spirit dish out, and we sat and ate together. It didn’t turn out super great, you know — it wasn’t beautiful, it was simple, and it was the practice of our traditions.”

As Harvest Nation moves forward, this is what they take with them. The small triumphs, the simple ones that slowly, lesson by lesson, will lead to a larger return to community health.

This begins with small changes within families. After a long day of dancing, back at the Pieratos household, Nikki sat down at the kitchen table for a moment of rest. Her young daughter was falling asleep in a room down the hall, but her oldest, only four, was still rambunctious with a late-night buzz, begging for a strawberry popsicle. With everyone slowly retiring to their rooms for the night, Nikki was growing strained to find a way to quiet him down without adding a sugar rush to his energy. Eventually, though, she reached into the freezer, pulled out a frozen pink popsicle, and handed it to her son, who looked up at her with sleepy-eyed gratitude.

“Miigwech,” he said.

Nikki stared at him for a moment, surprised. And then we both laughed. “That was cute,” she said to herself, smiling at him.

I did not ask whether that was the first time he had used the Ojibwe word for ‘thank-you’ — her reaction was enough. Whether it had been the first or fifth time, or even just the way he had said it, this moment held the small space of one of those steps forward. He was among the first of a new generation that may still endure hardship, but who, with continued work, never have to endure the removal of language. He will step forward into a world where the understanding between nutrition and our health does not need to be re-learned anymore — it becomes just another part of growing up.

“So, we are starting this business,” said Nikki. “It is more of a community development project. We are being very mindful of food and traditional systems. This business will be one part of reintroducing these things back in, [opening] up so many opportunities for us to learn about traditions and where we come from. Things that are not completely lost — we don’t want them to be.”


LeAnn Littlewolf (she/her), Anishinaabe/Maa’iingan doodem, Gaa-zagaskwaajimekaag Tribal Nation, is a Senior Program Officer at the Northland Foundation. LeAnn works on Maada’ookiing (the ‘distribution’ in Ojibwe), which is a grassroots grant-making initiative in partnership with Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities. LeAnn has worked for 30 years in nonprofit, community organizing, and advocacy roles. With a Master degree in Political Leadership & Advocacy and a Master degree in Education, LeAnn brings a commitment to cultural and community-based strategies, equity, and Seventh Generation principles. LeAnn lives and works in Duluth.

Marisa Cummings (Miakonda) is Umonhon and belongs to the Buffalo Tail Clan of the Sky people as well as the Walker and Springer families. She is a relative to many and is constantly re-learning language, seed keeping, food systems, and re-building relationships with human and non-human relatives. Marisa holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in American Studies from the University of Iowa and a certificate in American Indian/Native Studies and a minor in African American World Studies. She earned her Masters in Tribal Administration and Governance from the University of Minnesota Duluth. Marisa is the President/CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) in Minneapolis, MN. Prior to accepting this appointment she served as the Director of Native Student Services at the University of South Dakota. Marisa has worked is dedicated to indigenous models of governance, education, food systems, ceremonies, and sovereignty. She studies and teaches knowledge rooted in matriarchy and advocates for dismantling systems of oppression that impact our Native communities, including resource extraction and personal violence.

Nikki Pieratos is a Co-Founder and Treasurer of Harvest Nation. She received her Masters of Public Policy from the University of Chicago, and is currently the NDN Fund Managing Director for the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Previously, Nikki was the Project Director for the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. She’s the Founder and former CEO/Manager of Northern Eagle Federal Credit Union, which serves Bois Forte community members.

Photo by Maija Hect


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