Stories of Impact: Indigenous Garden Produces Seeds for New Audiences and Interactions

Community Garden front Mitchell Museum

By Illinois Humanities

Read Time 3 minutes
September 19, 2023

Mitchell Museum of the American Indian: Community Medicine Garden

In 2022, Evanston’s Mitchell Museum of the American Indian celebrated its 45th anniversary with a plan to start an Indigenous Medicine Garden. Under the leadership of Executive Director Kim Vigue (Oneida) and with the support of an $8,000 Illinois Humanities Action Grant, the Museum partnered with Northwestern University ethnobotanist and anthropologist Dr. Eli Suzukovich III (Little Shell Band of Chippewa-Cree/Krajina Serb) on a garden project based on tribally-driven approaches to wellness.

The plan involved implementing interactive public programs around each phase of the garden’s growth to engage Native and non-Native participants and provide a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of food sovereignty, traditional wisdom, environment, and wellness through traditional gardening.

The project also aimed to help the Museum sustain programming as the COVID-19 pandemic limited indoor gatherings. The outdoor space provided by the garden would offer visitors a safe environment to experience traditional gardening benefits and connect with the land.

The Museum, whose mission is to promote and share a deeper understanding of Indigenous people’s histories, cultures, traditions, and contributions, both past and present, recently reached a milestone with a majority of Native staff and board of directors for the first time in its history.

Mitchell Community Garden vertical

From germination to harvest

Launching their ambitious community garden project required ongoing problem-solving and adaptation. After a late planting, the Museum’s team realized it needed to shift focus during the 12-month grant period to allow for the garden’s 20 native medicinal and pollinator plant species to grow.

In time, however, the Museum was rewarded with an abundance of tobacco, one of the four main medicines of most Native American cultures commonly offered respectfully for prayer, healing, and ceremony. Staff harvested the tobacco, dried it, and incorporated it into an interactive exhibit exploring the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits (MMIWG2S movement), called “No Rest: The Epidemic of Stolen Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits.”

“As an interactive experience for the exhibit, visitors are able to create tobacco ties [a small amount of tobacco wrapped in cloth] and tie them up in the exhibit as an offering to those who have been or are being affected by MMIWG2S,” Development Manager Joseph Gackstetter shared. “This garden has given us the opportunity to authentically and appropriately share Indigenous stories and honor Indigenous traditions with our communities and visitors in ways that we had never thought possible before.”

The garden has also attracted new museum visitors, often neighbors who first noticed the beauty of the garden outside.

The project may have gone differently than originally planned, but nonetheless had successful outcomes that hold lessons for other organizations looking to implement new programs.

“Always remain flexible when considering the growth [of] your project after you complete your proposed plan,” Gackstetter said. “There is usually room to redirect your plan to meet the same or even a more impactful outcome.”

No Rest exhibit tobacco interactive piece Mitchell Museum

In this case, the Mitchell Museum’s project grew from an idea about a garden to a network of strengthened and expanded relationships within the Native community and to meaningful connections made in unexpected ways with Museum visitors and neighbors.

About Illinois Humanities' Grants Program

Illinois Humanities offers a variety of funding opportunities for individuals and nonprofit organizations of many sizes, disciplines, and stages of development to increase their local and statewide impact and support the state’s cultural ecosystem. Learn about available grants and read more stories about the dynamic work of our grantee partners.