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Planning for the future: Oneida Tribe of Indians mixes historical tradition with conservation

By Malavika Jagannathan | Green Bay Press Gazette

The main ingredient for the 1-pound mounds of cornbread Carol Elm sculpted to meet the recent Thanksgiving demand is grown and hand-harvested less than a mile away.

The heirloom white corn in the traditional cornbread — which is boiled, not baked — is grown at a nearby agricultural site, individually picked and dried before it comes to the Tsyunhehkwa Cannery to be processed. It's the same type of corn used by the Oneida Tribe of Indians in New York before it was transplanted to Wisconsin.

"We got the elders in the community to teach us more or less how to do it," Elm said. "They always made it at home, but they taught us and it gradually morphed into something bigger."

This approach to producing healthy, indigenous foods is one of the ways the Oneidas focus on sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.

Members combine the tribe's historical practices with an eye on future conservation and preservation. They also are restoring wetlands with native species, getting meat from a buffalo herd and repopulating trout in area waters.

"We really want it to be better than when we were kids," said Ted Hawk, 68, a longtime member of the tribe's environmental resource board that oversees environmental issues on the reservation. "To make things better and greener, we have to restore to them to what they were and keep them that way."

From the fields to the table

The relationship between the Tsyunhehkwa Agricultural Center — an 83-acre culturally based agriculture site, its cannery and retail outlet — illustrates an almost completely sustainable model with food grown, produced and sold locally, agricultural supervisor Ted Skenandore said.

Starting as a cooperative farm, the present-day Tsyunhehkwa produces corn, squash, fresh greens, eggs, poultry, beef and even raspberries. Much of the fresh, organically certified food can be bought at Tsyunhehkwa's retail store, but some of it is canned and turned into other products at the cannery,

This focus partially comes from a legitimate interest in growing fresh food and passing along that education to the community. Native Americans as a group have twice the rate of Type 2 diabetes as other groups.

"The cannery and Tsyunhehkwa is a great program because it meets the needs of people with traditional food," Elm said. "We have such a high rate of diabetes that people can take advantage of fresh garden veggies and other foods."

Tsyunhehkwa maintains about 30 acres of crops, many of which are certified organic such as the white corn, hay, pasture, fruits and vegetables. The tribe also runs a farm in Seymour, where it raises buffalo and Black Angus cattle.

However, Tsyunhehkwa is a model and doesn't necessarily produce enough to serve the entire community, Skenandore said.

"We're showing people that they can do things at home," Skenandore said. Each year employees at Tsyunhehkwa hand out seeds to community members and hold workshops on gardening.

The cannery, too, has roots in an effort to help people help themselves, Elm said. It holds workshops to teach and encourage homemade canning.

"It was a lot of education on foods," Elm said. "We started trying to get people to come in and can their own foods."

Restoring the land and species

Just as tribal members can eat the same type of corn their ancestors in New York did, they may also be able to once again fish for trout in Trout Creek.

Restoration of the Trout Creek waterway, which runs through the northern portion of the reservation, will help sustain brook trout populations that had long disappeared from the waters because of manure runoff and sediment. Last May, the tribe released about 5,000 fingerlings and will continue to monitor their progress.

In a few years, the stream should support a self-sustaining trout population and be open to fishing, said tribal water resources manager Jim Snitgen.

"The community is always involved in our projects," said Michael Troge, environmental program manager for the tribe. "When we release the fish, we invite the community come out and be part of it."

It's one of the ways the environmental, safety and health arm of the tribe hopes to allow tribal members to return to their traditional use of natural resources. This division of the tribe spans the gamut of responsibilities from monitoring environmental resources to animal control.

Concern about the reservation's waterways has long directed the work of the environmental resource board, a commission that meets twice a month and oversees environmental issues, Hawk said.

From buffering the waterways to prevent further erosion and manure runoff to once again meander streams that were once straightened out, Snitgen said the

"We're on the right path," Hawk said. "Instead of just following the guidelines of the state, we've really taken a leadership role. We expand on the laws. We make and create the conservation laws."


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