Indigenous roots: Community garden aims to restore native plants for daily use
One of the most important things about the Izabel Community Garden, according to Lasting Indigenous Family Enrichment Program Manager Carrie Dallas, is to understand what Indigenous people did from a holistic lens of working the land and providing food for their people.
“Working the land, utilizing the sacred water, under the sun, the heat and the Earth is so tantalizing, invigorating and rejuvenating. It’s so ancient,” Dallas said. “We had to learn how to gather fruit berries, grass leaves, all these things that were so healthy for us to eat. Maybe they didn’t know they were so healthy, but they taste good.”
The Izabel Community Garden is part of a four-year grant from the Center for Prevention and Disease Control, which supports tribal practices to build resiliency and connections to family and culture, which, over time, will reduce risk factors for chronic disease, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer among Native American people. They are also stewards of the Colton Community Garden.
The LIFE program, through Native Americans for Community Action (NACA), provides educational services and community activities, such as planting a garden, which empower Indigenous culture, ignite community intergenerational connection, increase individual resilience and strengthen a Native person’s sense of belonging.
The Izabel Community Garden fits all of those criteria, according to Dallas, and the reason for its existence came from the community.
“We did a community assessment to see what the community was interested in. What might help the status of our youth, our families,” Dallas said. “This was one of the things they wanted to do was garden. It’s intergenerational family — the stories that are told out here, there’s songs that can be sung out here. It’s the romanticized thought of our ancestors… what did they do when they were out together.”
The garden has corn, squash, beans, lettuce, chili peppers, asparagus, carrots, tomatoes along with Navajo tea and some medicinal plants of Indigenous origin and tobacco. There are even some strawberries along with bright flowers, still blooming despite the arrival of fall.
“The bounty of the harvest for me now is recognizing the vitamins and minerals that are in this fresh crop compared to something we might buy from a grocery store, where the soil isn’t as tended as we tend this soil,” Dallas said.
Volunteers collect coffee grinds from different businesses and someone manages the composting bin for the whole garden’s soil.
But it’s not just growing food, the LIFE program looks at. It’s also the opportunity to bring in traditional practitioners to be able to do presentations on different things, like the importance of corn pollen to Native people and what it is used for and how to collect it.
They also take the opportunity to talk about movement and healthy eating, which means moving, walking, running, dancing, anything to build people up in healthy ways.
For Dallas, the cause is personal. Her father was a double amputee because of diabetes.
“That’s no life any human should ever have to live,” she said. “So, if that’s my task in life to prevent diabetes, to teach you about preventing diabetes, the things you can do to help yourself to not become like that, that’s where I’ve found my niche.”
Dallas said she believes with all of her being, that sharing at every opportunity — to be able to talk about movement and how culture, beliefs and practices can play a part in wellbeing and health is the most important thing she does.
“When it comes to not eating grease, not eating carbs, what is it? We like those foods. Our palette has really transformed from healthy eating,” Dallas said. “We like the sugars. We like the salt, because those are addictive things. But if we help our digestive systems, we’d be helping our whole entire health process system.”
Internal medicine physician Laurie Breihan, who stopped by the garden to pick vegetables, is a firm believer that food is medicine.
"When I see patients who aren't feeling well, or don't have energy, I continue to suggest a whole food plant rich eating with lots of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains"
The food grown in the garden is given to elders in the community who either get it from NACA or have it delivered to them.
During COVID, which has been hard on gathering to cook or to share stories, some events have been held on Zoom.
Last year, during COVID, when they couldn’t have contact with the elders, they took vegetables to the senior center and gave them a recipe for Three Sisters stew. The cooks made the stew and put it in containers for the elders on Meals on Wheels.
“We find a way to meet our obligation and our goals,” Dallas said.
Dallas said it’s all connected. Ancestors reaching forward and the community reaching back to get the knowledge and bringing it forward to the community and teaching those people to bring it forward as well.
“That’s the truth, you know. That’s the absolute truth,” she said.