Mothering the Earth

Reader Contribution by Natasha Bowens
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Today along with honoring my own mother, I want to honor some women I know that steward this land in a way that we should all learn from – they are true mothers to the earth.

These mothers of the earth are members of tribal communities that were some of the first to live off of this land, caring for the environment in ways we now seek to revive under various names like ‘sustainability’ and ‘permaculture.’ Today these women carry on the philosophies and practices of their ancestors that were around long before these popular terms.

I had the privilege of sitting in one of the Wisdom Gardens in Oregon of the Pacific Northwest, a region that is home to many different Indigenous tribes. Wisdom Gardens is a project to restore native food systems and promote health and wellness in Portland’s Native American community through horticulture education and healing. The gardens are run by Wisdom of the Elders which is an organization that, in their own words, “records and preserves traditional cultural values, oral history, prophecy and other messages of guidance from Indigenous elders in order to regenerate the greatness of culture among today’s and future generations of native peoples.”

Rose High Bear, Deg Hitan Dine (Alaskan Athabascan), and her late husband Martin High Bear, Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader, founded Wisdom of the Elders in 1993 because as they stated, “As First Peoples, we are humbled by the wisdom of our elders and the deep connection they share with Great Spirit, the world of nature and family. We regard our elders as rapidly vanishing, irreplaceable keepers of oral history, tradition and environment. Values they extol represent an ancient legacy of knowledge which has become as endangered as many disappearing species in our fragile ecosystem.”

Wisdom Gardens is reviving the disappearing plant species in their area and restoring the fragile ecosystem by planting native plants. In doing this they are also offering opportunities for local Native American communities to reconnect with the land and traditional foods of the region. The use of native plants is supposed to be the emphasis of permaculture, a modern term that ultimately points to a way of living and working with our environment instead of against it – a way of life that many Indigenous communities have carried out for thousands of years. But many permaculture enthusiasts today are planting invasive species while they focus on growing a variety of foods that may not necessarily be native to the region. Wisdom Gardens focuses on restoring the native food system by bringing back native plants for wildlife food sources as well as those that were traditionally eaten by Pacific Northwest Indians.  

Amanda Kelley-Lopez, Chickasaw, Choctaw, & Cherokee, is the gardener for Wisdom Gardens and gave me a tour of the garden where she is growing native species like huckleberry, elderberry, choke cherry, serviceberry, salal berry, as well as some hybrid blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “We grow the hybrid because the native blueberries here like high altitude,” says Amanda, “so they wouldn’t like it as much on this site. However we take students out to see the native blueberries as well as wild blackberries and wild plums, so that they can still see what they are like.”

This garden site of the Wisdom Gardens sits within the Kelly Butte wildlife preservation area along the Johnson Creek Watershed in Portland. Wisdom Gardens works with the City of Portland Environmental Services to restore the natural ecosystem since it has been taken over by invasives like English ivy, morning glory and invasive trees. Amanda also works with the native ferns and other non edibles to amend the soil after the erosion and compaction from development and invasives. The native trees like the Douglas fir work well with the gardens too for sawdust mulch or to add acidity to the soil for the blueberries.

Amanda tells me about some of the educational workshops they host in the garden for the Native community, “We host an elderberry preserving demo each year where we demonstrate how to make elderberry syrup. Elderberries are high in antioxidants and are traditional medicine. Many berries are traditional foods here, but we also have camas bulb, which is a member of the lily family. We talk about how to harvest and cook it -boiled and mashed like potato. It’s great for minerals and calcium and helps with diabetes. Wopato root is also native here, it grows in marshy areas and the root is good for starch like camas bulbs. Sometimes we get surprises of native plants that come back to us, like the thimble berry whose seeds came up from when a tree fell over here and its roots pulled the old seeds up. Now that’s true heirloom.”

Rose High Bear wanted Wisdom Gardens to use heirloom as well as native plants for horticultural therapy to heal the historical trauma Indigenous communities have suffered from being removed from their native land and culture through the reservation system. She wanted the native plant gardens to bring people back to the land. Portland has one of the largest urban Native American populations with some of the larger confederated tribes like Grand Ronde, Siletz and Warm Springs represented. But there are many other tribal members from all over the country, like Amanda, who is still adapting to the Native traditions in the Pacific Northwest.

“Back East, we are agricultural people,” Amanda says, “We grow corn, beans and squash – the three sisters- and our ceremonies follow the growing season, like the Green Corn Ceremony that takes place the month before the corn harvest. But here there are river people and plains people where the ceremonies follow the salmon and the buffalo. I have had to amend the garden activities schedule because in the summer at the height of the growing season, people are out at pow wow or Sundance. So we focus on spring and fall gardening and wild harvesting.

“But gardening and the philosophy of growing what’s native to your region has always been a part of my life from as far back as I can remember. Back East we grow tobacco – not for commercial use but for the perennial that it is. Many people don’t realize tobacco is a perennial because the industry grows it like an annual, ripping it up each year. But it has a beautiful flower and can be grown as an ornamental that will get as tall as five feet and will come back every year. I still grow it and use its leaves for incense and ceremonial smudging. I also take the large leaves and dry them and use them as a canvas for my paintings.”

Amanda uses her tobacco leaf paintings of the Choctaw diamond and other Native designs to auction off for fundraising for Wisdom Gardens. She invests so much into the land she now calls home, restoring true meaning to the term ‘permaculture’ simply by carrying on the wisdom of her elders and caring for the earth under her feet, as any mother would.

Amanda Kelley-Lopez of Wisdom gardens was interviewed for The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming, Natasha’s book available now on Amazon.

Read all of Natasha’s posts.

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