Indigenous Food Sovereignty Collective Grows In New Hamburg

Young Miriam Chouhan plants seeds on the land that was donated by Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg. She is supervised by Indigenous Food Sovereignty Collective Waterloo Region’s Bekah Brown. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)

Young Miriam Chouhan plants seeds on the land that was donated by Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg. She is supervised by Indigenous Food Sovereignty Collective Waterloo Region’s Bekah Brown. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)

Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg has donated one acre of land to the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Collective Waterloo Region (IFSCWR), for local Indigenous farmers to grow crops for their community. On the evening of May 20, IFSCWR held a ceremony to bless the land. Attendees all wore face masks and practiced physical distancing.

A Mohawk woman in her mid-eighties arrived early to begin praying for the land and the evening ahead. Four men sat on tree stumps and drummed in the twilight. Women stood in a distanced circle and sang while they, too, beat drums. Indigenous Elder Nina De Shane, who works with the Wilmot Family Resource Centre, lit a sage and tobacco offering to the land. Tobacco ties – small bundles of tobacco wrapped in cloth – were presented to attendees to take and imbue with their good intentions.

De Shane, who is Haudenosaunee, said, “The tobacco ties can either be left in the land or carried on the back of women’s drums for the planting and harvest season. The women are filled with joy at the sense of communal planting and harvesting.”

The farmers will be planting corn, beans and squash, which are known collectively as Three Sisters. A connection to the land and nature is integral to the story of creation that is shared by Indigenous people, and most of the key figures are female.

“These Three Sisters are the first plantings on Turtle Island,” said De Shane, using an Indigenous name for the continent that Europeans later called North America. “They arrived in a mystical way, clutched in the fingers of Sky Woman as she fell from the Sky World to Earth. She grasped the Tree of Life as she began her descent to the Sea World.”

As the pregnant Sky Woman descended to Earth, a giant turtle rose out of the water and offered Sky Woman her back to land on. Several animals began diving to the bottom of the sea, trying to bring up soil for her seeds to be planted in. This was difficult and dangerous, but finally a tiny martin was successful. With his last gasp, he placed handfuls of earth on the back of the turtle. Sky Woman planted her Three Sisters seeds, and then she gave birth to her daughter, Mother Nature.

“Turtle continued to grow into Turtle Island, and thus began our seasons, governed by the thirteen moons of the Turtle’s back, which began to govern the tides, the planting cycles themselves, and rhythm of women,” said De Shane. “There are thirteen moons on the Turtle’s back as there are thirteen moons in a year, each with a name. All are related to nature, and many to planting cycles.”

A pair of young women wearing moccasins and colourful jingle dresses with rows of metal cones – called “ziibaaska’iganan” – danced as part of the blessing ceremony.

De Shane explained, “They tap Mother Earth to wake our land and prepare her for planting, then they encourage the growth of our plants and seeds with their beautiful gestures. Usually, these would be performed in a circle, but we were happy to be apart and simply move up and down next to the land.”

Indigenous Elder Nina De Shane lit a sage and tobacco offering to the land. “For hundreds of years, the peoples of Turtle Island lived and farmed together on these lands,” she said.

Indigenous Elder Nina De Shane lit a sage and tobacco offering to the land. “For hundreds of years, the peoples of Turtle Island lived and farmed together on these lands,” she said.

IFSCWR’s website states that the group is a “grassroots collective working to restore the land and create community. We grow, hunt, and forage organic foods in traditional Indigenous ways for those in need in our community. We help to facilitate meals and grocery supplements for Elders. We help to restore the land using traditional Indigenous plants, and save their seeds for the next generations.”

Jenn Pfenning’s family owns the farm that is donating the land.

“When one of the organizers emailed to connect, we were made aware of the desire for land to grow an Indigenous Food Sovereignty Garden,” she said. “This isn’t a new concept to us. We’ve hosted gardens for various community members over the years. It’s a natural fit with our philosophy of stewardship of the land and feeding the neighbourhood first. It’s an honour to be able to support this project.”

The land is available for as long as the group wants it, Pfenning said.

“We can’t just give everyone a garden, but I don’t think we’ve ever said no. They do have to agree to follow organic regulations.”

IFSCWR presented Pfenning’s son Tristan with a Pendleton blanket to show their gratitude to the family.

He said, “This is a world issue I can do something about. This is something that matters that I can reach out, touch and have an impact.”

When IFSCWR went to buy the blanket, the group’s members were disappointed to find there was only one in stock. That disappointment turned to tears of joy when they saw it had a turtle woven into it.

“Can you imagine how significant this was for us?” said De Shane.

“We’re incredibly grateful to the families that allowed us to use this land again. For hundreds of years, the peoples of Turtle Island lived and farmed together on these lands, raising crops of the Three Sisters, sharing these wondrous seeds, harvesting and drying produce to keep them nourished through long, hard winters.”

“Now it’s up to us to maintain this precious acre through planting, weeding, watering and harvesting, and braiding corn in the fall.”

Four men drum at twilight last Thursday during a ceremony to bless farm land near New Hamburg where the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Collective Waterloo Region will grow corn, beans and squash. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)