Urban Farming: This Gardener Is Protecting the Future of Indigenous Food

Kirsten Kirby-Shoote had no plan when they booked a one-way ticket from Portland, Oregon to Detroit in 2015. But they knew they would work on a city farm and eventually start one. As part of the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network, they volunteered on farms for a number of years until they had the idea for their own agricultural project: Leilú Gardens. In Tlingit it says “Leilú” means “butterfly”.

As a seed keeper and member of the Tlingit Nation, Kirby-Shoote now cultivates 1.5 hectares of land in Detroit, the ancestral homeland of the Anishinaabe nations. The seeds they grow, like Cherokee White Eagle corn and scarlet runner beans, provide fertile ground for indigenous food sovereignty. The US government’s forced relocation of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples to barren land has resulted in a long legacy of access to traditional food for a handful of indigenous people, and Kirby Shoote is trying to change that.

They supply Detroit’s colored communities with traditional food and medicine through an accessible garden, and work with I-Collective, a group of indigenous cooks, activists, herbalists, and seed keepers committed to food sovereignty and providing educational resources for food justice. And their work is not for-profit. To them, food is medicine, and it should not be sold or used to make money but to heal – literally, as so many health problems like heart disease arise from food insecurity and a lack of access to crops, including local ones . Kirby Shootes own father died of health problems.

Kirby-Shoote talked about her work in urban agriculture, what led her on her way to food justice and her vision for a future in which indigenous practices shine.

My life changed forever when … my father died of a preventable disease. I knew it was the quality of the food he was getting and the food systems that helped him get better formulated. I had become aware of the nutritional and spiritual aspects of eating at the same time, and I always tried to convince him to eat healthier. There was a huge financial barrier, a huge time barrier. I couldn’t stagnate after he died. Then I registered with WWOOF. I’ve sent so many emails to farmers. It was the beginning of winter so there wasn’t a lot of farm work, but someone in Detroit contacted me. I ended up here and never looked back.

This year I was able to grow … a corn field as opposed to 12 beds. I grew the Cherokee White Eagle seed for corn. And for beans, I grew scarlet runner beans. I think these seeds were put on the trail of tears when the Cherokee endured a forced relocation from Georgia to their current reservation in Oklahoma. When deciding what to take on a journey that may not end with you surviving, the importance of this seed in caring for future generations becomes really clear.