Learning to Wildcraft: Foraging and Feasting on the White Earth Reservation
When I was a kid we described plants like burdock with its tenacious burrs and stinging nettles with its distinctive sting as “pickers.” At the Wild Food Summit, however, they call these plants dinner.
On the first night of the Wild Food Summit on the White Earth Reservation in June, attendees feasted on burdock, stinging nettles, bass wood leaf wraps, cattails, wild onions, black locust flower gnocchi, deer sausage, manomin (wild rice) and lefse. Lefse is made from potatoes and is a Norwegian version of a tortilla. Like a cranky but tolerated relative, the bland flat bread somehow finds its way into most Northern Minnesota public meals.
Coordinated by the White Earth Tribal and Community College USDA Extension Service, the Summit is wildly popular among Native and non-Natives alike. In fact, the event, now in its eighth year, usually fills up within weeks of the announced enrollment. More than 50 people had to be turned away according to Rebecca Dallinger, extension special projects coordinator.
She explained that the campground at Little Elbow Lake couldn’t accommodate more than about 150 people. “We feel it is important not to overburden the land,” Dalinger said.
Most of those attending the Summit camp at the site, which offers primitive camping facilities.
This spirit of good land stewardship is a centerpiece of the Summit’s three-day program. Participants not only attend more traditional lectures about identifying, gathering and cooking edible and medicinal plants, they also learn these methods first hand by working with Summit presenters. Presenters, both Native and non-Native stress the importance of responsibility and respect when gathering wild foods.
According to Steve Dahlberg, Sami, director of the extension service and science instructor at White Earth Community College, the philosophy of honoring the plants, earth and each other is a central element of the Summit.
For instance, Bill Paulson of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe, includes everyone in prayers of gratitude each morning before breakfast.
Since participant volunteers perform most of the camp duties such as cooking, clean up and chopping wood, the whole Summit experience fosters a group dynamic of caring, according to Dahlberg.
In general, wild foods and foraging are gaining in popularity, say Summit organizers. Dahlberg speculates that concern about threats to the environment and climate change have inspired people with a greater desire to engage with the land around them. Wild foraging is a great way to do that, he notes.
Classes and demonstrations at the Wild Food Summit included the chance to identify and gather wild hazelnuts and make delicious wild hazelnut milk. Participants also identified, gathered and cooked burdock, stinging nettles, lambs quarters, cattails, wild mushrooms, wild onions and learned how to pop wild rice and make cattail baskets.
Mike Larson brought his son Isaiah, 10, to the Summit for some quality father/son time and the opportunity to show Isaiah that one doesn’t have to live out in the wild in order to incorporate wild foods into diet.
“We have plants in our yards that we call weeds that can be gathered and eaten,” he says. Larson believes that harvesting and eating these plants is an important lesson in self-reliance and a return to healthy living. He thinks that subsisting solely on store-bought and farm-raised foods alone isn’t healthy.
“These so called weeds can provide us with nutrition and also have medicinal value,” he observes.
Larson was impressed by the diversity and spirit of cooperation among people who attended the Summit. He also appreciated the unspoken lessons of gratitude and respect that the experience offered. Each morning, elders asked Isaiah to take a spirit plate of food out into the woods.
“I was so proud of how he stepped up and took that responsibility seriously,” Larson said.
“That was the first thing he told his mom about when we got home. That and the fact that he caught his first Northern in the lake,” Larson beamed.
Mary Annette Pember, Ojibwe, is a regularly contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network and an independent photojournalist based in Cincinatti, Ohio.