David Manuel had high hopes for Red Lake's organic food initiative when he broke ground on a test garden in 2016. He planned to scale up quickly and build a system to feed the whole tribe within a few years.
Tribal leaders hoped their goal, which they call food sovereignty, could be met using only legacy farming techniques disconnected from the modern industrial food system, which many Native people see as unhealthy and damaging to the environment.
It turns out, though, when you're trying to feed 5,000 tribal members, a little industry helps.
While Red Lake has plenty of fallow farmland and tons of free, abundant natural fertilizer, it needs a tractor, said Manuel — and trying to make that purchase is a lot more complicated than it sounds.
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'Problems trace back to money'
Any non-tribal farmer would just get a loan from the bank and buy a tractor. But Red Lake can't do that.
"All our land is held in common by the whole tribe," said Sam Strong, Red Lake's tribal secretary. "It's very hard to get a loan from a traditional bank, because we can't put land up as collateral. It's hard to do business."
Without the right equipment, Manuel hasn't been able to expand much beyond the tribe's original test garden. It's a fantastic garden, and he grows some seriously good tomatoes. But it's not nearly big enough to feed the tribal members who live on Red Lake.
Reservations across the country are working similarly to break free of the traditional Big Food system, hoping to grow their own and feed their own.
"If you asked someone about food sovereignty 20 years ago, they wouldn't know what you were talking about. Now I'd say three quarters of tribes have some kind of food sovereignty program," said Janie Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund and a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
Unfortunately, she said, Red Lake's equipment problem is very common.
"Tribes run into any of three problems," she said. "They can't get land. They can't get workers, or they can't get equipment. And all of those problems trace back to money."
Hipp's fund gives grants to as many food programs as it can, but she said there's not enough money to go around.
The successful food programs, she said, have to get creative.
'How important this is'
Despite his frustrations, Manuel's become a study in creative farming.
This year, instead of buying the sort of large expensive tractor required to cultivate hundreds of acres — a rig that could run $50,000 to $100,000 — he scraped together just enough money to buy a small, used tractor off Craigslist for $7,000.
"We've tilled up more than 300 small personal gardens around Red Lake," he said. "I'm teaching people how to plant their own food."
Red Lake has built-in advantages. It has hundreds of acres of tribal farmland sitting fallow. The tribe has easy access to tons of fish guts from the Red Lake walleye processing facility. It's some of the best fertilizer in the world, and Manuel gets it for free.
Manuel still plans to build a big, efficient organic farm that can feed everyone, one day. But he also sees the initial effort of people tending their own gardens as an important step, a way for people to become more invested in a healthy lifestyle.
For him, gardening is a high calling. His fellow tribal members suffer from higher than normal instances of diabetes and cancer. Manuel thinks of organic food as medicine and views his role as a healer as much as a gardener.
He said he'll stick with the job, even if he pretends to quit from time to time.
Impatient by nature, Manuel told his Facebook followers he was quitting his job as Red Lake's lead gardener before this year's planting season.
"I quit a few times a year," he said. "I just need a weekend to get my head straight. To think that I'm free of it. Then I remember how important this is."
Correction (July 2, 2019): An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Chickasaw Nation. It has been updated.
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