One day in the late summer of 2020, a Winnebago tribal elder was anxious to see her field of dreams — row after row of her beloved Indian corn stretching to the horizon.
Thirty-five years earlier, she had restored the ancient tradition of planting and harvesting the sacred corn as a fundraiser for her women’s church group.
But when Sarah Snake finally got to the field that hot summer day, she saw something else: She saw an empty field covered in mulch. She saw that all the Indian corn she prayed would help restore her people’s culture had been destroyed.
The 65-year-old grandmother with stage 4 lung cancer stood alone in the barren field and cried.
“There was absolutely nothing,” Snake said. “The corn was all gone. Who would do that? Who would do such a thing?”
A white farmer, it turned out, had driven his tractor through the field, over and over, destroying all the corn. All that Sarah got was an unsigned one-sentence letter: “sorry for the misunderstanding.”
But that misunderstanding has not been enough to derail an ambitious tribal plan to rebuild the reservation’s cultural infrastructure. To help restore Winnebago cultural traditions by taking back the land. To merge old harvesting practices with new regenerative farming techniques that promote 21st century environmental sustainability.
The Winnebago have a name for this aggressive movement of using the land to make their culture healthier. They call it: “Going Red.”
For decades, ownership of tribal land had increasingly passed from Natives to white hands. By 2004, 78% of the Winnebago Reservation was owned by white farmers.
But in the last eight years, the tribe has bought back 20% of its 27,637-acre reservation in northeast Nebraska, 115 miles north of Lincoln.
“The buyback program itself is actually really beneficial for us as a people,” tribal member Eugene DeCora said. “The food sovereignty part where, you know, we can literally feed ourselves and sustain ourselves without any outside help. … I think that’s some of the biggest parts that … connect us back with our culture.”
Elders, including Snake, hope that teaching tribal youth the traditional ways of harvesting Indian corn will inspire youngsters to continue growing their own food in accordance with ancient Winnebago traditions.
Mona Zuffante, the tribe’s public health administrator, said those traditional practices already are empowering youth and creating balance within their community.
“By reclaiming those lands and the food, and those traditional ways, it’s really just getting back in touch with who we are,” Zuffante said. “And I think sometimes we’ve lost that through all of the trauma that our people have gone through.”
Originally from what is now Wisconsin, the Winnebago lost most of their land in a succession of boundary and peace treaties signed in the early 19th century.
The federal government ended up forcibly moving the tribe from Wisconsin to Minnesota to South Dakota — and finally to Nebraska, where the Winnebago Reservation was established in 1865.
But the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, broke up the tribal land base by awarding 160-acre plots to individual households. Over time, the enormous amount of surplus land was sold off to white farmers and by 1913 the Winnebago — like many other Native tribes — had lost about two-thirds of their original reservation.
The famed Lakota Chief Red Cloud put it this way. “The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one,” he said. “They promised to take our land and they did.”
The Dawes Act not only took away reservation land and gave it to white settlers, but it also tried to force Natives to disavow their own culture and adopt a Euro-American one.
The act prohibited traditional Native beliefs while promoting white cultural practices and ideologies. Native cultural traditions became illegal, and anyone caught speaking a Native language or practicing Native religions could be tried in a Court of Indian Offenses and imprisoned.
Fast forward to 2020. Although much of the Winnebago land has been destroyed and is difficult to farm, the tribe is determined to turn the corner — to continually work the land to restore its health.
“I believe that our people are tied to the land. So when Mother Nature hurts, so do our people,” Zuffante said. “So when we reclaim our land, in essence, we’re reclaiming ourselves.”
Along with harvesting traditional Indian corn, tribal members also practice other food sovereignty efforts to help restore the land. Those include growing vegetable gardens, planting organic farms and using designer chickens — chickens used to groom the fields.
Aaron LaPointe, manager of Ho-Chunk Inc.’s subsidiary known as Ho-Chunk Farms, is the quarterback who oversees it all.
“We feel like we are doing the right thing,” LaPointe said. “A lot of our culture and who we are revolves around food. That’s a big part about who we are.”
Today, LaPointe’s operation organically farms more than 5,400 acres with plans to soon add another 1,000 acres. The Winnebago Tribe, he said, has the largest organic farm in northeast Nebraska and is trying to set a high bar — environmentally — for the agriculture sector.
For example, to avoid using chemicals and pesticides, Ho-Chunk Farms plans to implement the designer chickens — a special breed that will eat insects off the crops while fertilizing them at the same time.
In August, the company also planted about 1,200 hazelnut trees which help absorb toxic carbon dioxide. All of these changes have led to the natural re-emergence of native fruits and grasses — elderberries, sage and Indian tobacco — which can be used for food and sometimes even for medicinal purposes.
And all the while, they also provide a kind of cultural glue for a once-shattered community.
“So I’m a firm believer in the community, working together to … raise the child because it does take more than just their parents, and I believe that the Indigenous community is really what sets us apart from others,” said Zuffante, the public health administrator. “Having our youth reconnect to the land will allow them to also find that inner spirit because that’s their culture and tradition.”
Last year alone, tribal members planted about 20 acres of traditional Indian corn. From this yield, harvesters donated about 75 pounds — valued at $35 a pound — to the Winnebago Boys and Girls Club and tribal elders.
The Winnebago consider traditional Indian corn a delicacy and not something a machine can harvest. Instead, tribal members use a spoon to press into each row on an ear of corn to get the hard piece at the end of each kernel.
The process is known as WhaSkooing.
“My grandmother always told me that (the hard kernel) represented the heart of our people because it kept our people alive,” Snake said. “Drying that Indian corn kept our people alive when there was nothing else to eat during the winter months.”
Lance Morgan, a Harvard University graduate and the Ho-Chunk Inc. CEO, said harvesting 20 acres by hand is grueling work but worth it for his people.
“Culture and food are really, really tied together, and the Indian corn itself is something that’s really symbolic of us and what we do,” Morgan said. “From an economic standpoint, it isn’t that big of a deal. But from a cultural standpoint, it’s everything.”
And from a health standpoint it is also a big deal.
Danelle Smith, executive director of the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System, said harvesting the corn not only promotes cultural health, but environmental and tribal health as well.
“In terms of the corn planting, and just the process of how we go about doing that, it just really helped to build that sense of family,” Smith said. “We were all a part of something that was important to our family. Not only did it help feed us, but it provided healthy food for us.”
But harvesting traditional Indian corn died away along with much of the tribe’s independence many years ago. DeCora said that’s because the tribe became too reliant on unwanted and unhealthy commodities.
“Everything we ever needed was right here for us, and then we got put on a crutch,” DeCora said. “I think that’s why we’re taking the steps we’re trying to take to get back to that … so we can stand on our own two feet and … have our own traditional foods being sold at our own local store.”
To help restore this independence, Ho-Chunk Inc. developed various other programs to help align tribal members with their traditional beliefs as well as promote growth, health and success.
For example, Ho-Chunk Inc. built 144 housing units in the last five years that quickly became known as the Ho-Chunk Village. The company also created Titan Motors, a pre-owned car dealership which charges fair interest rates to help tribal members build credit.
These developments have significantly decreased the poverty rate — down 5.1% from 2000 to 2013 — while increasing the tribe’s growth median income by 83.2% from 2000 to 2016.
“I take great pride when one of our tribal members gets a new home, or gets a new job, goes to college, graduates or are at some milestone,” Ho-Chunk CEO Morgan said. “I know that we’ve helped put in place the system and environment that helps make that possible.”
But that’s not all Ho-Chunk Inc. has done.
To promote better environmental health via renewable energy, Morgan said the tribe now has solar panels on every building — more than 2,000 panels in all.
The company also is installing other food sovereignty programs to help tribal members become more independent.
In August 2019, Ho-Chunk Inc. opened The Village Market, a 4,644-square-foot indoor farmers market, reducing the tribe’s need for imported food.
“My job in the community is to create economic activity and success, so that people do not have to worry about their next bite of food or their next meal,” Morgan said. “That’s why you do the job — is to make people’s lives better, and I frankly just love watching the success as it emerges in our community.”
Before the market opening, the closest place for tribal members to get fresh produce was the Sioux City area, more than 20 miles away.
As members consumed more processed foods, they struggled with obesity and diabetes. In 2018, about 35% of the tribe’s elementary students and about 39% of its high school-aged members were considered obese, according to Indianz.com.
Today, hospital director Smith said the tribe’s food sovereignty programs help educate youth and families on healthy practices.
“You really have to look at it from all different angles and start with our youth,” Smith said. “They learn about … good nutrition at a young age and then it just becomes a part of who they are, part of their life.”
Smith’s goal is to restructure the entire Winnebago health care system by zeroing in on the specific needs of tribal members. The key ingredient, she said, is better nutrition.
“We thought that it was important to do it in a more comprehensive way and focus on innovation, on the more preventative aspects of it and not be fully focused on treating disease and chronic conditions after the fact,” Smith said.
The Winnebago now have access to a variety of programs teaching them about healthy living, including tips about meal preparation, food canning and walking wellness. The entire structure of the community also is being altered to include more walking paths to promote physical exercise.
Ho-Chunk Farms also distributed more than 220 raised-bed vegetable gardens so tribal members can grow their own food, can or sell it at the Village Farmers Market.
Growing their own food, Smith said, “helps provide a very productive healthy activity for families to do together. There’s really, I feel, a sense of pride and I see people posting on social media about their harvest and about their crop … and people really are excited about it.”
Meanwhile, Winnebago children like Lula DeCora, the 2019-20 Junior Miss Celebration Harvest Princess, share in the excitement of the programs.
“I think about helping out with some of my friends and how we all grew up together and being able to help out the community, so that’s really exciting,” the 12-year-old said.
Although there are now a variety of programs, harvesting the traditional Indian corn carries the most cultural weight within the tribe.
“There’s still seed corn being planted that originates from original seed corn that we carried with us when we moved here,” Eugene DeCora said.
That seed belonged to Sarah Snake’s grandmother.
“My grandmother had some seed corn under her bed in a pillowcase,” Snake said. “So all of this branched from my grandmother’s seed.”
But now it is up to the youth to learn the programs and ultimately keep this independence going.
“They know the process from the beginning to the end,” Snake said. “It’s good to know that that’s going to continue on for our kids and their parents too.”
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