A Trent University student has created a garden that feeds her Indigenous community and her soul.
After the pandemic started, Denise Miller and her father wondered about the future availability of food and worked together to create a family garden on their property in Six Nations, Ontario.
They started growing crops such as pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, banana peppers, squash, watermelon and cucumbers. Denise, who is pursuing a joint major in Indigenous Studies and Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems at Trent, successfully applied for mini grants through the Indigenous Sustenance Reclamation Network to pay local youth honorariums to help work the land while also learning about Indigenous food systems and gardening techniques.
Using leadership skills gained through her work with the Trent University Native Association (TUNA) and the Trent’s First Peoples House of Learning (FPHL), Denise says she started the Revitalizing Our Sustenance project to reclaim Haudenosaunee food systems while teaching Indigenous youth the importance of growing their own food.
“This work is true to my heart because looking at the younger generation, they don’t realize how scarce our food supplies are,” she says. “Even if I motivate them to talk with their parents and start their own garden, then that will benefit their family and the entire community.”
Studying abroad in Mexico inspired local project
An interest in growing her own food started for Denise during a Trent study abroad course in Mexico. While learning about the Mayan people and culture, she stayed in Mayan family homes and was inspired by how they grew gardens, instead of shopping at grocery stores, and shared with the community.
When back on campus, she gained critical leadership skills by serving as TUNA co-president and working as an Indigenous mentor with the FPHL – helping first-year Indigenous students by showing them around campus, offering peer support and encouraging them to get involved through volunteering for elder gatherings, participating in campus activities or joining sports teams.
It was last spring, when the pandemic started and Canadians frantically stocked up on food, that she started thinking deeper about food insecurity and how, even in the best of times, people who live in Six Nations had to travel off the reserve to find a grocery store and healthy food options.
After she and her father started the garden on about three acres of the family property, she was thrilled with the progress and eventually was able to pay several youth to help out while others enthusiastically volunteered.
Trent courses educate students on decolonizing food
This year, seven youth are working the land, which now includes strawberry patches as well as a field of white corn donated from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Denise says she only has enough grant money left over to pay one youth this year so she is working on accessing more, possibly from Canadian Roots Exchange.
Eventually, Denise says she hopes to turn this garden project into a career, perhaps operating her own food market.
However the project unfolds she says she will always keep her hands in the dirt and try to continue offering opportunities to youth in her community to work outdoors.
“As Haudenosaunee people, we are ‘on-the-land’ people,” she says. “This work is part of our identity.”