by Jodall Mattson
Indigenous peoples and communities have long used stories to understand the world and our place in it. Seedcast is a story-centered podcast by Nia Tero and a special monthly column produced in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald about nurturing and rooting stories of the Indigenous experience.
I started the Native Sharing Garden about four years ago. In the beginning, friends would join me in the dirt, maybe once a month. We would work a bit, share a meal, and share skills the way Indigenous and BIPOC folks do. As time has gone on, more and more of my days are filled like this, and I’m more and more drawn to making plans to do this long-term. This land is so special, and I can say that because, you know, I didn’t create it.
Of course, sometimes in order to do the things we want to do, there are also things we have to do. Each morning I get up and get my two babies (who are 9 and almost 11 and not actually babies) off to school. Then I get on email to start my work as the owner of Wild Hearts Farm, where I create beautiful sets for photo shoots and events, incorporating gorgeous flowers, DIY greenhouses, vintage trucks, and even a bright studio created out of an old chicken coop. It’s hard work, especially when you consider all the coordinating, scheduling, and invoicing that go along with it. I’m good at it, though, and I get to work with amazing partners. However, my real passion is the Native Sharing Garden.
I’m not sure about you, but sometimes anxiety makes it hard for me to get out of bed. However, if I wake up and remember that I have a date with my garden, it’s easier to face my day. For me, work in the garden is a form of medicine, and it’s even more potent when I get to share the work with others. This is why my partners and I started a program on Tuesdays called Work as Medicine. There is always hard work at hand (planting a hedgerow, for example, or researching plants indigenous to the region, digging holes, or garden cleanup), but there’s also laughing, the passing around of babies, and the passing around of joy. Witnessing togetherness, cooperation, and caring on a consistent basis is changing my life and the lives of my children.
It can be hard for non-BIPOC folks to wrap their heads around Work as Medicine, because to them “work” is so often connected solely to making a living, being productive, or being successful. But for Indigenous people, working with the land gives us the opportunity to fulfill a responsibility we were born with, carried by our ancestors, which we will also pass on to our children. The thing is, Indigenous people are in relationship with this land regardless of the work we put into it or the pieces of paper assigned to it. Indigenous isn’t just a word: It means that we are the first known inhabitants of this place, that we know this place in ways no one else can, and the land knows us back. We are born not only deserving of access to the land; we are born with the land expecting us.
This last part is a message I especially enjoy sharing with Indigenous and other BIPOC youth who come out to the garden with school groups and other programs. Now, if I’m totally honest, I have to reveal something: I’m sort of scared of teenagers. I mean, I like them, but I’m convinced that when they get to the farm and meet me, they’re going to think I’m a dork. (And maybe they do.) But even if we’re all shy together when they first arrive, there’s always a moment when suddenly everyone is working, in a zone, even if they didn’t think they wanted to get dirty at the start. In these moments, we’re not only doing whatever task is at hand: We’re helping, we’re sharing, we’re playing. The students — who are overwhelmingly Indigenous and BIPOC and also often queer — can be their full selves, finding rest and holding joy, unobserved and unhindered, away from many of the obligations, expectations, and judgments of the world.
I get a similar feeling when I participate in medicine making with Canoe Journey Herbalistst or volunteer at the free medicine clinic at the Tahoma Indian Center, contributing to the medicine-making with traditional plants grown only feet from my house. We work with each other, and we heal each other, just like we work with and heal the land, just like the land works with and heals us. A circle we are forever a part of.
During one youth group visit to the farm, I remember noticing one Indigenous kid in particular becoming very drawn to the plants. We were putting together plants for people to come pick up in the spring or early summer, and I noticed this student touching, smelling and examining every single plant. Instantly I thought, “Oh, they are a medicine person.” You can’t get that from a biology class or a YouTube video. To inspire self-discovery like that is important. Everyone who comes to the garden goes back out into the world with a rejuvenated sense of self that touches the lives of others, radiating tendrils of Indigenous strength and care out across Turtle Island and beyond.
Indigenous peoples think about land differently than white people do. It’s just true. To us, land isn’t an asset or an investment, something to be passed down to our children or sold to a developer. Instead, to us, the land is an essential medicine, the cornerstone of our culture. Being forced from our ancestral lands was a violence enacted upon us; continued lack of access to land extends and deepens that violence. This isn’t just about property; this is about our responsibility to steward the earth, to care for it so we can also care for each other.
Now, when one more of us gets to own property, it can feel like a miracle, even though it should not feel this special. We are here to be in relationship with and service to the land, not just to politely consult on what policy makers should do related to climate change or to work on industrial farms owned by others: We have just as much a right to own land as anyone else, if not more, since, you know, it was taken from us without permission. This is why I yearn to root into this place where the Native Sharing Garden sits, on Puyallup territory in Tacoma, Washington, alongside other BIPOC farms who are my neighbors, including Rose Island Farm and at De La Mesa Farms. I don’t want to be seen only as “ambitious” for wanting to own my own farm — I want to see my desire to own land as an Indigenous woman as normal.
It is for this reason and so many others that I am working to secure the property I live and work on. Some amazing peers and mentors have helped me create an online funding page toward this end. It wasn’t easy to put the page together, to decide what to share and how to ask for the support I need, but it’s important that I do this for not only myself but for every Indigenous relative and future visitor to the Native Sharing Garden.
When people — youth, elders, future elders — leave our Native Sharing Garden after a visit, they always thank me. They talk about coming back, about what they want to do next time they’re here, about friends they want to bring with them. I say, “The land missed you and is so happy you are here.” And it’s true.
The feeling I get on my land is a feeling I want to share with every Native person who needs it. I hope you join me: in connecting with our heritage; in nurturing that innate impulse to cultivate, tend, and harvest; in burying hands in the soil up to wrists, elbows, shoulders to find the roots of anxiety; in healing old and new harms; in using our tears of grief (or joy) to water the opportunities for future generations of Indigenous and BIPOC people.
With the support of my community, the Native Sharing Garden will be here to appreciate you for years and years to come.
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Jodall Mattson is Aleut from the village of Port Graham in Alaska. She lives on Puyallup territory in Tacoma, Washington, where she raises two children and runs Wild Hearts Farm, the land of which she plans soon to own. Follow the sights and sounds and activities of the Native Sharing Garden on Instagram and Facebook.
📸 Featured Image: Jewel-colored corn from the Native Sharing Garden. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
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