MN to Louisiana: The Original “Interstate Highway”
The Mississippi River was the original “interstate highway”, allowing relatively easy travel and corresponding trade by from present-day Minnesota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. As such, it is a fitting way to being the Reconnecting the Tribal Trade Routes Roadtrip. Still a major transportation corridor, today’s river also provides a window into so many aspects of modern environment and culture, including Tribal agriculture.
The “Reconnecting the Tribal Trade Routes Roadtrip” began in northern Minnesota during mid-December when the van made several product pick-ups on a larger outreach and technical assistance trip. Substantial wild rice resources, as well as maple syrup and wild berry jams and syrups, helped to provide the foundation of trade goods necessary to begin the journey. The timing with USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) also worked well since we were able to meet with numerous groups to discuss various possibilities and application aspects.
While bringing increased awareness to unique Tribal food products is a major focus of the roadtrip, providing the sort of outreach on USDA programs, agriculture, and food issues that is the hallmark of the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s Technical Assistance (TA) Network is another major objective and opportunity.
Extreme cold is a reality of winter life in the northern Great Lakes Region, but fantastic sunsets such as this one on the White Earth reservation are also commonplace.
Wild rice, maple syrup, and fish are the predominant food products in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Wild rice, in particular, provides one bookend of an immense contrast between the headwaters and delta of the Mississippi River. The river’s pristine headwaters feature some of the planet’s cleanest and most pure waters, something necessary for the substantial wild rice beds that are extremely sensitive to pollution, contamination, and water fluctuation. In contrast, as the end of the roadtrip’s first leg illustrates, the river’s delta is characterized by severe pollution from a variety of upstream agricultural and industrial practices.
A stop in Wisconsin for the holidays ended just before negative 50 degree below wind chills, cancelled classes, and closed businesses.
St. Louis is known as the “Gateway to the West”, reflected by today’s arch, because of its location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. That strategic location is why one of world largest “pre-Columbian” cities, Cahokia, once occupied the same area. Cahokia was the center of the Missippian culture that covered most of the central part of the modern-day United States, linking the vast area with trade, commerce, and culture.
Louisiana is a landscape created by the Mississippi River over the course of thousands of years as the river deposited upstream sediments that gradually built up land mass. Consequently, the southern portion of the state is universally low-lying made up of bayous, marshes, and swamps.
Traveling by water is the only way to truly start appreciating the rapidly changing landscape of southern Louisiana. Ever-expanding waterways caused by channels drilled for oil exploration and subsequent saltwater infiltration are only evident from the network of waterways criss-crossing the bayous. Along the way, rich human and natural histories are clearly evident.
Like so many Native fishermen in the Great Lakes Region, the Tribal fishers and shrimpers in Louisiana face low prices, largely because of the lack of adequate market access. While direct market access would be ideal, the existing buyers too often control the market by controlling access to necessary resources like ice and fuel, making it difficult to sell to alternative buyers.
Value added production is one of the strategies that could help bring more income. Examples of value added opportunities include development of a local processing plant, construction of cold storage facilities to hold product until market prices are favorable, and preserving items like the dried shrimp pictured below. These opportunities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but making them work would be most efficient with cooperation among a sufficient number of producers.
Since many of the Tribal folks in Louisiana have been to Minnesota and Wisconsin, there is some familiarity with wild rice and maple syrup, but some of the other products were new and unfamiliar.
Dead trees covering enormous areas of the landscape are an unmistakable sign of an unhealthy, out-of-balance ecosystem. White settlement in the 1700 and 1800s initiated efforts to prevent the river’s annual spring flooding with levees that cutoff the sediment deposits that created the land. The concurrent elimination of freshwater river flow, in combination with an extensive canal network built for oil exploration and development, led to intrusion of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico that killed the forests and trees that were poisoned by saltwater.
No where is land in Louisiana disappearing faster than between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River (the blue dot below is about as far south as we could drive the van) where maps are becoming increasingly blue at an astonishing rate, and few communities face as many challenges to their survival as the Grand Bayou Tribal Community.
Only one house at Grand Bayou is accessible by road; all other residences must be reached by boat. Fishing and shrimping are the two main agricultural enterprises and community food sources. “D’ Rajun Cajun” and its captain below are a prime example of maintaining a way of life in spite of persistent obstacles like hurricanes, oil spills, and disappearing land. The Grand Bayou Tribal Community are original inhabitants, having lived in the area for time immemorial rather than migrating to the area.
Following an indoor market event since temperatures were well below abnormally cold due to the “Polar Vortex” that dropped wind chills to over 50 degrees below zero in the Great Lakes, we made a community meal of local fish and a Cajun-inspired corn and wild rice soup…it got was met with some skepticism but most people seemed to enjoy it and a couple community members couldn’t eat enough of the new delicacy. The hospitality and positive outlook of Tribal folks in Louisiana is nearly indescribable.
Leaving Louisiana was difficult because there were more Tribal communities to visit and the food and culture are so warm and amazing.