Seeds of Change: How Cora Baker and Dream of Wild Health shaped the future of Native foods by preserving the past

Dream of Wild Health’s Franklin Ave Farmer’s Market // Photo by Tj Turner

At the farmers market on the corner of Franklin and 15th in Minneapolis, you’ll find more than the season’s bounty of farm-fresh produce. Here, youth in bright red Dream of Wild Health T-shirts will offer you a cup of cedar maple tea and samples of Three Sisters salsa, a toss-up of sweet corn, summer squash, and cooked Hopi black beans. And while you can still shop for the requisite tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, and onions most markets offer, the ones here are grown from heritage seeds that date back multiple centuries at the Dream of Wild Health farm in Hugo, Minnesota.

Dream of Wild Health is one of the oldest and longest operating Native American-led and -focused nonprofits in the country. It began as a program of Peta Wakan Tipi, an organization founded in 1986 to provide housing and culturally connected services for homeless and chemically dependent Native Americans. In answer to the residents’ requests for re-connection to cultural traditions, foods, and medicines, Dream of Wild Health was created in 1998 with the mission to recover and preserve the traditional relationship between people, plants, and health.

The Dream of Wild Health initiative was literally “seeded” by Cora Baker, a Potawatomi elder, who, upon hearing of the program, donated her lifelong collection of seeds—varieties of different indigenous plants including tobacco, vegetables, grains, beans, and herbal medicines—to the organization in 2000, shortly before she died at the age of 94.

Baker was a “Keeper of the Seeds”—a prodigious gardener and storyteller committed to reintroducing indigenous foods back into tribal communities. When people saw her corn hanging to dry on the side of her barn in the traditional manner, they began sending her their seeds to keep them safe. Following forced migrations and removal of traditional diets, generations of Native Americans had become disconnected from the importance of seeds. Cora became a locus for a network of elders who understood the importance of these healthy foods to tradition and culture.

Word of Baker continued to spread and packets of Mandan Bride corn, Arikara squash, and Hopi Black Turtle Bean seeds came to her knotted in the traditional manner in bandanas or handkerchiefs. Many had been passed through generations of people, planted and gleaned and replanted and gleaned, dating back to times when they were carried in smoky buckskin pouches upon the necks of those who were forced to relocate from their birthplace and ancestral homes, some were unlabeled. 

Produce from the Dream of Wild Health gardens. Cucumbers, onions, indigenous squash, and more // Photo by Tj Turner

Cora wrote to Dream of Wild Health founder, Sally Auger, now retired: “I had prayed and prayed that someone would take this gardening up again. I am very pleased to learn about your project. I feel that the Great Creator has answered my humble prayers. With the help of my great-granddaughter and grandson, we set out to help you. I wish that someday the children will come to realize the importance of this garden.”

Once word spread about Cora’s initial donation, seeds began arriving at Dream of Wild Health in the mail. Many came with notes along the lines of, “Grandmother wanted you to have these.” One family donated Cherokee corn seeds that were carried on the original Trail of Tears. Today, Dream of Wild Health has more than 100 different varieties of saved seeds, a priceless legacy from ancestors. Some of Dream of Wild Health’s seed stock is believed to link back to plants that grew more than 800 years ago. Seed stewardship is still a top priority for Dream of Wild Health and is an on-going effort, headed by Jessika Greendeer, the organization’s seed regeneration manager.

Dream of Wild Health is a founding member of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Alliance, a nationwide network of Native American farmers interested in reclaiming their food heritage and honoring the role seeds have played in keeping the memory of ancestors and traditional food culture alive. Given centuries of persecution and the genocide of millions of Native Americans, seed preservation is urgent and emotionally charged. 

The 10-acre Hugo farm, one of the only Native American-led farms in the Twin Cities area, is planted with a variety of vegetables, tobacco plants, and medicinal plants and fulfills a unique role in the Native American and local agricultural communities. Last year, over 13,500 pounds of produce was harvested and distributed throughout the Twin Cities’ Native American communities through Dream of Wild Health’s youth programs, Indigenous Food Share (providing low-cost fresh options to Native American communities), CSAs, farmers markets, and food donations. 

Supplementing Dream of Wild Health’s mission to save seeds is its youth education and outreach projects. Kids ages 8 through 18 can participate in some way at Dream of Wild Health’s farm. Those ages 8–12 can take part in Cora’s Kids, a program that teaches kids about Native traditions, language, culture, and the process of growing healthy, indigenous food. Teens ages 13–18 can participate in Garden Warriors, a three-week program that provides the opportunity to cook with the harvested foods and work at the farmers market. All Garden Warriors receive a stipend for their contributions.

The year-round Youth Leaders program takes the most promising, committed Garden Warriors and gives them the opportunity to become future health emissaries— teaching youth to take the messaging into their communities and share information about nutrition, health, and food justice as advocates for a more traditional relationship to food. The teens are paid for their summer work and are offered leadership opportunities during the school year. Several have returned as interns or are now paid staff, and all are potential future seed keepers. 

Brian Yazzie (right) with Dream of Wild Health teen participants // Photos by Tyra Payer, Dream of Wild Health

In addition to working at the farm, youth participants also have the opportunity to prepare meals with the food they grow with chef Brian Yazzie. Cell phones and other electronics are forbidden at the farm in order to further encourage everyone to establish a connection with the Earth. Another way Dream of Wild Health emphasizes this goal is by recalling a time when people used to nourish the plants with song and in addition to water and dirt. “We’re calling up genetic memories, this is our food. It’s exciting,” chef Yazzie explains.

Dream of Wild Health’s farm is linked to a growing national movement focused on directly linking Native Americans to agriculture. At the core of the nonprofit’s project lies the desire to grow a generation of health-conscious leaders—one of the many reasons Dream of Wild Health was named as one of Minnesota’s top 15 hunger-fighting agencies in a study commissioned by Minnesota Philanthropy Partners in 2013.

Along with being a way to directly and positively impact Native American communities, the produce grown by Dream of Wild Health is also amazingly nutritious. After conducting tests on the heirloom seeds, University of Minnesota scientists discovered that the antioxidants in the farm’s black turtle beans outnumbered those in the grocery store by about 20 to 1. One variety of squash contained over twice the calcium and magnesium of grocery store squash. Hominy contained half the calories of modern canned hominy. This work is helping Native American communities return to the healthier lifestyles once practiced by their ancestors. In the words of chef Yazzie, who inspired Dream of Wild Health’s culinary program: “We hunted and fished and trapped and grew what we needed.”

Cornbread with Wojapi & Kale Salad with Strawberries, offered by teen participants of Dream of Wild Health and Brian Yazzie at their Franklin Ave Farmers’ Market Booth // Photo by Tj Turner

“We see this as a whole movement, part of cultural recovery. There is history in those plants and the youth are carrying it genetically forward,” notes Diane Wilson, who worked as the executive director of Dream of Wild Health for six years. 

“Our indigenous chefs are committed to rediscovering pre-colonial ingredients and preparing them in relevant, contemporary ways that honor our traditions,” says chef Sean Sherman, widely known as the Sioux Chef. “Dream of Wild Health, by teaching youth about the importance of our seeds, our food, our traditions, and our culture, is critical to reversing the horrors of genocide Indians have suffered and the trauma that has reverberated through generations. These seeds are proof of our resilience and a direct connection to The Creator.”  

The programming continues to expand by partnering with several groups to create an Indigenous Food Network in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, aimed at introducing more healthy, indigenous foods to the city’s schools and youth programs. “The system is spiritually based and includes education and curriculum to help youth learn about the history and value of indigenous foods,” says executive director Neely Snyder. “We’re planting seeds, literally and metaphorically, knowing these students will become healthy adults raising healthy families.”