When Wicahpi Cavanaugh (Cheyenne River Lakota) was 14, he seemed headed in the wrong direction.
“As a teenager you like to have fun, you like to go out,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I was kind of messing around.”
In his Twin Cities, Minnesota neighborhoods, “there was a lot of gang influence; you were easily swayed. … At that age, you kind of seem to imitate a lot of things you see on TV. … You’re kind of a conformist.”
And he was influenced, hanging out with gang members, dabbling in illegal activities, headed toward a bad outcome—one that for a few of his friends ended in death or imprisonment.
But all that was before Cavanaugh took up … gardening.
“During that time, I was kind of struggling a little bit with schooling. I never liked to read books. My mom used to try to get me involved in programs, get me more involved with what my indigenous people used to do.”
What his mother, Liza Guerra, found was about 25 miles away from the Twin Cities on a 10-acre farm near the small town of Hugo. There, an Abenaki woman and an Odawa man, bolstered by the gift of heirloom seeds collected for years by a Potawatomi grandmother, had developed an organization now run by a Dakota woman to help Native young people toward a better life direction.
Sally Auger, Abenaki, and her husband John Eichhorn, Odawa, purchased the 10-acre property in Hugo and started their Dream of Wild Health, tied to transitional housing they had started in the Twin Cities. The organic farming operation grew to focus on two things: cultivating and nurturing the heirloom seeds gathered by Cora Baker, Potawatomi, and gifted to them for preservation and propagation, and cultivating and nurturing young people. The farm also grows organic vegetables for sale at Twin Cities farm markets, raises chickens and keeps bees.
The farm welcomes children from ages 8 to 18 for summer programs, and this year gave out its first $1,000 Sally Auger Rising Star Youth Scholarship, named for Auger who retired in 2011. The first recipient is Wicahpi Cavanaugh.
A respectful, thoughtful young man beginning his freshman year at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, Cavanaugh spent three summers with the Garden Warriors program and this year was hired as a youth leader.
He chuckles when he admits that at 14, he in no way thought of gardening as “cool.” But with his mother’s influence—“She pretty much told me to get in there”—and the promise of a small stipend at the end of four weeks, he signed on.
Planting and tending gardens is only part of the learning, he discovered. “This program helped me a lot and also opened my mind to a lot of things.”
The children are transported by van from the Twin Cities to the farm, where they learn about Native cultural tradition from a Dakota elder and also about art, leadership, respectful relationships, and from a nutritionist, about how to prepare meals and what to eat to stay healthy. They participate in physical activities, including archery, and go on field trips, and the teen-age youth help to sell the farm’s produce at the farm markets.
Teaching healthy, respectful and productive lifestyles is important, said Dream of Wild Health’s executive director, Diane Wilson, Dakota. “One of the big shocks is having to leave, in the van, their cell phones, their iPods and any video games. The second shock is having to eat vegetables.”
Something else stays at home, too, said Sammie Ardito Rivera, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the organization’s outreach and education coordinator. “They’re slamming their Mountain Dews before they get to the van; there’s no junk food at the farm.”
Adopting healthy lifestyles means rethinking what should be on the table, “decolonizing our diet,” Rivera said. “What we think should be in a meal—it’s not really what our bodies are made to have.”
The kids bring the preconceived notions she’s found even in the older Native community, Rivera said. When she and the nutritionist attend community gatherings, she said, “I was asking about traditional foods. Ironically people kept bringing up fry bread. It [was introduced] not that long ago and already our brains think that [it is traditional].”
The young people in Dream of Wild Health eat breakfast and lunch at the farm. “They get fruit, they get a lot of veggies … meat is not the epicenter of the meal.” Rivera added that the meal plans are not strictly “traditional”—they receive a variety of healthy food options that replicate what is typically available to urban families. Getting true wild rice, for example, an Ojibwe traditional staple, can be extremely expensive. “It really requires you to be living on the land, to have access to that. Unless you have relatives who invite you up to the good berry patches and wild rice.”
The kids are taught life-long skills, too, Wilson said. “We pay them to come, we treat them as apprentice employees. Part of what they learn when they come is job skills: get up in the morning, work every day, work while you’re there.”
All of the teachings—cultural to nutritional—are geared toward the same goal, Wilson said. “The whole purpose is to improve health. Health is just a very complex issue.”
“This program really changed my life a lot,” Cavanaugh said. “It changed my behavior. It really helped with my high school years.”
While many of his friends continued to act out, he said, he learned control and respect. “It gave me a different way to look at the world.”
Tending plants was not the hard part. “Gardening is a pretty easy thing to pick up; it depends on your mind set,” he said, adding “the easiest—and the most boring [sic]—thing is weeding.”
The heirloom seeds, and a special medicinal plant garden, give additional opportunities to teach about the spiritual wholeness of creation and how old ways sometimes can be the best ways. For example, one of the currently most prolific of the heirloom-seed plants—a black turtle bean from Hopi culture—has been shown to have more antioxidants than altered, modern beans. With that bean, the young people learn to make black bean bread and about the value of antioxidants, which help to prevent cancers.
Choosing Cavanaugh for the first scholarship was easy, program leaders say.
“They’re called Garden Warriors and he’s modeled that kind of discipline,” said program board member James Rock, who added that Cavanaugh’s name “Wicahpi” means star—something to watch and follow. “What our traditional star stories [say is those] stars represent those who have gone before us—you look up and you’re never lost.” Stars, he added, help you to know “who you are and where you are and where you’re going.”
Roxanne Gould, also a program board member, said, “It was really exciting to us to be able to help give him that scholarship. They’re just an amazing family.”
Cavanaugh, since joining the program, has gone on to be involved in other cultural activities, including Sun Dance and being part of a drum group. He plans to start a community garden in the Twin Cities next year—amid his schooling and part-time work. He knows that he will carry through his life what he has learned as a Garden Warrior. Some lessons are as simple as being part of the harvest of good food.
“Being able to bring back whatever you picked off that plant, bringing all those vegetables back to your mom,” and then she cooks it, he said, “your self esteem just really increase[s]. It makes you proud.”