Rooted shares stories about land tending, community healing and regeneration happening right here on the ancestral land of the Indigenous Anishinaabe, the area commonly referred to as Detroit.
Tlingit urban farmer, cultural food worker and seed keeper Kirsten Kirby Shoote has a new project taking shape in Highland Park. The work is just getting underway, but they’re already growing many different plants on the land there, including strawberries, raspberries, chokeberries and herbs like sage and bee balm, which is also known as wild bergamot.
Shoote starts out by explaining that this new location is just the latest iteration of their ongoing food sovereignty journey and mission. “I’ve always had a food sovereignty project in mind. And I was tending to a lot in Pontiac, and it just started as outgrowing my windowsill space … that project is called Leilú Gardens. The meaning of that word in Tlingit, which is my Indigenous language, is butterfly and it’s really about the transformative power of people and plants in our history and currently to really work together and have a relationship with each other,” they say.
Coming Into Relation With This Land
While Shoote is tending to this farm on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, their ancestral lands are in what is known as Southeast Alaska. “My mother is Tlingit and I was raised in the Pacific Northwest,” they say, adding that they came to Detroit by chance. “I started off in a program apprenticing on organic farms and I sent out a bunch of emails and Detroit just happened to be the first place that got back to me,” says Shoote. But in the years since first arriving, they say they have come into close community with many Anishinaabe people living in the area who are also engaged in food sovereignty work.
Shoote admits that current state of the Highland Park lot, which they came into tending through a connection through a local neighborhood group, is pretty rough. Yet, they also note that there is so much life teeming throughout every inch of it. Their primary work here in the coming months will be working with plant relatives to remediate and rematriate the land. Shoote says they initially were growing traditional Indigenous foods, but in an effort to be culturally inclusive to other communities of color living in Detroit, they started to branch out. “I like … to be really aware of our Black relatives in the city and their food culture. Basically anything that people find useful or enjoyable or brings them back home, I will grow,” says Shoote, who has grown several different varieties of okra, along with mustards and collard greens. “These foods can be really healing. Even though I don’t have an ancestral past with them I’d like to be able to provide that for anybody who is looking for it.”
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Seeds As Markers of Past, Present and Future Health of Community
On the role of seeds in the community as a whole, “there are so many big stories surrounding seeds in every culture; we are all tied to seeds in some way,” says Shoote, who considers themselves a seed keeper, but noting that they are in their “very sophomoric kind of phase of seed keeping.” Shoote says they “still have a very childlike wonder attached to it while also realizing the importance … of it.”
Shoote says learning about the generations of careful tending to these seeds, which is what has enabled them to be in their hands today, is a testament to the original growers and cultivators. Although this connection to ancestral foodways runs deep for Shoote these days, they say this wasn’t always the case. “Growing up, I didn’t have this connection with food; it’s something I have nurtured over the years,” says Shoote, who recognizes that not everyone has the time to access and engage with this kind of work.
“For me as an Indigenous woman, seeds are my grandmother in a lot of ways and my grandchildren in other ways. These seeds have been though tremendous amounts of trauma and the other side is that they hold so much resilience in them.” — Kirsten Kirby Shoote
“If you are working endlessly to just acquire your basic calorie intake, then you probably won’t have time to grow your own food or kind of look into your history and see what foods would nourish you on a spiritual level. That’s part of the reason I do this work is because of the inadequate food system and realizing peoples’ capacity in terms of time and money and that’s why I want to make it a free resource,” says Shoote, who is planning to get a food access point up and running by August. The food access point will live alongside the farm in Highland Park. “It will be a space where Indigenous folks around the city can come and pick up food and medicine for free or low cost to have that traditional nourishment met,” explains Shoote.
Shoote also works with an organization called the I-Collective, an autonomous group of Indigenous chefs, seed savers, artists, activists and knowledge keepers. They say the group is composed of a diverse community of Indigenous folks with a variety of backgrounds who come together with food sovereignty in mind. Much of Shoote’s work within that group is rooted in upholding Indigenous food culture and sharing the ancestral significance and narrative around these foods through events like food pop-ups for Native and non-Native audiences alike. When holding these events, Shoote says that it’s become clear that ”food is such a useful vehicle for communicating something outside of words.” Noting that as soon as someone bites into a piece of bison or eats manoomin (Indigenous wild rice) for the first time, “there something within that food that speaks for itself,” says Shoote.
Looking ahead, Shoote is hopeful. “Our future as Indigenous people is more resilient than ever for me right now,” says Shoote who says they have been imagining a future “where there’s manoomin … back in unpolluted waters of the Huron and a future where there are celebrations of Indigeneity, where we will gather and be at home again.” Shoote says this ability to come home is a big part of what pushes her to keep doing this work. ”The Indigenous diaspora isn’t talked about very often but we were removed from our lands and even though we still reside on the lands of our ancestors it’s in a very different shape and part of what I want for the future is to reshape our life on the land … and that’s where working with plant relatives gets me,” they say.