A return to traditional foods helps some fight hunger on White Earth Reservation

Bill Paulson
Bill Paulson demonstrates how he harvests wild rice in Waubun, Minn., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. Paulson advocates returning to traditional Ojibwe food.
Caroline Yang for MPR

Hunger is such a problem on some parts of the White Earth Reservation that there is a neighborhood some people call Hungry Hill.

"It's hard, you know, living day to day," said 29-year-old Melissa Manypenny. "Especially when you have children, and it's hard for you to feed your children from day to day."

Manypenny and her boyfriend, Daniel St. Clair, 38, both grew up on Hungry Hill in the town of White Earth. They often relied on a macaroni, which many on the reservation call "Mac." For them, that meant hamburger, macaroni noodles and tomato paste.

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Photos: Hunger on White Earth Reservation.

"Those three essential foods is what kept Hungry Hill surviving for all these years," said St. Clair, who gets by on the money he earns from the Shooting Star Casino, and with food from a federal commodity program.

Tribal officials estimate up to 50 percent of American Indians on the White Earth reservation live below the poverty line. For some, ensuring there is enough healthy food to feed themselves and their families is a problem. A growing effort to return to traditional foods could help alleviate hunger and improve the health of people on the reservation while reconnecting them with a diet that served their ancestors.

Hungry Hill isn't the only place on White Earth where people struggle with hunger. At 1,300 square miles, the reservation is the largest in Minnesota. Poverty and unemployment are high, and good, affordable food can be hard to come by.

There are only two small grocery stores on the reservation. People say they rely heavily on the more common convenience stores. Some travel up to 40 miles to reach stores off the reservation, but that takes a car and gas money — things many people here don't have.


It wasn't always like this. Before the tribe signed treaties with the U.S. government, the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe Indians, followed the seasons and ate the food that surrounded them, retired tribal historian Andy Favorite said.

"Historically our food was wild game, berries [and] we had gardens," Favorite said. "We signed treaties, and they said, 'Give up the chase.' "

Wild Food Summit
Kelly Larsen, 49, of Bagley, Minn., led a group into the forest to harvest mushrooms as part of a Wild Food Summit on the White Earth Reservation on Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. The Fall Mushroom Foray was sponsored by the White Earth Tribal and Community College Extension Service, which runs wild food summits regularly. The summits are aimed at teaching people to identify, harvest, and prepare wild foods. They are organized by Steve Dahlberg, director of the extension program, who says returning to traditional foods can help create self-reliance.
Caroline Yang for MPR

When that lifestyle ended, there was a dramatic shift in diet.

"They put us on reservations and said, 'Oh, we'll take care of you,' " Favorite said. "Well, they'll take care of us with white flour, white sugar, white salt."

That's the kind of food he said was historically distributed by the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations.

The program, which is unique to Indian reservations, is designed to help low-income people who can't easily travel to grocery stores. Food provided by the federal government is stored in huge warehouses, and distributed to people who need it. The number of people on White Earth using commodities has fallen, but hundreds of people still depend on them.

That includes a 63-year-old woman named Cindy, who lives in a small home in the town of White Earth and survives on monthly Social Security payments of $675. She did not want to give her last name because she is ashamed of her situation.

On a recent day, her pantry was nearly empty.

"Without commodities I wouldn't make it," she said.

Commodities aren't intended to provide all the food a family needs. But Cindy doesn't have much else to feed herself and her two grown sons, who do not work.

"Right now, 'cause it's the end of the month, we're down to one meal a day," she said in late September. "That's the way it will be until next week, when then money comes in. Then I'll be able to buy groceries, and we'll be able to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner again."

Commodity foods have improved significantly on White Earth, especially in the past decade. There are fresh fruits and vegetables, and leaner meat than in previous years. A nutrition educator at the warehouse teaches people how to prepare meals.

The tribe has asked the federal government to include wild rice in the program.

But for Cindy, who has a heart condition, it's still not healthy enough. The beef stew mix in her box of commodities contains 990 milligrams of sodium, more than her doctor's recommendation.

"I can't afford the food that the doctor gave me to buy on the list," she said. "So I just have to eat the proper foods for the first week of the month when I can afford it. The rest of the month, I have to live on whatever I have."

Bill Paulson
Bill Paulson demonstrates how wild rice is harvested in Waubun, Minn. on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. Paulson returned to the White Earth Reservation about a decade ago and actively promotes going back to traditional ways of growing and harvesting food. He and his wife currently live on a limited fixed income -- she receives about $600 a month in disability, and he earns $800 a month as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. For their own food Paulson hunts, fishes, harvests wild rice and berries, and grows his own produce in their garden. The couple also receives food stamps, and uses the money only for staple foods they don't grow themselves. Paulson says growing and producing their own food enables them to eat very well on a limited budget, and he hopes more people will return to bartering, trading, growing and harvesting. This year Paulson joined two other families and harvested over 1,100 pounds of wild rice, which will become 600 pounds of finished rice. Paulson and his wife will eat some, and will share some with family and friends.
Caroline Yang for MPR


Some people on White Earth say the way to fight hunger and poor diet is to return to local or traditional foods.

Winona LaDuke is one of them. At her organization based in Callaway, LaDuke, executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, shows a visiting boy how to dry corn so that it can be used in soup.

LaDuke said the shift to processed foods has contributed to health problems on the reservation. About one in three American Indians on White Earth has diabetes. LaDuke knows people are living on tight budgets, but as she sees it, growing food locally could help struggling families.

"I don't think you should have to buy all your food," she said. "I think you should grow it. That's the reality. You don't have the money to buy all the food, and you shouldn't. Our Anishinaabe people were entirely food self sufficient."

There's been recent progress, LaDuke said. For the second summer, two small farmers markets sold vegetables on the reservation. Her group provides produce for local schools.

But LaDuke wants much more — especially gardening. She hopes people on White Earth will one day feed themselves again.

"The creator didn't say, 'Go to Safeway, go to Coborn's, or go to Supervalu,' " she said. "The creator said, 'Grow your corn, eat your berries, make sure you harvest your wild rice, and pray.' "

Bill Paulson is one of the people turning back to traditional food and teaching others on the reservation to do so.

On the lake behind his home in Waubun, Paulson demonstrates how to harvest wild rice. He and his wife manage to get by on the $800 a month he earns as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and the $600 a month she receives in disability income, in part because he's finding food the old ways.

"Everyday I'm trying to figure out what is coming next in our season," he said.

Paulson harvested about 1,100 pounds of wild rice this year. Most of it he will eat and share with family. He fishes and gathers berries. He also has a garden. He does qualify for food stamps, but uses them only for things he doesn't grow or harvest.

"I have mushrooms on the table every day," he said. "I have fish all the time. I have venison steaks. I eat very, very well."

For some, wild rice also creates income. The tribe buys thousands of pounds from those who harvest it — then sells it, or gives it to elders and schools.

Billie Jo McDonald
Billie Jo McDonald, 33, laughs with her son Camarin Hanks, 11, in Waubun, Minn., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011.
Caroline Yang for MPR


Few people say returning to traditional or local foods will alone solve hunger. It's just part of the equation. It takes time and resources that not everyone has.

For example, 33-year-old Billie Jo McDonald is learning about traditional Ojibwe foods, how to harvest and preserve them. McDonald goes to camps run by the tribal college to learn to identify berries and to rice.

She remembers what her grandparents ate, and wants her family to share a similar diet.

"My grandpa would rice... he would trap, he would fish," she said.

McDonald, who receives $500 a month in food stamps, has trouble feeding her three sons, ages 11 to 17, and hopes traditional food will help. But she doesn't yet harvest rice, because she doesn't have a canoe. She doesn't think she has time for a garden. For now, she largely relies on another old tradition: sharing.

"They go harvest the rice, and we get pounds of it — pounds of it!" she said. "Might get sick of rice, but at least we're going to be fed, you know?"

Despite all this, McDonald does run out of food. She skips meals so her boys can eat. She hates to think about what she feeds them when her pantry is nearly empty.

"Toward the end of the month, you know, it's mac soup, mac and butter, whatever we can," she said.

The challenge for those who pin their hopes on traditional food is to convince more people to grow and harvest so that there's enough to share with elders and others who can't do it themselves.