Indigenous Corn Restoration Project

Final Report for LNC08-301

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $150,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Grant Recipient: White Earth Land Recovery Project
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Winona LaDuke
White Earth Land Recovery Project
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Project Information


We have had great with our program, and have helped build food-wealth in our community, and region, through through our program.


2011: Our work to restore our Indigenous corn varieties, and create education and awareness of these varieties has been very successful, and we’re proud of our growth and thankful to the support of SARE. We had great success with gaining more allies and support for our work from regional partners who participated and trained at our 9th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference, hosting more than 100 participants. We worked this year with tribal and non-tribal members, as well as the local Amish community to grown out 5 different varieties of our corn. 1) Bear Island Flint 2) Manitoba White Flint 3) Pink Lady Flint 4) White Popcorn 5) Black popcorn.
The discussions around seed saving that took place at the conference, which involved participants such as the Midwest Coordinator for USDA’s Sustainable agriculture Research and Education Program, local allied growers, representatives from the University of Minnesota Morris, and local tribal colleges, resulted in the development of a plan for co-creating the seed library – the “Miinan Maakok”, which means “The Seed Box”. As a result of our seed saving, 2011 was the first year we were able to sell our own corn varieties – a huge achievement. We were able to offer these seed for sale and barter at our winter Farming Conference, as well as post growing-season.
By developing our relationships and online presence we leveraged in three WWOOF volunteers, and several local youth to work in our corn fields. As a result of great help, good relationships and innovative methods we had good success with the Pink Lady corn grown in Callaway. The Saskatchewan White Flint grown by our Amish friends near the southern border of the reservation, brought in a bountiful harvest. Two reservation families, Curt and Darlene Ballard, and Dave Chilton successfully grew the Pink Lady flour corn – and Manitoba White Flint. the latter using some good horse manure. The Manitoba White corn grew on the four-acre field Maandaamin Akiing, in the Strawberry Lake area.
We brought youth from two reservation schools to the corn fields and Gitiigaanig Farm in the autumn before harvest to see our gardens, meet the goats, horses, poultry and to go through a hay maze. The Nay Tah Waush Charter School students were able to pick corn in the Mandaamin Akiing. We had the Circle of Life Academy students come to WELRPs’ office where they learned how to take corn off the cob, braid corn together for drying, and some students even made cornhusk dolls. We served a lunch featuring the corn, and continue our work in the Farm To School Project by providing locally grown food to the school lunch menu.

Project Objectives:

Short term:

• We will continue to grow out our heritage seeds, and identify new farmers/farms/fields to carry out this objective in.
• We will build relationships between Indigenous farmers, Tribal community colleges, and the University of Minnesota, Morris, and other educational institutions.
• We will make our heritage foods more widely available in our community.
• Utilize traditional Anishinaabe farming methods to increase integrity and production levels of our foods.
• Connect our youth leaders with regional educational and grassroots institutions, farmers, and producer in order to aggregate knowledge, resources, and leadership opportunities.

Intermediate Outcomes:

• Build community utilization of traditional farming knowledge and methods, and access to the tools to carry these practices out – which means networking and aggregation of resources between tribal organizations and farmers.
• Provide youth leaders with leadership opportunities to utilize their knowledge of corn-breeding and seed selection by hiring and training them in founding, managing, and growing, our regional seed library.
• Share our traditional farming knowledge and practices by educating our own community, and by informing other’s practicum by implementing the Anishinaabe Farming Curriculum in tribal colleges, and state colleges throughout the region.
• Share the success we’ve had with the implementation of traditional plant husbandry and farming methods with the community, and the region by broadcasting these stories on Niijii Broadcasting.
• We will expand the cultural knowledge and heritage of our traditional foods throughout our community by implementing Farm to School educational programs, sharing our foods at our ceremonies (which have recently been brought back to White Earth), and training food service staff to prepare these foods and serve them to our elders and in our ceremonies. .
• Complete an Ojibwe Farm to School workbook to compliment the farming work and allow tribal foods to move more quickly into tribal schools.
• Present our farming stories in at least twenty tribal forums in 20ll and beyond. We were able to do this widely with our executive director.

Long term:

• Build Native American communities’ intellectual capital, and our ability to share it widely in many Native and non Native venues, in order to insure and improve farming outputs.

• Restore nutritionally and culturally significant foods to our region as part of our plan to decrease diabetes and other diet-related illnesses among Native Americans.

• Increase Native youths’ role in determining the future of their communities.

Our project will ultimately provide the foundation for long-term food security for Native American people in the face of climate change, decreased access to fossil fuel, and their effects on agriculture.
Our project will ultimately provide the foundation for long-term food security for Native American people in the face of climate change, decreased access to fossil fuel, and their effects on agriculture.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Marcelo Carena
  • Steve Zwinger


Materials and methods:

For the implementation of our traditional farming techniques we used fish gut fertilizer that we made ourselves from fish guts off the Red Lake reservation 1 hour N of White Earth. This natural fertilizer improved the soil quality, and our quality of harvest. We shared this technique, engaging local farmers, harvesters, and growers affiliated with or project – who now employ this method and are more aware of traditional land and crop management techniques.

To spread the traditional knowledge of our heritage varieties of corn, and traditional practices of land management and fertilization, we have partnered with the U of M Morris to develop the Anishinaabe Farming Curriculum. This material is being disseminated to our tribal colleges regionally, and implemented at the U of M – bringing traditional Indigenous knowledge to the Native and Non-Native agriculture communities. We have also used Niijii Broadcasting as a method of dissemination of the knowledge of traditional corn varieties and practices, sharing the stories of our traditional farmers and harvesters who have been growing out these seeds.

We have employed methods and strategically chosen fields for our crops that are isolated from large corporate farms to avoid cross-pollination. All of our growers are trained in methods to resist cross-pollination.

We’ve developed a method for seed saving, and creating a seed library in coordination with regional savers, University staff, and USDA organic agriculture experts. We employ this method along with our own adherence to the value of community education, and our investment in spreading out traditional knowledge of our ancestors (these heritage seeds). We involve the community, our youth, especially in the seed saving, and in generating seed starts.

Our book on Tribal Sustainable Economies was published with Honor the Earth, and our forthcoming book on foods is to be published by Chelsea Green and includes much of our work with corn.

Research results and discussion:

Seed library:
We now have a strategy for growing out our seeds to a viable level for both sale, and local consumption. This strategy involves developing and expanding a regional seed library, whose main location will be at our Callaway offices. With partners such as the Midwest Coordinator for USDA’s Sustainable agriculture Research and Education Program, local allied growers, representatives from the University of Minnesota Morris, and local tribal colleges, we’ve developed a plan for co-creating the seed library – the “Miinan Maakok”, which means “The Seed Box”.
• As a result of our seed saving, 2011 was the first year we were able to sell our own corn varieties – a huge achievement. We were able to offer these seed for sale and barter at our winter Farming Conference, as well as post growing-season.

We’ve had the great opportunity to partner with the University of Minnesota – Morris, on the development of the Anishinaabe Agricultural Curriculum. While they had some great knowledge on what sustainable agriculture should look like from a Western scientific perspective, we were able to use their knowledge to build a bridge between the Anishinaabe knowledge systems and teachings on agriculture and land management and the current methodologies and practices of modern agriculture in our region. This curriculum is a great success, and you can see excerpts from it in the section below. We will be using this curriculum -- which has a large section on our heritage seeds, seed saving, and the importance of these foods to our people – in our Tribal colleges regionally, and the University of Minnesota, Morris, is working to implement it in their coursework, and share it with their colleagues networked regionally as well.

Fish Gut Fertilizer:
The soil in our community has been generally depleted after years of degradation and industrial agricultural practices. Our traditional seeds were grown and cultivated in much richer soil than currently exists on White Earth. To increase our yield, and to nourish our land we’ve been engaging in research, conversations, study, and work to bring back traditional practices. Our main effort has been in partnering with Red Lake reservation Fisheries, to produce fishgut fertilizer and use this practice to increase the quality of our soils. We’ve observed success with this technique, and while we have been educating local farmers on this, we wish to study this and measure its actual impact as we move forward.

Selling more seeds:
2011 was the first year that we were able to sell our seeds. We also offered them for barter at our Indigenous Farming Conference, and had many new growers this year. This is a huge milestone for us, and represents the accomplishment of growing these corn seeds out to a viable level.

We gave away and sold aroud l00 pounds of Manitoba White flint, bear island flint and squash varieties.

In 2011 Growers included David Chilton, Erwin Hirschstetler, Robert Alexander, Curt and Darlene Ballard, Leech Lake Tribal College, Annie Humphrey, Martin Curry, Noreen Thomas, Kaaren Daahnheim (red Lake), University of Minnesota at Morris, Women’s Enviromental Institute, Lisa Ringer, Little Earth tribal programs. (Minneapolis), and a number of others. Our Bear Island flint is now grown on four or five reservations and communities in our region, our Manitoba White flint has taken root in a number of villages.

Research conclusions:

Partnership with Red Lake fisheries:
In implementing our traditional practices of land management and fertilization, we have developed a great partnership with Red Lake reservation Fisheries. This partnership has helped aggregate resources such as traditional knowledge, heritage seeds, and skills and tools in avoiding cross-pollination, as well as fishguts for fertilizer. We’re working to build this relationship, and establish a few strong growers of our heritage seeds in Red lake as well.

Curriculum – education:
Our educational efforts have resulted in a region-wide outcome of increased educational resources, including the first-of-its-kind Anishinaabe Farming Curriculum. We’ve recorded oral knowledge, our years of research and hands-on experience into a curriculum that is now being dispersed throughout tribal colleges in our region, and also at state colleges and Universities such as the University of Minnesota, Morris. The outcome of this is not only the education of our community through grassroots education and projects, but the integration of our knowledge into institutions and educational structures – which is an outcome of increasing the intellectual capacity of agriculture students throughout our region in dealing with our changing world and developing solutions to climate change, and alternatives to industrial agriculture.

Our heritage seeds have become very important to our traditional religious ceremonies, which have been brought back to White Earth only this year. Our heritage foods are considered our ancestors, and by serving this food, and telling the stories of our heritage corn seeds, we are spreading the knowledge of this food.

Youth engagement:
We’ve been able to engage our youth through this program in what has turned out to be a very sustainable way. Through our partnership with VISTA in 2011, we were able to pay two full-time food system workers to work on issues of growing out our heritage seeds, developing and implementing educational programs for you, storing and saving our seeds, and aggregating resources both online and offline for our regional growers and savers. The skills our youth have developed can be applied in many ways, and they have emerged as leaders in seed saving in our region, and have taken this knowledge home to their own communities as well.
Do we have names of VISTAS who worked on this besides Zack? Alex Jimerson, (Seneca), Sammy Arviso (Navajo), Tessa McLean (Ojibwe) Robin Davis (Oibwe), Doug Fineday( Ojibwe), Ajuawak Kapashesit (Cree), Micheal Dahl (Ojibwe) and many others have worked in our fields to learn how to grow out our foods.

Regional awareness of our work:
We have worked to build allies who will implement our curriculum, and have used our airwaves, social media, and internet streaming to share our media (including interviews with local farmers, harvesters, seed savers, as well as international food justice, and sustainable agriculture leaders) with the region. Each year we host the only regional Indigenous Farming Conference, where we have continued to share our work, and create a forum to aggregate knowledge, experience, and resources between farmers, harvesters, and seed savers regionally. This continues to be a success.

Economic Analysis

We have been able to sell some of our seed for the first time in 2011. This has given us some initial profit, but our vision for building community wealth, not simply in terms of money, is longer. We have also been giving our seed away to farmers to start their own fields and get the endangered seeds grown out further. We have given seeds to around twenty farmers throughout the region, who are skilled, and prepared to grown out and contribute to our seed saving initiative. They have also found for themselves a future for a stable agricultural practice in a region that is seeing an increase in inclement weather – such as frost and drought – which these heritage seeds are resistant to.

We have built training for over 300 Native farming families through our Indigenous Farming Conference, and through our volunteer work, we have trained 50 other farmers and youth. These individuals and communities now have the skills and resources to sustain themselves with healthier, more resilient crops, which are especially marketable.

We have provided food for at least 40 ceremonial and cultural feasts on the White Earth reservation and regionally. We have served 2000 people at least. The stories our seeds, and this work has accompanied these feasts, and communities are looking toward programs like our to increase the food-wealth, and security of their communities, and to help bolster ours.

Farmer Adoption

We have approximately 20 farmers in our region who are using our seeds as of now.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We talked to Martin Reinhardt of Michigan State about traditional varieties of food and Decolonizing the Anishinaabe Diet, wetalked to Curt Ballard about traditional farming, and had two shows on corn and foods.

We have also produced the Anishinaabe Farming Curriculum, which is available upon request.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Climate change resilience:
We need to engage in studying the resilience of our traditional varieties in the face of inclement weather that is the result of climate change. We are seeing increase in drought, and potential for flooding. We’ve seen some of the industrial varieties of Monsanto corn on our reservation facing hardship, and great loss of yield with inclement weather. We’ve also seen our corn varieties expressing drought and frost resistance, and wish to study this further. We need to identify the varieties that are most resilient, and grow these crops out to ensure food stability for our community, and region through sharing these seeds and our research.

Fish gut fertilizer:
While we have seen visible increase in yield and soil quality after implementing traditional fertilization practices through the use of fish gut fertilizer, we would like to measure the impact of this practice, and other practices as well. Having this data is important to sharing and spreading the knowledge of these practices throughout the region.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.