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Prairie Island Community partnership with Goodhue County Master Gardeners pays off for both sides

Master gardeners are able to learn about native plants such as white sage and sweetgrass, which have medicinal and ceremonial uses in the Prairie Island Community.

PIIC sign and master gardeners.jpg
Goodhue County Extension Master Gardeners work on the Prairie Island Indian Community Elder Garden on May 10, 2022, in Welch, Minnesota.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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WELCH, Minn. ― The Prairie Island Community and Goodhue County Extension Master Gardeners have been working in partnership since 2018, in what began as on-site visits to identify insects, diseases and weed issues in the Prairie Island Community Elder Medicine Garden.

"We came out first to look at some insect disease problems, and we were just so impressed with their gardens," said Nancy Berlin, a master gardener with the Goodhue County Extension for 11 years.

The partnership has evolved into much more, with education exchanges between Prairie Island Community members and the master gardeners on traditional wisdom, medicinal uses for plants, food sovereignty and more.

"The partnership that we've had with the master gardeners these past four years has been a really great relationship between the tribe and the city of Red Wing, and Goodhue County," said Staudt. "The gardeners that come here talk all the time about how much they appreciate the cultural teachings that take place, and how they learn things that they've never known or never thought about before from the tribe — that is pretty life changing."

Mikhail Childs, a tribal member of the Prairie Island Community and volunteer gardener, said his role in the partnership is simply learning and sharing what he's learned from his elders and other community members, along with Prairie Island Community employees who've been hired to reeducate youth on native plants.

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"Reeducate on all of the knowledge that was lost — knowledge of plants and the knowledge of nature," said Childs. "I'm just a conduit, because I learn from the master gardeners, which has been a huge asset to our community, with their background and their knowledge of plants."

Childs, who has been a volunteer gardener since 2017, said it's been great to see the master gardeners react to the plants growing in the Prairie Island Community gardens.

"They just find it so unique and exciting, because we've got all of these, what a lot of people might consider weeds, that we know of as medicine," said Childs. "That's why I volunteer, because I get so much out of the program, and just being around all the people that are sharing what they know, and all I can hope to do is pass on that knowledge to whoever is willing to listen, and hopefully to the next generation."

According to a quote from an unnamed Prairie Island Community tribal member on the sign outside of the Prairie Island Community Elder Medicine Garden, many "Dakota and non-Dakota" people once congregated near Prairie Island and Red Wing during the growing season, because of the "plethora of medicine plants" that grew in the area.

"If Red Wing was the hub of the economics that were going on in the time of our ancestors, Prairie Island was our pharmacy," said Childs. "Prairie Island just had an overabundance of different kinds of medicines. And I think that's what's unique about our position here, is we have a chance to showcase how plentiful all these special and rare medicines that could be found on Prairie Island back in the days of our ancestors."

Childs is able to teach members of the master gardener program about Minnesota-native plants — such as white sage and sweetgrass — and their traditional medicinal uses.

Sweetgrass is a native Minnesotan grass that grows actively from spring to fall. Small yellow flowers bloom around midsummer, once the flower is done blooming, and dark black seeds cover the plant. Sweetgrass has a sweet vanilla-like smell.

White sage is a perennial forb that rises on multiple stems from slim rhizome, and like sweetgrass, also has a highly fragrant aroma.

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Both white sage and sweetgrass are grown on the eagle mound in front of the Prairie Island Community Elder Garden.

"There's white sage on the head and the tail, and then the sweetgrass grows on the wings," said Nicole Staudt, grant coordinator for the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership at Prairie Island Indian Community, of the eagle mound.

Sweetgrass can be braided, said Staudt, and white sage can be harvested for multiple uses. Both plants are used in different tribal ceremonies, she said, along with medicinal uses.

"We have a few different medicines that we use for smudging, and some of them are used for purification, for cleansing," said Childs. "Others are used to ward off bad energies, and others are said to promote or attract good energy."

Every month before meeting with the Goodhue County Master Gardeners program, Staudt tries to highlight some seasonal native plants at the time.

This May, she highlighted nettles, which were out as well as dandelions with a tea she made for the group

"We harvested some dandelion flowers, and then also some wood violet flowers which add a beautiful color to the tea," she said. "All of those are edible, and they make wonderful tea."

Nettles serve as an anti-histamine, said Staudt.

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"Nettles are really good to drink in the spring when you suffer from seasonal allergies," she said. "But they also are super nourishing — way more nourishing than the kale or the spinach that you could buy at the store."

Every part of the dandelion flower is edible, said Staudt, and the flowers add a "really lovely honey" sweetness.

"Any green part of the plant is a little more bitter, so if you want to keep that bitter out of your tea, you can just remove the flower part to use," she said. "And a lot of people like to bake with that as well."

Staudt said ingesting dandelion is a "wonderful medicine" for the liver.

For Childs, the education within the partnership is good for both sides as well as the earth.

"All the neighboring communities around us — we are them, and they are us," said Childs. "We are just fortunate enough to be the caretakers of all these special relatives — because that's what they are, the plants and nature, is just an extension of us. They're just vessels that the Creator uses to do His will."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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