Farming For Change: Native Women’s Legacy of Sustainability

by Sharon H. Chang

Girls and women, Indigenous people and land practices, and small organic farms are among the top solutions to ending climate change. Yet women and gender diverse people have almost no voice on big agribusiness boards while people of color are often rendered entirely voiceless as America’s sustainable food movement, dominated by white people, ignores the food, climate, and environmental injustices faced by communities of color. In this special Emerald series, photographer and writer Sharon H. Chang introduces the women and nonbinary farmers of color at the heart of Washington’s agrarian revival movement who are moving the needle towards not only a future livable planet, but a socially just one. 

It is estimated up to 29 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from unsustainable food systems, a big chunk of which comes from large-scale, mono-cropping farms in the global north. According to a comprehensive report released by the United Nations, combatting climate change will require major changes to management of farmland and food. Project Drawdown, a research organization that identifies the most viable solutions to the current climate crisis, asserts it will mean valuing Indigenous wisdom and farming. Why? Because Indigenous people, who have been stewarding the land since time immemorial, have been practicing and developing sustainable agriculture for thousands of years.

In Seattle, which prides itself on being environmentally conscious, autumn presents an almost sacred opportunity to teach children about harvest. Kids are brought to nearby farms to trudge through pumpkin patches and take hay rides. “They are having fun,” adults congratulate each other, “while learning to value nature and where their food comes from.” But most of the popular farms Seattle children visit are white-owned. White farmers lead activities and can be seen working around the farm. Add the colonial narratives dominating fall holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving and it is not hard to imagine the subtext children are really learning: being outside and farming are only for white people.

The truth children are seldom taught is that farmland on this continent was cultivated by Indigenous people long before Europeans came. There are Native folks who have maintained their cultural connections to the land despite centuries of genocide and mass displacement. November is Native American Heritage Month and, in Seattle, Columbus Day has been replaced with Indigenous People’s Day since 2014. In Washington State, Native American families were among the first to earn farming wages (in fact, Natives originally taught whites how to farm on this continent). Even more importantly, today the preservation of Indigenous knowledge and food growing practices has been identified as key to ending climate change.

 Elizabeth Bragg of Long Hearing Farm (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

On a sunny, slightly muggy morning in Skagit County at the foot of the North Cascades, as the Skagit River flows steadily through lines of nearby trees, Indigenous farmer Elizabeth Bragg of Long Hearing Farm picks two deep purple, almost black, bean pods. “Aren’t they so beautiful,” she says. The beans, a Cherokee heirloom variety, were grown from seeds Bragg’s Indigenous mother got at the Cherokee seed bank in North Carolina. Bragg hopes to collaborate with the seed bank because, she points out, seed-collecting and seed-breeding are important to encourage plant diversity.

Elizabeth Bragg’s heritage is Blackfeet, Gros Vetre, and Cherokee. Her small organic farm is nestled into the foothills of Sauk Mountain, in Rockport, Washington, thirteen miles up the road from the Sauk-Suiattle Reservation. The farm is named after Long Hearing Woman, Bragg’s great-great-grandmother, who survived the Baker Massacre, a government slaughter of 200 Blackfeet women, children and elderly. Long Hearing Woman exuded joy and compassion throughout her life despite the violence she survived. “If we can even put into effect a bit of that joyful resilience,” says Bragg, “then we have contributed something really beautiful to the world.”

Bragg’s journey to farming has touched on many parts of the food system as a kitchen worker, community organizer, and now a food producer. She started farming six years ago when she was attending graduate school in London and connected with a radical food growers’ coop. She had intended to go to law school. Instead, Bragg realized she needed to return home to be close to her Indigenous family and Indigenous identity. She worked on different small Washington farms until a former employer offered her the opportunity this year to start her own.

Victoria Plumage farms while holding her nephew (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

On a different bright morning, about 100 miles away in Snoqualmie Valley, Victoria Plumage of Indigenous Roots proudly shows the native berries her project has established over the last two seasons: wild strawberry, black caps raspberry, salmonberry, and trailing blackberry (different from the invasive Himalayan blackberry found all over Seattle). This time, it is the Snoqualmie River flowing nearby. Plumage’s sister and her three young children have come to help today. At one point, Plumage picks up her infant nephew and holds him affectionately as she farms. Plumage says her project’s focus is to grow indigenous plants, especially Coast Salish plants native to the region.

Plumage’s heritage is Native Hawaiian, Assiniboine, and Hunkpapa. Her mother’s ancestry is Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), while her father grew up on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana. Plumage herself was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She majored in American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and is deeply immersed in the local Native community, growing food and working with Indigenous youth. Her land-based project, Indigenous Roots, is located in Carnation, Washington, at SnoValley Tilth.

Plumage began thinking about traditional foods for Indigenous people on a high school exchange in Hawai‘i. There, her cousin took her to the kalo patches in Waipio. “That was where I first realized our foods are really important and we need to know our foods,” she says. After college, Plumage worked at the Seattle Indian Health Board where she drove Indigenous elders to doctor’s appointments. “Elders would always tell me about how their aunties and uncles never had the same health problems. They said, ‘It’s because I’m eating city food. I know this is why I’m struggling so much.’” It was then Plumage realized she wanted to grow native foods for Indigenous people.

Elizabeth Bragg shows a Moon and Stars melon (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

The traditional knowledge held by Indigenous farmers like Bragg and Plumage is critical at this moment in history.

Both Bragg and Plumage grow diverse crops in rotation, which protects soil nutrients and reduces environmental degradation. They save seeds and conserve biodiversity. They also give food to those in need. Providing an organic CSA for local community, a subscription to receive weekly boxes of produce, is the core of Long Hearing Farm’s business. This season Bragg and her project partner, Kelly Skillingstead, grew greens, roots, and herbs for the CSA. Bragg also grew Indigenous and ancestral foods like purple corn and a beautiful heirloom Cherokee melon called Moon and Stars, which is deep green with golden yellow marks.

Indigenous Roots promotes healthy, self-determined Indigenous communities through traditional plant knowledge, foods, and medicine. The project is a partnership between Plumage, Ashley Alvarez (Black, Unangan/Aleut, Filipina), and Taylor Paul Anuhea Ahana (multiracial Pacific Islander). This season, in addition to berries, they grew camas, blue corn, and Ozette potatoes. Indigenous Roots was able to give away harvest this season thanks to a food access grant they applied for and won. The grant is also funding workshops for Native youth and adults at Chief Seattle Club, Daybreak Star Cultural Center, Huchoosedah After School Program, and creating gardens at five school sites.

Squash grown at Indigenous Roots (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

When it comes to teaching youth about harvest, following the lead of Indigenous farmers like Bragg and Plumage clearly presents the most sacred opportunities of all: razor-sharp analysis about food justice and farming; explicit vision about the role Indigenous farmers play in effecting change; and a precise understanding of how everyone should care for the land in ways that honor the past and are sustainable for the future.

As Indigenous women, Bragg and Plumage believe farming is an act of mutual respect and exchange with nature, which also means caring for the ecology around their farms. Bragg says it is important to maximize land already in agricultural use and not cultivate more land than needed. This keeps the surrounding native ecosystem strong. Her goal is to feed as many people as she can with the one acre she’s farming. “Together, this piece of land and I, and these plants and I, are doing something,” says Bragg. “We’re helping each other out.”

Throughout the year, Plumage often walks the area surrounding the Indigenous Roots plot to gather horsetail, nettle, wild rosehips, cedar, and cottonwood buds for medicinal purposes. It means she is not limited by a typical farm season but can use what is available across all seasons. Plumage says it is crucial for people to work on their reciprocal relationship with the natural world. “In our culture, we’re not above the plants or animals. They’re our relatives and families. If we help take care of them, they’ll help take care of us.”

Kelly Skillingstead (front) and Elizabeth Bragg harvest for the CSA (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

Elizabeth Bragg is a part-time coordinator for the Washington chapter of the Young Farmers Coalition. She listens to books and podcasts as she farms; inspired by activists like adrienne maree brown, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, and Leah Penniman. “I have radical beliefs that the roots of our systems need to be changed,” Bragg says. Long Hearing Farm prioritizes serving local Indigenous, working class, and poor populations. Bragg integrated a work-trade option and sliding scale into her CSA. She also hopes to be in community with the Sauk-Suiattle and offer a place where Native youth can come have land connection. The Native American Student Union (NASU) of Western Washington University has already visited, and Bragg will take part in a Concrete school food justice unit this winter.

“It feels very transformative to be actively disrupting the narrative,” Bragg says, “rather than just stewing and letting another year pass.”

Meanwhile, Plumage, who works frequently with youth, says she often hears how worried the next generation is about the climate crisis and how betrayed young people feel by adults leaving them an unlivable planet. She says all adults can teach children how to grow food, which will bolster needed local food sources while empowering youth to make change. To precisely address the climate crisis, however, Plumage believes the world needs to listen specifically to the leadership of Indigenous farmers. “I think Native people should be leading the climate change talks” because, she says, her millennia-old culture best knows the ways to live in balance with the land and take only what is needed, leaving plenty for wildlife and the natural world.

 Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies  that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood. 

Featured image: Ashley Alvarez (left) and Victoria Plumage (right) of Indigenous Roots farm (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)