CHICAGO – A train roars by as Native American children and instructors climb up a railroad embankment in Chicago, headed toward a barren patch of land that they’ll transform into a garden with edible and medicinal plants.
Some carry potted plants or spades to break up the earth hardened by the summer sun, eager to connect with their natural surroundings. They’re continuing an important cultural tradition that can be difficult to maintain for native people who, decades ago, left reservations for urban areas like Chicago, which now has one of the 10 largest native populations in the U.S.
“Even though we’re in the city, we’re not landless,” said Janie Pochel, 28, an instructor who identifies as Lakota and Cree.
The garden project, known as Urban Ecology, is sponsored by the American Indian Center on the city’s North Side. The first garden began 10 years ago in front of the center and has grown to include two more gardens in the city, including one lining an embankment of the Union Pacific railroad. There, the group is working on growing an oak savannah, like the one that inhabited the area years ago.
“If we’re going to change kids’ ideas about who they are as native people, who they are as tribal people and what that means, we had to connect kids with land – and that began with plants,” according to project coordinator Eli Suzukovich III, who is also known as Little Shell in Chicago’s relatively small but tightknit native community. “We get them thinking about how that plant lives, its cultural significance, and then from that one plant would radiate out to the larger land context.”
The American Indian Center is one of a few organizations across the country to plant gardens. The Indian Health Centers in Milwaukee and Detroit focus in part on teaching the community about healthier eating habits in the face of increased diabetes risks. Native Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
Detroit’s garden also focuses on cultural relevancy like the Chicago center’s garden, which was planted in hopes to bring back some remnants of life as it was on the reservation, where medicinal plants were more likely used and a trip to the pharmacy wasn’t necessary. Plants like blue flag, an iris, can be used for fevers and Echinacea can be used as a vitamin source.
Prompted by the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956, many Native Americans left for bigger cities – such as Chicago – in search of better economic opportunities. Some were successful in making a living in the city, while others weren’t and eventually went back to reservation life. Today, there are about 27,000 people of native descent living in Chicago, a city that ranks among the nation’s biggest populations of American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Suzukovich said the center hasn’t gotten any pushback for their gardens from the city, state or railroad company, and the reaction to the gardens has been positive.
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the railroad has an agreement with the center for the use of the land. He added that the company grants access to property along a rail line on a “case by case basis,” saying safety is one of the considerations.
Raven Roberts, 29, who identifies as Micmac, Potawatomi and Oneida, said she has heard younger people in the program getting excited when they know what kind of traditional medicine the plants produce.
“So many things were taken from us,” she said, “and it’s kind of like we’re reclaiming ourselves and who we are.”