Medicine Garden

At the University of Minnesota East in St. Paul, between Cleveland and Larpenteur Avenues, Francis Bettleyoun, Lakota master gardener from Pine Ridge tends a .4 acre Medicine Garden in between vast fields of Cargill sponsored chemical ag.
First and foremost, Bettleyoun says, the Native People in Minneapolis need healing, healing from the trauma of colonialism, dislocation, genocide and abuse.
Despite the money being spent to develop the American Indian Cultural Corridor on East Franklin Ave, he says, “The Native urban community is chaos.”
Alan Gross, a barista at Powwow Grounds Coffee on Franklin said there used to be 11 places to buy hard liquor on the 11 city blocks of Franklin that comprise the heart of Minneapolis’ Native community (about 8,000 people identify as Native American in Minneapolis, or 2% of the city’s population of 382,578). Those liquor stores are mostly gone in the effort to direct city funding toward planned redevelopment that works with the Native population to build capacity for empowerment with health clinics, housing, cultural centers, and Native owned businesses and art galleries – but Gross says the problems of alcohol and homelessness and drug abuse remain, if not so visible, still invidious and persistent problems.
At the Medicine Gardens, Bettleyoun says, “You could give a Native person (in the city) a plant or a seed and they wouldn’t know what to do with it. All our energy has to be directed at healing.”
He notes the astronomical rate of child sexual abuse on the Pine Ridge Reservation where this plague upon the survivors of genocide has been endemic from the founding of the Holy Rosary Mission in 1888 to the clinical director of the Pine Ridge Hospital, Dr. Stanley Webber, 68, indicted this year on multiple counts of aggravated child sexual assault on children under the age of 16 as an example of the ongoing trauma Native urban dwellers are in the process of dealing with and healing from.
Here is what a journalist writing recently for the University of Minnesota’s website had to say about Bettleyoun’s work at the Medicine Gardens (a collaboration with six regional Native colleges and the U of Minn that had been being developed for more than 20 years):
“Food sovereignty, a central principle behind the Gardens, is the ability of an individual or community to sustain itself on its own land, as Native American Nations did before settlers converted much of it for agriculture.
Even after some of the land was returned, the unfamiliar new ecosystem and lack of agricultural tradition forced them into dependence on outside food, which today consists primarily of inexpensive processed meals supplemented by D-grade commodities guaranteed by a 19th century treaty with the US government.
Grief over this loss of traditional lifestyle and the resulting health crisis runs deep and gardens like these are part of a movement toward the return of a healthier community and a healthier environment.
As Gardens director Francis Bettleyoun expresses, ‘The Gardens are part of healing ourselves and Mother Earth.’
The Gardens’ message of food sovereignty not only applies to Native Peoples; it also points to the lack of subsistence across our society.
“We all have our handouts. We are all part of a welfare system,” says Bettleyoun, referring to a universal dependence on store bought food.
“If that food wasn’t there, what would you do? It’s time to start thinking in that way now. We are not a free people; we are dependent on somebody else feeding us, and we don’t have the ability not to work for food that we could be getting on our own.”
Bettleyoun points to the corn plants growing 12 to 14 feet high on land he never waters, allowing a foot deep layer of crusted over dairy barn mulch to do all the work of retaining moisture for the plants. His first dictum is to heal the soil by tilling it once and adding rock dust from local
quarries along with microbial organisms to help break the minerals down so the plants can utilize them.
“We listened for the first 5 years to what (Mother Earth) wants. Most soil is not brought back to a healthy condition. If you first take care of the soil, you’re good.”
Bettleyoun says modern chemical large scale agriculture had stripped the soil and the wider society’s good supply of minerals and essential nutrients.
Once he tills in the rock dust and adds compost he never tills again – allowing also for the healthy soil to act as a carbon sequestration organism, as it was meant to.
Soon, in addition to the three sisters and sweet grass, sage, and other vegetables, Bettleyoun says the collaborative working on the Gardens will gather and plant between 1200 and 1500 Native perennials here.
” My hope is that in this space there will be plants that appear that have not been seen for a long time.”
The Medicine Gardens were founded around four central plants of the Indigenous Mdewakanton lifeway: Wild Plum, Chokecherry, Black Currant, and Buffalo Berry.
But Bettleyoun says: All plants are sacred. All plants are Medicine plants. What is the Medicine that all plants bring you? Air!”
He points tons small framework enclosure at the center of the gardens. A yurt could be constructed there, he said, big enough to house a family of three. “A family of three could live off this land, if careful, and with a lot less work than most people do.”
To a group of visiting scholars, Bettleyoun first poses the question about the vast acres of chemical ag surrounding the Native gardens.
“What is the closest nation bordering this land, the land we are standing on now?” Silence. “Canada?” Someone finally offers, knowing the answer is wrong.
“The United States of America,” Bettleyoun replies. “You are standing on Dakota land, illegally occupied by the United States. By treaty, it is ours, and we have never given it away.”


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