Healing Communities

Native American Medicine Gardens soothe the body and soul

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Think "medicine" and a bottle of pills or murky looking syrup on the top shelf of a medicine cabinet may come to mind. But to Francis Bettelyoun, coordinator of the University of Minnesota's Native American Medicine Gardens and an expert in the integration of cultural and traditional practices of emotional healing, medicine means far more than what's prescribed by doctors.

A Native Master Gardener and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, Bettelyoun believes medicine can be as simple as a tree's shade on a hot day.

Trained in integration of cultural and traditional practices of emotional healing, Bettelyoun's wife, Barbara Graham Bettelyoun, a doctor of psychology with expertise in cultural resilience, founded the gardens in 2001 with help from the university's Woodlands Wisdom nutrition program and Office of the President. In 2005, Francis Bettelyoun expanded and began coordinating the gardens, which are now part of CFANS.

medicine gardenLocated on the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues on the St. Paul campus, the gardens are used as both symbolic and physical respite, as well as an informal teaching space for students and volunteers.

In spring, Bettelyoun, alongside students and community volunteers, plants hundreds of different flowers and vegetables for the public to enjoy and to take home medicines they can use. Students and families of community volunteers help him tend the garden through the summer and fall.

Throughout the growing season, Francis and his volunteers also perform informal research—from enriching the soil with a variety of natural nutrients, to spacing the plants in varying distances from each other, then observing any changes in the plants' growth over the previous year.

The gardens are also used to help explore broader social issues, says Bettelyoun. During the school year, Bettelyoun travels to Minnesota classrooms to teach about the issues of self-preservation and food sovereignty, a concept that promotes healthy and culturally appropriate food choices and self-reliance on homegrown or community-produced food systems. "The initial goal of the project is to teach how to establish and maintain food sovereignty, not only to indigenous people, but for everyone and anyone that does or does not have the twenty-first century amenities of a constant food supply that the city has to offer," says Bettelyoun.

The garden also offers healing in a broader way, says Karl Lorenz, director of the CFANS Office for Diversity and Inclusion, which oversees the project. "The university's Native American Medicine Garden is a place to recognize the ongoing need for healing, recognition, and reconciliation with the Dakota people, who are the original inhabitants of the land upon which the university rests," says Lorenz. "The garden is one way the university honors that history and acknowledges that need, as the Dakota continue to live in their ancestral homelands near the university and across the state."