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‘Our foods’

Oneida food nonprofit Ukwakhwa rebuilds tribal food sovereignty and access

By Xav Horkman

Beans collected by Ukwakhwa and stored on the 10-acre farmstead. Xav Horkman photo

Becky Webster’s journey into traditional food practices ignited from a simple desire.

“It really all started with wanting to eat more of our corn,” Webster said. “We would just have it on special occasions, like holidays or birthdays. We’d have it in our corn soup, and it was kind of pricey.”

Not only was the price a barrier to corn access, but demand was high in the Oneida community, leading to corn becoming difficult to acquire.

“The tribe did such a good job to get people wanting to eat more of our corn that they had shortages,” Webster said. “ So, the community would get upset and demand that the tribe grow more corn for them. A group of us got together and said ‘Wait a minute. I don’t think this is the government’s responsibility. We have a responsibility.’”

Becky Webster is the founder of Ukwakhwa: Tsinu Niyukwayay^thoslu, an indigenous and traditional foods project that became a 501c3 nonprofit earlier this year. The nonprofit vision is “every time an indigenous person plants a seed, that is an act of resistance and an assertion of sovereignty.” An Oneida faithkeeper named the property and project Ukwakhwa: Tsinu Niyukwayay^thoslu (Our foods: Where we plant things).

The project started in 2017, when Webster’s desire to gain more access to corn spawned a co-op of Oneida community members who leaned into the personal responsibility of growing traditional foods. As the co-op gained momentum and traction, it led to connecting with seed mentors—experienced traditional farmers who engage in seed stewardship—from other tribes of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy located in the eastern United States. They gave Webster and her co-op more seeds than they had access to in Oneida.

“It just kind of took off from there,” Webster said. “I think it’s about reclaiming our identity, reclaiming our history. Because most seeds grown in our community are commercial, or worse, GMO seeds. We really wanted to bring back our seeds.”

The traditional seeds received from other tribes have grown successfully in Oneida, thanks in part to compatible weather patterns.

“If you look at where we (the Oneida people) came from out east, our climate is very similar here,” Webster said. “That’s why we picked here. When we came here our area looked a whole lot like it did out east. Though I think we might have a shorter growing season, it’s comparable, the soils are similar.”

Webster and her husband Steve were going through career changes when they decided to purchase and build a farmstead on a 10-acre plot of land on the Oneida Indian Reservation.

“The idea was that we wanted to be another resource in addition to the tribe and the other families that had been growing our seeds,” Webster said. “Another place for community to come to learn about seed saving. To be a source for seeds, to learn about how to garden and care for your foods, how to harvest, how to cook, how to preserve.”

In recent months, Ukwakhwa has participated in barter markets, community meals and has held instructional workshops to pass knowledge along to the community. Webster strives to not only make traditional foods accessible to the community, but the information and learning process as well.

Becky Webster, founder of Ukwakhwa: Tsinu Niyukwayay^thoslu, transitioned the food sovereignty organization to a nonprofit in August 2021. Photo courtesy of Becky Webster

“We just wanted to help bring that back to normal,” Webster said, “so it’s not something that people have to be unfamiliar with and be embarrassed to not know. We just want it to become normal again.”

The steady growth of the operation has carried a coinciding growth in expenses, which led to Webster’s decision to go the nonprofit route.

“We had an event here about Haudenosaunee pottery, basket-making, corn pounders, and all of our traditional tools to cook our foods,” Webster said. “It was a very expensive event. We had to get the pottery, get the corn pounders, and pay the people to stay out here and teach.”

Webster said it’s important to her that the operation, especially when hosting events, avoids passing on some of these expensive costs to the community.

“We also didn’t want it to be a financial burden on those attending,” Webster said. “We don’t want to tell them, ‘You have to pay to come here and do this.’”

One of the next projects Webster will embark on is building a certified kitchen on the farmstead, which will allow for processing corn and selling food. Webster said the kitchen project is in addition to a newly built driveaway to allow for easy in-and-out access.

“We want to have events where we sell corn soup and different things,” Webster said. “That’s the idea, to get these foods into our community.”

Webster said she’s seen her food journey grow from a small wish to something far richer.

“It started off with wanting to eat more corn and turned out to mean so much more,” Webster said, “because it is about our health and our identity and our history.”

Xav Horkman is an artist and freelance writer currently operating in the Green Bay area. His writing includes, but is not limited to, environmental and Native American topics. You can read more of his writing at iffybrass.com and patreon.com/xavhorkman. You can also follow him on Instagram @iffybrass and @xavhorkman.

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