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Coronavirus Signals Return Of Indigenous Agriculture In Wisconsin

Rebecca and Steve Webster on "Three Sisters Mounds," the section of their farm where they plant corn, beans, and squash in a grid of mounds instead of tilled rows.

The coronavirus pandemic has a lot of us rethinking the ways we put food on the table. For the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, that has meant a return to traditional farming practices.

Instead of tilling soil and planting seeds in rows the European way, many indigenous groups in the Milwaukee area planted native crops like corn, squash, and beans in a grid of soil mounds. Sometimes they bury fish in the mounds to act as a natural fertilizer.

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That’s how Rebecca Webster prepares her 10-acre farm on the Oneida Reservation, which is near Green Bay. She and her husband Steve bought the farm in 2017 to re-learn how their ancestors might have made sustainable use of it year-round.

Given that coronavirus supply chain disruptions are leaving some grocery shelves empty, people from around the country have been contacting the Websters for indigenous seeds and tips to make their food last. When the Oneida Casino closed on March 18, more than 1,000 furloughed workers also needed food. Many turned to the Websters.

“We packaged up seeds, people would let us know when they’d be coming, and we’d put the seeds on the porch. [In exchange] they would leave something behind like a jar of jam, honey, or an elk roast if we’re lucky,” explained Webster. “Just something so we understand that seeds have value because they feed us.”

These forms of barter and farm management are about more than an anthropological exercise or a way of getting through the coronavirus pandemic. For Webster, this is about resilience despite centuries of indigenous genocide.

“We’re doing this not only to sustain our bodies and our minds, we’re doing this as a statement to say we are still here. We are proud of who we are, and we’re going to share what we have with the community,” said Webster.

The Websters recently launched a YouTube channel to document their dive into indigenous agriculture and share the practical aspects of reclaiming their culture.

Editor's note: This post previously referred to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin as the Oneida Indian Nation. Changes have been made to reflect the proper name.