Red Lake Nation has a long history of Food production
Although gardening was not a widespread cultural practice by most Ojibwe, due to their seasonal subsistence patterns that revolved around fishing, hunting, and wild rice gathering, the Red Lake Band was one of the earliest and most successful bands to implement it in their daily lives.
Through close contact with the Ottawa people, the Ojibwe adopted gardening sometime prior to 1800. Early explorers and traders mention the Ojibwe at Red Lake and Lake of the Woods growing crops of ‘Indian corn’ and potatoes, and many historians believe that much of the early gardening efforts spread from the region near the Red River, Lake of the Woods, and Red Lake throughout the rest of the Ojibwe bands during the early 19th century.
Gardening, as practiced by the Red Lake Band, usually involved small, cultivated plots scattered in open spaces in the woods near winter camps. Gardening was accomplished using sticks and hoes, and varieties beans, squash, pumpkins, and corn were planted and tended until the Ojibwe left to fish and hunt at their summer camps. After the harvest of wild rice in the fall, the people would return to their winter camps to harvest their crops before the weather turned cold.
Because wild rice is not found in large quantities near Red Lake, by the middle of the 19th century, the Red Lake people were becoming increasingly reliant on gardening to support their families.
It was reported by missionaries that in 1842, about 50 families were completely self‐sufficient through hunting, fishing, and gardening, with over 150 acres in garden production. By 1848 the Red Lake gardeners were so successful that they were selling their surplus corn to traders and other tribes.
During a short period of regional famine (1848‐1851), the Red Lake Band’s corn crops at Red Lake and the Lake of the Woods were essential to the survival of many of the other Ojibwe bands who were able to trade with the Red Lake people to feed themselves.
Although men claimed the credit for introducing gardening to the Red Lake region, through their contact with the Ottawa people, it was women who did much of the gardening, playing a crucial role in deciding how to balance their gardening resources each year, and how best to compensate for changing weather patterns and water levels. This knowledge‐base allowed the women an opportunity to create a valuable product that became a serious trade item during the 19th century. When furs were scarce, the Band could always supplement their diet and bolster trade when needed.
In addition to being a viable trade item, gardening was an essential part of the Ojibwe strategy for ensuring their health and wellness. Corn and potatoes provided a supplement to wild rice—especially during years in which the rice harvest was poor or failed altogether, and later in the century the Ojibwe deliberately planted larger gardens if water levels seemed unfavorable for rice crops in the spring. This wisely practiced “resource switching” was one of the successful strategies the Ojibwe used to maintain a productive seasonal round during more difficult times.
Garden produce was in a sense a double addition to Ojibwe subsistence, for, as well as the food value of the crops, the gardens required little tending during summer and therefore freed the people to harvest other foods while the crops were ripening. The carbohydrates provided by corn, potatoes, and other crops were also important in adding calories and energy to the diet, especially during winter when game was lean.
Gardening remained an important part of Red Lake Ojibwe life well into the 20th century. Many scattered plots of corn were maintained across the reservation, and the early school efforts included agricultural education as part of the curriculum.
Most recently, Red Lake Nation has undertaken steps towards reintroducing agriculture back into their lives through the implementation of the Gitigaanike Initiative. The Initiative was created with the goals to decrease diet-related health issues, increase access to local healthy foods and develop a local foods economy. The Initiative incorporates community beliefs and attitudes about contemporary and traditional foods.
For more information about the program, call; 218-679-1466. You can also follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/384504271580246/
Mino biimaadiziiwin, Mino ayaad.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities