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At Potawot Community Garden the Health of the Land Equals the Health of the People

Hand holding strawberries grown at Potawot Community Food Garden. | Still from "Tending Nature"

Potawot Community Garden, housed at United Indian Health Services’s main facility in Arcata, California, feeds not only bodies but spirits and souls. The 20-acre garden is part of the larger Potawot Health Village, a coastal prairie in the ancestral Wiyot district of Gudinih. It’s a place of wellness, of healing, of cultural resiliency and it’s a wellspring of Indigenous food sovereignty. 

“That’s what Potawot is; it’s a healing place,” says Carol Larsen, Paiute/Pit River/Ojibwa, government and corporate affairs manager at UIHS. 

UIHS, an organization founded by a group of women in 1970, expanded from a small building in Weitchpec, CA to the 40-acre Village it manages today. When the board of directors purchased the land, which had been converted to cattle pasturage, they agreed with the city of Arcata to use 20 acres for the health village and restore 20 acres of land to its natural state. “The land itself called out and told us what needed to be done,” says Alme Allen, Karuk/Yurok, who works on land management at UIHS. 

This aligned with the mission of the health agency, which serves the health and wellness needs of some 12,000 Native people in Northwestern California. “We could create what Native people wanted,” says Larsen. “With the agreement, we are able to eradicate the non-native plants and plant native plants in this area.”

The land now known as Ku’wah-dah-wilth Restoration Area includes plants used in basketry, one of the most important cultural activities of tribes in the region, as well as other culturally important plants. Ku’wah-dah-wilth is the Wiyot term for “comes back to life.” Endemic grasses, trees and bushes soon replaced the invasive species, and paths were created so people could wander the restored lands and refresh themselves — and, during gathering season, replenish weavers’ basket making inventory. 

In addition to plant species, Potawot also has a way of restoring people’s connection to the land. Ed Mata, Chumash, recalls his first involvement with Ku’wah-dah-wilth. “We collected and planted these trees in 1999,” says Mata, who at the time worked for California State Parks. The experience drew him back to Potawot a few years later, where he is now the head gardener. “I took classes and workshops in garden management” to master the job, he says. 

Green beans ripen at Potawot Community Garden. | Courtesy of Potawot Community Food Garden's Facebook page
Green beans ripen at Potawot Community Garden. | Courtesy of Potawot Community Food Garden's Facebook page

Jude Marshall, Hupa/Karuk/Yurok, Potawot’s community nutrition manager, also returned to Potawot after working for the organization as a student at Humboldt State University. After obtaining his degree and a job with the Yurok Tribe, Marshall returned to UIHS almost four years ago. “While I was in a class on behavioral change, I switched to an ancestral diet,” says Marshall. “I cut out grain, dairy and other non-Indigenous foods, and I lost weight. I found the right type of diet that fit my body.” That passion for returning to a traditional diet and how Native people can accomplish that in the 21st century shines through in Marshall’s work at Potawot, where he coordinates Potawot’s food programs and outreach.

The community garden features 3 acres of row crops, four 100-foot-long greenhouses, five honey bee hives that support a 110-fruit-tree orchard and a permaculture fence with berries, roses and other plants. Potawot produces more than 40 different fruit and vegetable varieties in addition to the orchards, says garden specialist Tee Griffin.
Potawot offers its goods at a farmers market every Tuesday and Friday from mid-May through the end of October, and every other Tuesday from November to May, to provide fresh, organically-produced fruit, produce, honey and jams to the community. The farmers market recently expanded to Klamath, about an hour’s drive north of Arcata, on a monthly basis during growing season. 

One of the goals of the garden program is to bring fresh, locally-grown produce to rural food deserts. “Many communities don’t have grocery stores,” says Liz Lewis, Shoshone/Paiute of UIHS’s community nutrition program. Some families must drive an hour-and-a-half just to reach a supermarket with affordable prices.

Those families who make it to the farmers markets where UIHS sells its produce, find an added bonus in the program: they learn how to prepare it.“You can have this beautiful display of all of these fruits and vegetables that people don’t know how to cook, and so they won’t buy them,” says Lewis. “How do you get them to buy Romanesco [broccoli] or beets, all these exotic foods they haven’t experienced before?” For example, Marshall says that he once knew only one way to cook zucchini — rolled in flour and fried. 

A Potawot staff member preparees a spiralized zucchini recipe for a taste test. | Courtesy of Potawot Community Food Garden's Facebook page
A Potawot staff member preparees a spiralized zucchini recipe for a taste test. | Courtesy of Potawot Community Food Garden's Facebook page

“One of the biggest ways to help us sell our produce is to offer taste tests and recipes,” says Marshall. “When we have an abundance of foods or when things aren’t selling well, the taste tests help people learn how to prepare these foods,” says Marshall.

Another advantage customers find in UIHS’s locally-grown food is how great the produce tastes. “A traditionally-grown tomato that travels for two weeks is bland-tasting and pesticide-laden,” says Marshall. “But a ripe, freshly-picked tomato right off the vine creates a whole new experience.” 

Children that once turned their noses up at tomatoes and other produce are now asking their parents to buy them, says Marshall. In fact, Marshall says, he overheard one 7-year-old boy tell his mother that if she were to buy produce, it had to be from Potawot. “I didn’t even know what a farmers market was when I was that age,” Marshall says. 

Potawot Community Food Garden staff sets up for farmers market. | Courtesy of Potawot Community Food Garden's Facebook page
Potawot Community Food Garden staff sets up for farmers market. | Courtesy of Potawot Community Food Garden's Facebook page

UIHS also serves the nutritional needs of some of the most vulnerable tribal community members with an elder food program. Smith River, a two-hour drive up the coast from Arcata, is the home of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. UIHS’s serves lunch five days a week, including delivering meals to homebound tribal elders. The tribe provides the elder program with elk, which is what the elders prefer — and which is a much healthier meat. The program also bags up any produce left over from meal preparation and delivers it to elders, ready to use. “Fresh produce is just a surprise,” says Beverly Switzler, Hupa, of UIHS’s elder food program. “Their faces just light up.” 

Food delivery also nourishes spirits eager for human connection. “A lot of my elders are in their homes partially because of us,” says Switzler. “They want to stay in their homes. So, they have a nice lady who comes to their house every day, gives them a nice warm meal, a smile, a listening ear and [who] checks on their welfare.”
Back at the Potawot Garden, staff hold workshops and presentations to teach people how to garden and get back in touch with the land. 

Woman loading meals prepared by United Indian Health Services's food delivery program. | Still from "Tending Nature"
Woman loading meals prepared by United Indian Health Services's food delivery program. | Still from "Tending Nature"

“In my great-grandparents’ day, there were no grocery stores,” says Marshall. “Everybody grew food, they canned their food. I see that coming back now, they want to learn those skills because it’s important. It promotes self-sufficiency and sustainability in the community, so you don’t have to depend on the grocery stores as much.” 
“I think once people get that knowledge of taking health into their own hands, they’re able to look beyond food,” says Lewis.

One vital way Native people look beyond nourishing their bodies is nourishing their souls and their spiritual health. In addition to the gardens, a Plains-style sweat lodge sits on Ku’wah-dah-wilth Restoration Land. It’s used for traditional healing and wellness. The Plains-style lodge is what Native people who participate in rehab programs are used to, says Jeff Guido, Yurok, behavioral specialist and sweat leader. That makes for an easier transition when they participate in a sweat after returning home.

A sweat lodge at Potawot Health Village. | Still from "Tending Nature"
A sweat lodge at Potawot Health Village. | Still from "Tending Nature"

“I think for Native cultures, we realized that everything is integrated, there’s no separations between medical issues and emotional issues. There has to be a balance between physical, emotional, mental and spiritual [health] — having a healthy spiritual life gives you faith, hope, courage, it gives you all those things.” The sweat lodge also helps reintroduce participants to their cultures and helps build cultural and spiritual resiliency, says Yvonne Guido, Yurok, another sweat leader. 

The garden itself relies on a Native cultural foundation. “Ed called me several years ago and asked if I would bless the garden,” says Cheryl Seidner, Wiyot elder and former tribal chair. “Those who work here, those who are doing volunteer work here, and those who eat from it, it all is blessed through our touch and our hands.” Those who have passed on, who are ill or injured, service members and youth, all are included in her blessing prayer. “All comes through me from Creator, from all the four directions. You’re welcome to my land, to my home and to my space.”

“The garden was the vision of our elders,” says Marshall. “The UIHS leadership, elders, basketweavers, all had that vision of a healing village and that the garden was part of the UIHS campus. 

“We’re just keeping that vision growing.” 

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