KEWEENAW BAY – Remote. Rural. Rugged.
Those are adjectives often used to describe the Keweenaw, the “little finger” of land stretching into Lake Superior from the northwestern shores of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The Keweenaw is widely known as Copper Country for its mineral extraction industries which boomed, then faded, 100 years ago.
While some dream of a robust new industry that could take mining’s place, others believe that prosperity and happiness lie in a return to cultural practices of the Keweenaw’s Indigenous residents, who fed themselves by fishing, hunting, gathering wild rice and berries, and cultivating vegetables.
The southern shores of Lake Superior is the ancestral home of Ojibwa People
, which includes the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community
KBIC is Michigan’s oldest federally recognized tribe. Its tribal lands comprise about 125 square miles of non-contiguous lands in Baraga, Ontonagon, Houghton, and Marquette counties, near the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. KBIC’s registered membership is about 3,500 people, and of those, about 1,200 live on the reservation.
“Our goal is food sovereignty, which is really just a way of saying a preference for fresh and locally grown foods,” says Michael P. Lahti, who works for the Natural Resources Department
(NRD) of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. “There’s no Sam’s Club or Costco up here. The nearest Walmart is almost 30 miles away. We need to strengthen our food systems—produce more of our own food—so we can be less reliant on the larger food system.”
Benefits of eating local
Disruptions in food distribution channels forced by the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the need to produce more food locally, Lahti says. The Keweenaw is among the northernmost parts of the United States and sparsely populated. The produce that was available for shipment ran out before Keweenaw’s small local grocery stores could get it, imperiling the health of the region.
Obesity and diabetes—conditions that can be improved by eating more fruits and vegetables—are significant health problems in the community, Lahti says.
Beyond scarcity, too much of the produce that was delivered was not all that fresh anymore—and the community noticed.
“I heard people complaining, ‘This was probably trucked 3,000 miles in the back of a semi. Is it any wonder that it’s lost its taste?’’’ Lahti says. “It’s easier and cheaper to pop a frozen pizza into the oven, but fresh foods taste better and have more nutrients.”
Thirty-eight percent of Native American households
in the area live at or below the poverty line.
The Baraga County Farmers Market convenes at L’Anse Waterfront Park through the growing season, but it’s open only two days a week, so even during harvests fresh produce is difficult to come by, says Cindy Wiltse, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resources food systems specialist.
Furthermore, annual snowfalls of about 200 inches limit access to fresh food from October to April.
Back to traditional practices
Several organizations and institutions, including Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College
, are collaborating with KBIC to help the tribe—as well as the broader Keweenaw community— return to traditional ways of gathering and producing food. The partners believe the food sovereignty movement will improve public health, lift the local economy, and enhance residents’ sense of community.
The term food sovereignty was coined in 1996 by members of La Via Campesina
, an international group of peasants, small and medium-sized farmers, and indigenous peoples whose way of life had been hurt by globalization. Members in the movement believe that the people who grow, distribute, and consume foods should also control the policies and mechanisms of food production and distribution. This stands in contrast to the nation’s predominant food distribution system, in which corporations and market institutions determine food availability.
Kathleen Smith works her plot at KBIC’s Peoples Garden. (Rachael Pressley)
“We’ve got used to thinking that our food comes from somewhere else, like Iowa or Wisconsin,” explains Rachael Pressley, senior regional planner for the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region
, in Hancock. “Food sovereignty would prefer to see those big farms decentralized. Basically, it says that people have a human right to grow food the way they want to grow it. They should be able to eat food how they want to eat it.”
Adding fields, facilities, equipment—and regulation
While food sovereignty has always been a value of the tribe, KBIC took an important step toward achieving it in 2013 with the opening of a 10-plot community garden near two ponds that were created by and for the NRD to raise walleye for release.
By 2023, the KBIC community garden, which is surrounded by a 9-foot fence to keep vegetables safe from deer and other wildlife, has grown to more than 50 plots on 5 acres. The community garden features an orchard with more than 260 fruit trees and shrubs. It is flanked by a large, newly installed raspberry patch and several strawberry beds. The tribe maintains two beehives for pollination.
“Having a community garden really provides more access to land where a person can grow food to feed their family,” said Cindy Wiltse, who the tribe hired as the food systems specialist almost two years ago.
Many families possess generational knowledge of traditional skills like hunting, fishing, tapping trees in early spring to collect sap that can be made into sugar or syrup, and preserving produce. But for some people, including tribal members, these skills have been lost or were never acquired.
The KBIC Natural Resources Department, along with its partners, arrange for seasonal workshops where safe food harvesting, handling, processing, and preservation techniques are taught. Almost 90 people—mostly youths from the tribe and broader community—attended a deer camp workshop this fall where participants got hands-on experience dressing out two deer.
There is even a workshop on naanaagadawendam, in which growers share the lessons they perceive that gardening has taught them.
Developing fertile garden soil has not been easy, Wiltse says. Nutrient-rich topsoil was previously scraped off and sold, leaving a surface of heavy clay laden with stones.
Supporting the fishing industry
An ice house and fish cleaning facility built in 2021 near the village of L’Anse with grant money is playing a starring role in helping augment the poor soil, Wiltse said. Fish waste left from processing is ground up, mixed with manure, and placed in a windrow covered with mulch to compost for a year before adding it to the garden as a soil amendment.
The fish house, a heated structure equipped with sinks for handwashing and stainless-steel tables, represents major progress, Lahti said.
Before it opened, Lahti says, KBIC-licensed fishermen could not legally sell their catch to restaurants or grocery stores because foods that are sold to the public must be processed in ways that assure safe food handling. There is no charge for licensed tribal fishermen, and subsistence fishermen, to clean their catch in the fish house, he explains.
On the reservation, Indian Health Services
(IHS), the tribe’s entity for regulating safety, is writing its own health code that would govern safe handling of foods that can be sold. KBIC’s Natural Resources Department also is drafting a Model Food Code
that, if adopted by the Tribal Council, would govern a wide range of food-related pursuits, Pressley said.
Another amenity, constructed next to the tribal fish house, is a teaching center, where Wiltse and others can provide instruction on other traditional skills, such as tying gill nets, crafting medicinal teas, processing manoomin (wild rice), and pressing apples for cider.
The teaching center has become a popular gathering spot, but is not ideal for all the community’s potential needs. There are no stove tops or ovens, underlining the need for kitchen space.
Pressley was hired by the Natural Resources Department to conduct a shared-kitchen feasibility study with Michigan State University and Fresh Systems LLC. That study—to be completed by the end of 2023—will explore considerations of opening a commercial kitchen facility that could be used by tribal members and the wider Keweenaw community.
Processing their catch in a commercial kitchen would allow fishermen to filet and bread their catch.
“Lack of commercial kitchen space has held back growth of a fishing industry,” says Lahti, noting that walleye, whitefish, and lake trout are plentiful in Lake Superior and area inland lakes. “With access to a commercial kitchen, fishermen could sell raw fish cut in ways that makes it easier for the purchaser to prepare it.”
Consumers will pay a premium for fish that comes ready to cook, Lahti says.
Next year, Pressley’s feasibility study will go to the KBIC Tribal Council, which will weigh its potential benefits against other priorities and then decide whether to seek funding, Lahti says.
Kym Reinstadler is a writer, editor and researcher. After a distinguished career in daily journalism, she added library science to her repertoire, working for an international technology company that builds research databases. Big data has not overshadowed her interest in local news and people, however. Kym continues writing on a variety of platforms on topics ranging from fine arts and sports to accessibility and history. Reach Kym at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of Todd Marsee/Michigan Sea Grant and Rachael Pressley
This story is part of a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability through Good Food in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.