November 14, 2023
By: Diane Wilson

Reclaiming Food as Medicine

Reclaiming Food as Medicine - Photo

I am a descendent of the Mdewakanton Oyate, the Dakota people in Minnesota, and an enrolled member of the Sicangu Oyate in South Dakota. My lifework has emerged from weaving together my cultural identity, my writing, and my work in food sovereignty, helping to reclaim and protect our Indigenous seeds and food traditions.

My mother was Lakota, enrolled on the Rosebud reservation, but her experience in boarding school disconnected her from her community. I grew up focusing instead on early social justice issues with the environment.

In April 1970, before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, or a Clean Air Act, or a Clean Water Act, the first Earth Day was created to spark what would become a national environmental movement. As a sophomore in high school, I celebrated this first-ever event with a group of teenagers assigned to pick up trash alongside the road. For many of us, this occasion was another opportunity to protest the gas-guzzling, war mongering, materialistic, misogynistic, racist society that we were part of. Protecting the environment seemed like an extension of many parallel movements to challenge social injustice, including the American Indian Movement, civil rights, and protests against the Vietnam War.

In college, I began working for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, my dream job working to change the world. I researched and lobbied against the use of hydrofluorocarbons, and met my hero, Ralph Nader. I believed, as did many of my generation, that we had the passion and commitment to create a more just and equitable world while protecting the environment.

Through my early work as a writer, I explored issues of cultural identity, assimilation and historical trauma. I encountered a profound turning point in 2000, when I first heard of the old, rare, tribal seeds that were being grown out in Farmington by a tiny, bare-bones Native program called Dream of Wild Health. As both a writer and a gardener, this was the moment in which my passion for cultural recovery and environmental work came together. 

On a ½ acre garden, they were growing Cherokee Trail of Tears corn that was descended from the original removal of the Cherokee people, Hopi black turtle beans, and traditional tobacco that was said to be hundreds of years old. These seeds carried  stories of the land, the seasons that had formed them, the hands that planted them, as well as the turbulent histories of the people who protected them over many generations. For some of these seeds, there were only a handful remaining.

When I was hired by Dream of Wild Health in 2008, I was blessed to work with Native elders, farmers, youth and their families, and the seeds themselves, relearning an Indigenous relationship with the land that was intrinsic to my identity as a Dakota/Lakota person. Being a good relative to all living beings is one of the most important teachings for Dakota people. We say, Mitakuye Owasin, We Are All Related, as a way of claiming kinship with our seeds, water, land, plants and animals, that is rooted in reciprocity, or caring for each other. Indigenous peoples of the Americas developed 3/5 of the world’s foods that we rely on today, establishing the original organic, local, and sustainable food systems.

I also learned the hard history around our Indigenous seeds and foods, and the ways in which they have been used to coerce Native people. Arapaho elder, Ernie Whiteman, once said to me, “If you can control the food, you can control the people.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, tribes were forced onto reservations where they lost access to their traditional foods from hunting and gathering, and became dependent instead on commodity foods that were high in starch and fat. This had a profound cultural impact as well. The ceremonies and prayers that were part of planting and harvesting were not needed when food came in sacks and cans.

In place of traditional gardens and foodways came a new relationship with the land that treated plants and animals as commodities. This new agricultural system relied on intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides and introduced genetically modified seeds, seemingly without regard for the long term health of our soil, water and food.  How our food is grown is intimately connected to the environmental issues we face, contributing to our current climate crisis. And yet despite the marketing claims that an industrialized food system is needed in order to feed the world, an estimated 10% of our global population is now hungry, many of them children. The same is true for the United States, while diet-related diseases are reaching epidemic levels that disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.

Through my writing and education work, as well as participation at COP28, I am committed to helping restore our relationship with the earth that recognizes how we are all connected down to the smallest bacteria. Rebuilding sovereign food systems that are framed with principles of justice and equity will help heal the health of our communities as well as the earth. When seeds are planted with prayers and songs, tended with love, and shared with our community, then our food once again becomes our medicine.

Portions of this story were adapted from an essay, Seeds for Seven Generations, that was first published in the anthology, “A Good Time for the Truth.”

Diane Wilson

Diane Wilson is a Dakota writer, educator, and bog steward, who has published four award-winning books as well as numerous essays. Her novel, The Seed Keeper, received the 2022 Minnesota Book Award for Fiction, and her memoir, Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past, won a 2006 Minnesota Book Award and was selected for the 2012 One Minneapolis One Read program. She has also published a nonfiction book, Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life, a middle-grade biography, Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector, and co-authored a picture book—Where We Come From. Wilson is a Mdewakanton descendant, enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation. She is the former Executive Director for Dream of Wild Health, an Indigenous non-profit farm, and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, a national coalition of tribes and organizations working to create sovereign food systems for Native people.

Diane is a Climate Generation Window Into COP delegate for COP28. To learn more, we encourage you to meet the full delegation and subscribe to the Window Into COP digest.