Turning Back to the Land

Organic garden provides tribal concept market
By Cara Lucas

Aromatic coffee brews quietly, filling the small café at Mazopiya with a rich, morning scent. The warm drink is especially welcomed today, as the light drizzle outside rings in the cold season at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) reservation in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

Mazopiya (Maz-OH-piya), meaning “a place to store things” in the native Dakota language, is the name of the new health-food grocery store on the reservation. It is the newest addition to the natural foods movement that tribal member Lori Watso has supported since her return home from living in San Francisco. There, fresh food was at her fingertips and, no longer a foreign concept, it became the backbone for her new, wholesome diet.

“I really made the connection between food and all kinds of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer,” says Watso. “It was there that I gained a real appreciation for clean food. I want to share that information with the tribe and help them make the same types of connections.”

However, after a career in nursing and health communication, Watso became “tired of talking to people about food” and wanted to give the tribe “an opportunity to physically connect with their food.” She decided to finally take action, and voiced the need for a natural foods store. This culminated in the startup of Mazopiya and the nearby garden that supplies many of its native food items like tribal ceremonial tobacco, sage, prairie onions, and mint, as well as other more mainstream produce like radishes, tomatoes, and squash.

The tribe’s food incentives aren’t limited to their own community, though—they offer many opportunities for the surrounding public, as well. “Our food initiatives target our tribal members. That’s who we are hoping to impact. Then, of course, we have an extended family of employees who are not a part of the tribe that are very important to us, as well. So, we are happy that what we do trickles on out and impacts them, too,” explains Watso.

The certified-organic garden, which started as a feral alfalfa field in the spring of 2010, now comprises five acres of reservation land and includes a CSA program (in this case a TSA, or tribally supported agriculture) where the current 46 members can pick up crates of in-season, harvested vegetables every week for 18 weeks. The garden also participates in food programs with local pre-schools, providing an opportunity for children to be active in the garden and to see where their food comes from.

Mazopiya also makes its presence known in the community by conducting cooking and informational classes about new types of produce and the best ways to use it. These on-site classes focus on foods that provide specific health benefits, explaining why they are essential to good health and how they can be integrated into a wholesome diet.

There is an obvious change in the way the Dakota community is starting to think about food, and together with their surrounding neighbors, they are turning back to the land to embrace what their ancestors already knew: food is powerful, food is healing, food is life.

One could say that bottles and boxes of ancient principles now stock the neat, colorful aisles of the contemporary store. Only now, they get a “Mazopiya” label stamped on the front.