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Tilling soil on stolen land

5.3. 2019 Written By: Luke Gascho 1,345 read

Photo: Luke Gascho in his garden. Photo provided by the author.

This article comes from the May issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “God so loved the world.” Read more reflections online or subscribe to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

I love getting my hands in the soil. To me this is part of what it means to be human. I know I am of the earth and my body will return to the earth. My soul is stirred as I tend the soil.

This passion began in my formative years in northern Minnesota. Life on a small dairy farm drew me into the daily and seasonal rhythms of the Earth. My mother taught me gardening. I worked alongside my father in all the farming activities. I learned from my parents that “the Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). The application of this verse meant having gratitude for the gifts from the land, managing the soil wisely and ensuring that all creatures were cared for gently. I am grateful for the way my home and the ecology of the place nurtured me.

While that childhood era can develop a rosy hue, I know the hard work involved in sustaining a farm. I also know why we “owned” that farm. As a youth, I knew half my classmates were Ojibwe and half were white settlers. What I didn’t realize then was that our farm was located within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Reservation. Through unjust actions of an earlier generation of settlers, timber and land parcels were taken from the land promised to the Ojibwe by treaty. As a white boy, I was largely unaware of the prejudiced actions of the school system that privileged me and ostracized my Ojibwe friends. I grieve those injustices.

Gardening has been an annual activity throughout my adult years. It is the way I live out my passion for keeping my hands in the soil. I’ve enjoyed learning what plants would thrive in various places I’ve lived and how I can contribute to sustaining a healthy garden. And I delight in the fresh produce. There is a balanced cycle of my nurturing the soil and the soil generating abundance. Through gardening I continue to learn how to be a co-sustainer with the Creator.

For the past 20 years, I have gardened in Goshen, Ind. I live on land that is fertile and responsive to my care. Tilling and keeping this land (Genesis 2:15) brings life to my body and spirit. As a result, I enthusiastically anticipate the many activities of gardening every year. My wife says that I’m a compulsive planter. My dream for expanding my garden plots became a reality six years ago, when we purchased an acre of land adjacent to our home. I envisioned creating a diverse fruit, nut and berry orchard along with vegetable plots. As I prepared the soil for planting, I was reminded of the rich quality of the Elkhart Prairie. The wonderful tilth of the soil and its ability to drain well was a perfect recipe for establishing this edible forest. The five growing seasons since the initial planting have proven the amazing attributes of this soil.

Haunting questions emerged as I cared for this land: Who cherished this land before me? Who truly owns this land? I studied the treaties with the Indigenous Peoples of this region. The Miami and Potawatomi peoples lived here for millennia, enjoying the bounty along the Elkhart River (500 feet from the edge of our land). In the early 1800s, white settlers found the Elkhart Prairie to be desirable for farming. They saw the health of the corn and other crops that the Potawatomi were growing. On Sept. 20, 1828, the Potawatomi signed a treaty relinquishing this land to the U.S. government. While some of the Potawatomi were assigned portions of land within the treaty, I find the following quote from the treaty distressing: “There shall be granted to the following persons, all of whom are Indians by descent, the tracts of land…provided that no location shall be made upon the Elkhart Prairie, nor within five miles of the same.”

The best land was intentionally kept from the Indigenous Peoples. In that same month, Bolser Hess, a German Baptist settler farmer came from Ohio, prospecting the Elkhart Prairie. He pre-emptively claimed the very parcel from where I sit and write today. He brought his family from Ohio to homestead this land in 1829. In 1831, he officially purchased the land from the U.S. government.

Just as I have been confronted with the unjust realities of the land I grew up on in Minnesota, I now encounter the fractured history of this place. What should my response be?

Learning about the pervasive impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery on Indigenous Peoples has been a crucial step for me. (The Doctrine of Discovery is a philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous Peoples. See dofdmenno.org.) For the last four years I have participated in the work of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. This group of Anabaptist leaders works together to mobilize the church to undo the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery. I will continue to build relationships and pursue restorative actions through the coalition.

Participating in the ongoing vision of Mennonite Creation Care Network (see mennocreationcare.org) is another place where I have the opportunity to lean into holistic actions that honor the understanding that “the Earth is the Lord’s.” The vision is informed by the wonderful reality that Christ is the Creator, Reconciler and Sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:15-21). This means all of creation—all peoples, critters, plants, land, air and water. As the church and all its members are renewed into this reality, we learn to love all that God loves. This understanding will inform our care for all things.

I’m committed to aid in creating health in as many places as I can. I will foster healthy soil with its mycorrhizal fungi and abundant microbes. I will tend the garden and orchard plants well. I will welcome the friend and stranger to this land I’ve been entrusted with. I will confess the ways I am complicit with the injustices related to my white privilege. I will stay engaged with restorative processes with people impacted by centuries of wrongs. I am committed to hope.

I will keep my hands in the soil and remain steadfast in “putting things to right” as a participant in God’s vision for shalom.

Luke Gascho is the executive director of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen (Indiana) College and teaches in the Sustainability and Environmental Education Department. He is a member of Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen.

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