Two people stand in a field, one holds a shovel.
On the farm in Hugo, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Tyra Payer.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

“During the summertime when you’re out hiking or going for walks, especially with your kids, just pointing out what berries are in season or what greens and vegetables are in season right now, to me, that is food sovereignty,” says Brian Yazzie—Navajo culinarian and Dream of Wild Health Resident Chef—in a recent healthy cooking video. “It’s just being sustainable and cutting ties with the grocery stores, being more outdoors, more seasonal.”

In the tutorial, Yazzie, in a shirt that reads “WE ARE THE NEW TRADITION,” makes a late summer salad featuring zucchini, pea shoots, red currants and fresh culinary sage.

His philosophy, as he juliennes the zucchini and toasts the pepitas, becomes clear: agency can be found in even the simplest of actions. In the eight minute video, Yazzie obviously does not offer his preferred methods for a radical overhaul of the food system. But he does express his faith in the seasonal summer salad as a source of empowerment. 

And maybe that faith is easy to come by when those simplest actions take place in a community of young people, watching and replicating. In my mind, this is the systemic vision of Dream of Wild Health, a non-profit farm in Hugo, Minnesota whose mission is to create access to healthy, indigenous foods and lifestyles. 

The farm employs three staff members for the sole purpose of stewarding the organization’s indigenous seed collection. On the farm, they lead classes in gardening, cooking, and plant identification. All efforts are centered around the modeling of traditional relationships to food for the Native, largely urban young people who spend time at the farm and participate in programming in the Twin Cities (or on Zoom) throughout the year. 

Enjoy my conversation with Dream of Wild Health’s Communications Coordinator, Tyra Payer, of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: There’s some symbolic weight to Dream of Wild Health’s mission of preserving Indigenous species through seed collection and maintenance. Does the preservation of those plants and foods ever serve as a metaphor for some less tangible mission?

Tyra Payer: At Dream of Wild Health, we grow seeds and leaders. That’s something our Cultural Director and Elder, Ernie Whiteman, would say at the farm and it describes our work perfectly. It’s both the actions we take every day, and a promise. We care for Indigenous seeds at DWH, just like we care for youth when they visit DWH. As our seeds and youth grow, our impact grows too.

DY: Your organization now primarily works on issues of food access and youth leadership, but in the past Dream of Wild Health provided transitional housing for people with substance use disorder, as well as people facing domestic violence. Are there vestiges of that older mission? Was it a natural transition from one goal to the next?

TP: Dream of Wild Health started as a program of Peta Wakan Tipi (Sacred Fire Lodge), a nonprofit organization that provided transitional housing and supportive services for homeless and chemically dependent Native Americans. When Sally Auger, our founder, retired in 2011, the transitional housing programs were closed. Our previous Executive Director, Diane Wilson continued Sally’s work of honoring our seeds and carried forward our youth programs and farm.

DY: The goal of the Indigenous Food Network is to “rebuild a sovereign food system.” What would such a system look like? How does your organization view its role in larger scale food-justice advocacy?

TP: Working with our community partnerships in the Indigenous Food Network (IFN) widens our reach. DWH is the lead organizer of the Indigenous Food Network and every IFN partner has a gift to contribute. One of the things we’ve talked about in regard to IFN initiatives is working with schools and Indigenous chefs to replace snacks and meals with healthy, Indigenous foods. That’s just one of the many examples of what a sovereign food system could look like.

DY: We work with urban Native youth because that’s where our community is. The Twin Cities Native community is one of the largest urban Native communities in the country. Most of our youth are from Minneapolis or St. Paul and we also have youth from the surrounding metro area. We have an urban office in Minneapolis. That’s where I would normally be working (before Covid). Our office is located on Franklin Avenue, the heart of the Native community in Minneapolis.

Tyra Payer stands wearing a hat, sunglasses and a mask, holding produce in the garden.
Masked in the garden. (Photo courtesy of Tyra Payer.)

DY: How has Covid-19 affected your programming? Have you been able to engage Native children in learning and leadership even during the pandemic?

TP: Our programs are still going! We’re very excited to have been able to continue our youth programs in a safe way during Covid. We have youth programs in-person this summer (last summer as well). Throughout the school year, we have continued to host Youth Leaders programs virtually.

DY: As a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, yourself, how has working for Dream of Wild Health changed your relationship to your heritage, and to the land?

TP: I grew up on the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Working with DWH has deepened my relationship with the foods I grew up with, and the foods I didn’t even know I had memories of. I grew up eating fresh tomatoes and cucumbers from my dad’s garden, eating salsas and jams that my Aunts preserved. After working here a few months, I brought ground cherry salsa home for my dad, excited because I hadn’t had ground cherries before DWH. When I shared the salsa, he told me that he had grown up farming with ground cherries and so had his dad before him. Now, ground cherries hold a special place in my heart and they’re tasty!

DY: What should people interested in food justice be reading? Any recommendations?

TP: My favorite is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I love the way she holds western scientific methods and Indigenous ways of knowing at the same time to view our plant relatives. One teaching I’ve learned from Hope Flanagan, our Elder and Community Outreach and Cultural Teacher at DWH, is that every plant has a gift, all we have to do is ask. The way Robin describes our plant relatives reminds me of Elders like Hope. I also enjoy cookbooks by Indigenous authors. The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley teaches me something new about Indigenous foods every time I open it!

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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