Students volunteer at Native American medicine garden

The garden is a cultural learning tool for about 20 U students.

by Jessica Van Berkel

At the University of MinnesotaâÄôs St. Paul campus, alongside acres of agricultural research land, a small group of students work with Native American plants, medicine and culture. Native American medicine gardens, which include herbs for making teas and ceremonial plants, have been around for centuries. The UniversityâÄôs garden, which covers less than a quarter of an acre, has been around for seven years. The piece of land is a cultural learning tool for the approximately 20 University students and 500 community members who volunteer there every year. Many professors require students to do volunteer work, and the medicine garden is one of those options. As a result, students come from widely diverse backgrounds. Koyo Minami, a senior studying finance, is volunteering at the garden for his Ethics in Natural Resources class. He had been planting seeds in greenhouses for the past couple months, but yesterday morning he trekked across dirt and along a field to the garden. âÄúThese paths you donâÄôt get to walk at Carlson,âÄù he joked. While the students spread compost in the fields, Francis Bettelyoun, who has been a master gardener at the University for 20 years, teaches about appreciating the plants and the purpose of food for the Lakota people. One thing that stuck with Minami from BettelyounâÄôs teaching was the idea that every seed is a baby, and to be thankful for the food from every seed. Alongside the medicine gardens are expansive fields where the University conducts plant research. Bettelyoun said that kind of agriculture, using chemicals and non-native plants, harms the land. âÄúTheyâÄôre trying to figure out how fast, how quickly, how much we can grow. But is it sustainable? Is it nutritious?âÄù Bettelyoun said. âÄúThey canâÄôt do better than whatâÄôs already been done.âÄù The cultural shift toward eating local and organic is a start, he said. But organic produce is still being grown in soil that was robbed of nutrients through what we now think of as normal agricultural processes, Bettelyoun said. Volunteers at the medicine garden put nutrients back in the soil through compost and rock dust. They will later plant vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and herbs like sweet grass, sage and tobacco. The plants are used for healing teas and ceremonies, he said. Students, teachers and community members can take the food, and the excess is donated to four Native American food shelves, Bettelyoun said. The garden was created through Woodlands Wisdom, a partnership between the University and six tribal colleges in the Midwest. Elders from the colleges were interested in having a garden where people could meditate and return to nature. While the partnership was dispersed, primarily because of a lack of funding, the garden continued. It is one of many endeavors to apply traditional principles to community gardens. Students are also working in gardens using indigenous knowledge of the land at College of Menominee Nation, one of the partners involved in Woodlands Wisdom, said Melissa Cook, director of sustainable development at the college. The traditional practices are increasingly important because peopleâÄôs connection to their food is vital to taking care of the earth, Cook said.