A Garden in Duluth


I was recently asked to give a talk on “Ojibwe gardening practices” to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom. The request really made me stop and think. My work with Ojibwe language revitalization has taken me to many Native communities over the past two decades, but I have never seen anyone gardening, and, in that time, I remember seeing only two garden plots, both empty.  Once, I brought some squash to an elder, only to have her granddaughter thank me for the “nice decorations.”  The elder was in her nineties and in the oldest of the five living generations of her family.  She knew how to cook squash, but her descendants did not. Our people have lost a lot to the continued efforts of colonizing forces, and, for many families, gardening and cooking our ancestral foods are some of those losses. My recent interview with two women working on food sovereignty initiatives in Duluth, Minnesota, has given me hope that these skills are coming back to our communities, even in places where there is no soil to till.

Ivy Vainio, a direct descendant of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, and Katie Schmitz work for the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, a deceptive name given that “housing” is only one of the life-sustaining services that they offer. Through monthly cultural knowledge education initiatives, farmers markets, a domestic violence shelter, family and youth programs, a cultural art gallery program featuring mainly Indigenous and BIPOC artists, urban gardens, Indigenous-focused retail space, urban project developments, and other events, the programs at AICHO demonstrate the community uplifting that comes with food sovereignty efforts. 

Schmitz describes how a housing unit began food sovereignty initiatives: “AICHO started its permanent residence in, I think it was like, 2012… And noticed that it was hard for a lot of families in the permanent supportive housing program to access healthy food so that was a basic need that was really hard to meet living in a food desert downtown and not having convince stores within walking distance…. so we started serving meals to families and we were able to do that through a partnership with the food bank but that didn’t provide us with a lot of control over the kinds of foods we had access to…. So the food sovereignty work really began there in terms of what types of food we had access to…”

They knew building a garden would bring healthy food to their residents, but they literally had neither space nor soil.  Describing the situation, Schmitz says, “So we’re downtown, but we have a roof.”  That is where they built their raised bed gardens in 2014. Later, roof repairs forced them to move, but they managed to find space in an old parking lot, which they converted to a garden. Today, the center has two gardens: one on the roof top and one in the converted parking lot. This spring they are planting: sage, sweet grass, asemaa, sunflowers, squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, basil, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, lettuce, kale, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, peas, yarrow, anise hyssop, bee balm, amaranth, columbine, calendula, and ground cherries.  AICHO staff work with local cultural knowledge keepers to choose, grow, and maintain those plants. They make necessary adaptations for their small, hot growing spaces. In their Three Sisters’ Garden, one will find, alongside beans and squash, sunflowers in place of corn. Local cultural knowledge keepers also work with AICHO staff to offer the community Indigenous Food and Food Systems Knowledge Sessions on cultivating, harvesting, and processing local foods (those in our gardens and those in the wild).  Pre-pandemic these were held once a month in person, and during the pandemic they have been on Zoom, with some in person field trips.  

The gardens and food education programs are only one part of their contribution to improving the health of the Hillside neighborhood in Duluth.  When Vainio and Schmitz started working at the center, the only grocery store that AICHO housing residents, and the entire Hillside Community, had was the Fourth Street Market, a small corner grocery store specializing in sodas and commercial tobacco. The store sold some canned goods and staple foods, but it lacked fresh vegetables and other healthy food options. Many Hillside residents rely on public transportation, and maneuvering grocery bags on a bus is difficult to say the least. Walking to a small nearby store is the best option for many families. In 2017, AICHO purchased the store, renamed it the Niiwin Indigenous Foods Market (“Niiwin” means four in Ojibwe) and began creating a store that will provide affordable, healthy food options for everyone. They plan to focus on Indigenous foods, while also selling staple foods, and eventually have an Indigenous foods deli and a coffee shop.

They were still developing the Niiwin Indigenous Foods Market when the global pandemic hit.  Seeing so many community members out of work and unable to purchase any food, AICHO staff turned the unopened store into a food pantry. They obtained COVID-19 relief funding to work with local producers of fresh, organic, healthy foods to fill their food pantry boxes, along with PPE and information on COVID-19. Two hundred families receive boxes from them each month.

During our interview, Vainio and Schmitz shared pictures of some projects the center has led over these last couple of years. Although we had just spent well over an hour describing these projects, it was not until I saw those images that the breadth of what they were doing really hit home to me. One photograph shows a small raised bed garden in the middle of an old, former, asphalt parking lot. Behind the garden loom buildings of downtown Duluth.  Plants growing in a concrete jungle, where there is no ground to till, really signifies the importance of and need for food sovereignty.

One of AICHO’s initiatives is to promote and support local businesses, especially Indigenous food producers and artists.  Through Indigenous First Art and Gift Shop, their onsite giftshop, you can purchase some Indigenous foods, as well as artwork by regionally and nationally known Indigenous artists. 


This recipe is from Ivy Vainio, who describes her frist time tasting it: “I was so excited to try the pine needle soda on the fourth day. My husband Arne and I poured it into the glasses and on the count of three took the first drink. Both of our first thought was “refreshing.” It had a slight pine flavor and a little sweetness to it. The bubbly-ness was a cool sensation, in several ways, knowing that it was created naturally from the yeast off of the pine needles with the honey/water mixture.”  

Having been neither an avid gardener nor very knowledgeable on locally sourced foods before she began working at AICHO, Vainio happily explains that she has been learning right along with the rest of the community not only about how to grow, harvest, and work with local food options, but also about how to recognize wild plants as foods. 

Vainio adapted this recipe for Pine Needle soda from that of Pascal Baudar, an internationally known expert on fermentation.  One of the steps Vainio added to the recipe was offering Asemaa (Tobacco) to the trees before gathering their needles.  She grows the Asemaa herself, another skill she learned at AICHO.  The Asemaa she grows is Nicotiana rustica, which is a different species from the one commonly found in tobacco products sold at the store (For more information see this USDA page). As she makes the offerings, she asks each tree, individually, to permit her to gather needles and help her make this beverage. These needles can be harvested and this soda can be made any time of the year, but if one’s house hits 100 degrees inside during the summer, that might not be a good time to try to make a fermented beverage.  It was winter when Vainio was making this soda.

Pine Needle Soda Recipe:


9 cups of Spring water

2 ½ cups raw honey (it’s best to get this directly from a local producer so you can be sure it is not pasteurized)

5 cups of needles (balsam needles, spruce needles (black spruce Picea mariana  or white spruce Picea glauca can ge used, but black spruce tastes the best), white pine needles (Pinus strobus)


1). Find the following trees: balsam, spruce (white spruce tastes the best), and white pine.

2) Make an offering of Asemaa (tobacco) to each tree and ask that being for permission to gather needles, in a way that will not hurt or kill the tree, and for assistance making this beverage.   

3) Fill one half of a sterilized 10 cup canning jar with the needles.  Any combination may be used, but Vainio recommends half of the needles (approx. 3 cups) be balsam and then “top off” the jar using a combination of spruce and white pine needles for the remaining 2 cups.

4) In a separate bowl, stir together honey and spring water until the honey is dissolved.  

5). Pour the honey and spring water mix into the jar containing the needles, put a coffee filter or a piece of cheese cloth on top (adhering this with a rubber band along the edges of the jar helps), and set it in a warm place. Vainio puts it beside her wood stove.

6) Open the jar and stir the mixture 3 times a day for 3 days.

7) On the 4th day, strain the needles out from the liquid and then package the liquid in clean jars and let them sit in the fridge for 12-24 hours.  

8) The mixture can now be drunk and it can be kept in the fridge for up to one week.  

More instruction on making offerings with Asemaa (My Mom taught me to do this when I was very young):To make an offering of Asemaa to any being, go to that being with the Asemaa in your hand.  If Nicotiana rustica is not available, many people use the store bought tobacco instead.  Then greet that being by name (Many Native communities are working on teaching members names for plants and trees in their native languages so that those beings can be greeted in those languages. If you want to greet these trees in Ojibwe, check out how to say their names on the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary).  Next, introduce yourself by saying: your clan (if you have one), where you are from, and then say your name(s). If you have a Native name, make sure to say that name.  Finally, you ask the being for permission to harvest whatever you are trying to harvest, and make sure to promise to do so in such a way that that being’s descendants will be able to continue to grow in that area.