Skip to main content

Potawatomi Traditional Gardener Promotes Growing Healthy Foods To Prevent Diabetes

A Prairie Band Potawatomi traditional gardener educates others through his work with the National Diabetes Prevention “Return to a Healthy Past” Program

Originally published in the fall 2011 issue of the Potawatomi News

It seemed like a perfect fit when the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Health Center's Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) was advertising for a project coordinator and gardener. What they wanted was a person who knew how to garden and could educate the community by raising healthy foods.

Enter Eddie Joe Mitchell, a life-long reservation resident from Mayetta, Kansas, who has been managing the "Return to a Healthy Past" program since 2009. It's been an easy sell for Mitchell who has been growing food all of his life and preserving it by utilizing traditional Potawatomi ways.

"I grew up out here when there was no running water or electricity," Mitchell said. "Many families had to garden, pick nenwezhek (milkweed), hunt and fish or they would go hungry. It wasn't a luxury but a necessity. Our old people predicted that the day will come when if you didn't do these things you wouldn't eat. Is that during my lifetime or is that of my kids? When? Or do we even believe in such nonsense?"

One of Mitchell's goals with the "Return to a Healthy Past" program is to educate people on how to grow healthy foods and to preserve and store it for later use. He is also interested in training families to grow individual gardens in lieu of the larger community gardens that have been grown since 2004 when the program began.

"I would rather see 10-30 families raising their own vegetables and saving them for use through-out the year instead of just growing the large community gardens like we've done in the past," he said. "The truth is the gardens aren't big enough to support the community so it'd be nice if families would begin growing their own. Last year I gave classes on drying corn and squash and another on making hominy. We have supplies to teach canning and I envision people growing and preserving their own food rather than buying from food markets. This however, will take time."

Mitchell said he knows that gardening is hard work, which unfortunately makes it unattractive to people. However, he said that there is great personal satisfaction in growing your own produce and integrating traditional techniques at every step from beginning to end when the food is dried for storage.

Mitchell draws from his heritage of growing crops and knowledge of traditional and cultural philosophies that have been developed in unison with the Kansas prairie landscape.

He also believes in keeping gardening genetically pure and is a stickler about using only non-hybrid seeds that he saves from harvest to harvest. He said that he also keeps a few heirloom seed stashes that have been passed by people through time and are in keeping with Potawatomi ways. Some seeds are used to grow only traditional crops for ceremonial purposes, like tobacco, for example and are a rite of passage to him.

Mitchell is also a master at promoting the “Return to a Healthy Past” program. Last year he and the rest of the DPP staff held a Harvest Feast on the reservation that drew more than 300 people. Only traditional dishes were served like ninwezhek (milkweed soup and pork), shi keh (turtle), Indian sweet corn (hominy), bison, and crook necked squash (cushaw), and during the feast the staff gave diabetes prevention tips and other information about the DPP program.

In addition, Mitchell has created a power point presentation on gardening tips and a poster that is available through the PBPN Health Center Services. He was also a presenter at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Traditional Foods Conference in South Carolina recently and conducted a radio interview for the CDC called Native foods & traditional lifestyles. The CDC has designated the PBPN program as one of the best in Indian Country, according to Mitchell.

The "Return to a Healthy Past" program is funded by the CDC and located in the DPP offices that are housed at the PBP Health Center. Other components of the DPP include a program on Special Diabetes Prevention for Indians (SDPI), a medical program on diabetes prevention and a lifestyle fitness exercise program.

Also incorporated into the “Return to a Healthy Past” program is an annual community hike that is held each fall. Other sponsors of the hike include the Department of Planning and EPA. Mitchell said that up to 40 people have gone on the hikes in the past that include a campout and nature walk. The group doesn't follow a trail or road; they set out across the natural terrain. Hikers teach each other about prairie plants and the wildlife, while getting some good exercise at the same time.

About the Prairie Band community gardens:

This summer, there were four large community gardens planted at the Health Center, Fire Keepers Elder Center, Boys & Girls Club and the Language House. Mitchell also constructed some smaller raised garden beds at those sites which was a new addition this year.

At some of the buildings where the larger gardens were located, he also installed composters and rain barrels. Composters were placed at those buildings that have meal sites and the rain barrels collected water runoff from roofs on buildings that is then used on the gardens. Additionally, Mitchell has plans to add five small greenhouses for growing seed starts and other plants to get a jump on next year.

He also helped cultivate 11 individual family garden plots and hopes that this number will continue to grow.


Mitchell also purchased a John Deere 4105 tractor that has attachments like a pull-behind tiller and a walk-behind new tiller/brush hog that is being used for tilling the gardens. The equipment is helping him manage more garden area and at his own pace rather than having to rely on the scheduling of other PBPN staff in departments that have similar equipment. A storage building is also in the works that will keep the machinery and equipment in good working order and away from the elements of weather.

Suzanne Heck is the editor of the Potawatomi News.