Oneida organic farm, cannery and retail store are making Indigenous foods the Indigenous way
ONEIDA - What started as a program to teach low-income families about the importance of food nutrition in Oneida has grown into a critically crucial pillar to maintaining tribal sovereignty and culture and is helping to lead the way for all of Indian Country in the United States.
Tsyunhehkw^, or life sustenance in Oneida, is an agricultural community on the reservation that includes a certified organic farm, cannery and retail store on an 83-acre site.
Its goal is to produce Indigenous foods in the Indigenous way, not only for food security, but for food sovereignty.
The program started in 1978 by a small group of women who had set up nutrition, gardening and small farm classes at the Norbert Hill Center after an opportunity for grant funding became available.
“A lot has changed since then,” said Jamie Betters, manager of the Oneida Cannery. “The intention was to provide a service to teach people to be self-reliant and self-sustaining. … Then, we reintroduced traditional foods.”
Some of those traditional foods include crops produced from the Indigenous Three Sisters garden, which are corn, squash and pole beans.
The three work together symbiotically to help each other grow and protect each other from certain destructive insects. The corn grows first, the pole beans wrap around the corn and the squash stays close to the group, keeping weeds from growing, and all three share sunlight without blocking the other.
The Oneida Nation’s major focus the past several years has been in its production of white corn.
“This is one of our staple crops,” Betters said.
About 15,000 pounds of products using corn is processed every year at the cannery. Some of the products include what’s called Oneida corn mush, as well as meal and dehydrated corn.
The corn is processed in the Indigenous way, which includes cooking it in a solution using wood ash to break down the outer shell.
The process adds flavor to the corn, as well as increases vitamins, such as niacin, B3, and other vitamins and minerals for the body to absorb, so it’s more nutritious than corn products at grocery stores.
Betters said the Oneida Nation is leading the way through lobbyists working to make this corn and other Indigenous food recognized as organic by the USDA.
The cannery also produces products from the Nation’s 40-acre apple orchard, such as into apple chips.
All the products are packaged and labeled and produced with USDA regulations, as well as Oneida Nation’s food standards.
Much of the food is grown on the reservation, but Betters said some still comes from local, organic farms that produce in accordance with Oneida Nation’s specifications, such as in an ecological-friendly manner, and that allows for the tribe’s own labeling.
The Nation also runs a bison ranch with meat production currently outsourced.
The pandemic caused a meat shortage early on, so the Oneida Nation was able to allocate some of its CARES Act Coronavirus federal relief money to conducting a feasibility study this year for its meat processing that could be done at the cannery.
The meat packing feasibility study is not associated with cannery operations. But tribal officials say the endeavor could lead to even more food sovereignty and security for Oneida Nation.
Betters said a lot of these types of meat processing farms are run by retirees and younger generations are not following, so the Oneida Nation is having to rely more on its own operations.
And for the cannery, Betters said they have been running out of room to store food, so the Oneida Nation is scheduled to break ground on a new food innovation center in the near future on the site.
Many of the products produced by the cannery also are sold to the public at Oneida One-Stop gas station and convenient stores.
Some of the food also is prepared and served at the Oneida Casino Hotel Radisson and Conference Center, which includes a restaurant.
Betters said the original mission of the cannery is the same, which is to help maintain Oneida Nation's food sovereignty and promote and health and wellness for its people.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.