UC Berkeley Indigenous Community Learning Garden springs to life

photo of a garden
Adina Lewis/Courtesy
After years of demands, campus students successfully opened the Indigenous Community Learning Garden, a space aimed to recognize Native and Indigenous culture through gardening.

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On a small patch of land at the northwest corner of campus, a garden brimming with indigenous plants has sprung to life.

In UC Berkeley’s Indigenous Community Learning Garden, heirloom tomatoes hang on vines, a Buffalo gourd sits in waiting, California grapes grow up against a fence and in the center of it all stands the “three sisters” — Dakota Ivory corn, beans and squash — growing together in mounds, according to campus fifth-year microbial biology student Adina Lewis, who works in the garden.

“It looked more like it was abandoned and not full of life before we had started,” Lewis said. “But now that we’ve been there and spoken to the space and done ceremony in the space, it looks beautiful.”

The approximately 1,000-square-foot garden is located in the Oxford Tract, a research-oriented campus garden space, and provides a place where indigenous horticultural knowledge can be validated and accessed, according to Phenocia Bauerle, director of the Native American Student Development office and co-sponsor of the garden.

According to Elizabeth Hoover, garden co-sponsor and associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management, or ESPM, Native American students have wanted a garden for several years but had previously been unsuccessful because space in the Oxford Tract was primarily reserved for teaching and research. She and Bauerle worked with the students to put together a successful proposal, Hoover said.

“It’s been a real collective process,” Hoover said. “And then we all came together in June and planted the first bit of the garden.”

The garden serves as a place to celebrate and learn about Native American food, said Jennifer Sowerwine, associate cooperative extension specialist in sustainable food systems, in an email. According to Sowerwine, the availability of culturally relevant food impacts individuals’ mental health and connection to their cultural identities.

Christine Hastorf, a campus professor of anthropology, sees the garden as a valuable step in reconnecting Indigenous students to the plants their ancestors grew. According to Hastorf, colonization not only displaced Native Americans from their landscape but also from the plants and animals that formed an integral part of their cultures.

“What I can say (is) that undergraduate and graduate Native and Indigenous students are excited to grow with this garden,” said Jesús Nazario, a campus doctorate student in ethnic studies who works in the garden, in an email. “We hope that we can reciprocally grow and care for future seeds that we will care for in the garden.”

The garden is currently preparing for the upcoming winter growing season after last week’s corn harvest, according to Bauerle. In the spring, Hoover said that she will incorporate the garden into ESPM 150, a course about indigenous food sovereignty.

However, according to Lewis, the future of the garden is uncertain: an application must be filed every year for the Oxford Tract plot. They said they hope that the garden can be preserved.

“We should be able to have a permanent space, as Indigenous peoples, to be seen and supported,” Lewis said.

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @GabeClasson.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Hoover’s spring class will be ESPM 154. In fact, Hoover will be incorporating the garden into ESPM 150.