Honoring Nations: Patricia Ninham-Hoeft: Oneida Nation Farms

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Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
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Patty Ninham-Hoeft, Business Committee Secretary for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, discusses the impact of Oneida Nation Farms on the Oneida community and how it is a concrete expression of tribal sovereignty.

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Ninham-Hoeft, Patricia. "Oneida Nation Farms," Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Heather Kendall-Miller:

"Now the people that we have today, on our panel, each have wonderful programs that they have been affiliated with, and each of them have their own stories of leadership and the roles that leadership played in developing nationhood. The first person that we are going to -- I want to first make note that we are missing, unfortunately, Tim Mintz, who was going to be here to speak on behalf of the Tribal Historic Preservation project and he is an officer of the Standing Rock Sioux [Tribe]. The Tribal Monitors program was one that we honored in 2005, a wonderful program. And you'll find in your reading material a summary of that program. And even though Tim is not here to speak about that today, I encourage you to look at that for yourself...We are going to begin with Patty Ninham-Hoeft and she's the tribal secretary with the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. She's going to speak a little bit about the Oneida Farms project that was given high awards in 2005. Very, very interesting I would say. Again, [I] happened to be there. It was one of these stunning projects that we're all going, 'Yeah, yeah!' So with that, here's Patty."

Patty Ninham-Hoeft:

"Good afternoon. My name's Patty Ninham-Hoeft. I'm the tribal secretary for the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. I'm serving my first term as one of nine people elected to the tribe's Oneida Business Committee. I'm here to talk about the Farm, which was honored by the Honoring Nations program in 2005 as an example of leadership. And I'm feeling very humble, a little not confident because I didn't really have, I didn't actually have any role in developing the Farm as an applicant to receive that award. Although I was there watching the people on our team compete for that award. What I'm going to share with you are some of the perceptions that I, personally, have about what the Farm represents to me and as a reflection of what I think is occurring in my tribe in Oneida. I think the Farm is a quiet leader. It's the result of working hard and doing a good job every day. And that comes -- that's a description from Pat Cornelius who, at 69-years-old, is still managing the Farm. You look at Pat and she looks younger than I do.

The idea for the Farm started around 1978 with 150 acres of land, 25 head of cattle. But many people since 1978 have worked that idea about having a farm. Today, the farm has I think almost 9,000, or more than 9,000 acres of land. 4,000 or more are in a mix of crops. There's alfalfa, corn silage, corn, soybeans, wheat, some pasture. And 4,000 acres of that land is used for federal conservation programs. We have restoration programs in place of wetlands and trout streams and waterways. We even have some cooperation going on with local municipalities in restoring some of the smaller trout streams that run through the reservation. We have Black Angus as livestock, about 450-550, and 125 or so cow/calf grazing programs. When I was asked to present on the Farm, that was a surprise to me, because as soon as I saw that the summit was announced, I immediately signed up because I wanted to attend because I'm a big fan of this project. And so then later, when I was asked to talk about the Farm, I sat down with Pat Cornelius to talk to her about it. And really all Pat had to say about the Farm was that it was just the result of hard work and doing a good job every day. And I kept urging her to describe more about what this represented and that was all I could get. So that's why you're going to get my perceptions.

The Farm I think is becoming visible. It's been a quiet leader, but it's becoming visible. And I think the visibility came when it got the 2005 award. And for me, someone who grew up in Oneida, I kind of took the Farm for granted. I watched in 1978 as some people, a little older than me then, tried to create a place where they could grow some indigenous crops and I watched them struggle and I watched the community beat it down and I watched somebody revive the idea. And then in 1992, I think that's when Pat came around, and she started running the Farm.

The Farm is becoming visible in ways that, because it uses tribal dollars and it manages the Farm with tribal members and it uses its land for the common good of the tribe. It generates revenues; it's a way to offset taxes. Because Oneida is a checkerboard reservation, we have overlapping jurisdictions across Oneida. We have two counties, we have a village and a town, we have the city of Green Bay, we have the village of Ashwaubenon, we have five public school districts and -- I think there's two towns actually, the town of Oneida and the town of Pittsfield. So we have lots of complexities and our goal has always been to reacquire our lands by the year 2020, or reacquire 51 percent of the lands by 2020. And so the Farm is a way as we're acquiring the lands, reacquiring through purchasing -- It's difficult to convert that land into trust status so we have taxes to pay. So this is a way to farm the land, get revenue back, and offset those taxes. The Farm is also a place that gives jobs and it's also become a place where Oneida gets to practice its culture. It's a place where Oneida values are brought to life. It's also a place where we get a chance to exercise our sovereignty.

Ways in which the Farm is a quiet leader: People want to buy the farm products, not just Oneida people, but people in the surrounding Green Bay metropolitan area. And the tribe -- marketing right now is a problem, Pat says. It's time to start marketing the product; right now it's just word of mouth. And you see the products in the local grocery store, at Festival Foods. And it's a source of pride, I think, for tribal members to walk down the aisles and see, in the fresh produce aisle, Oneida apples and to see people wanting to buy Oneida apple cider and specifically looking for it. It's great to be around people -- I belong to a sailing club and if we have cookouts they want Oneida buffalo burgers and buffalo brats. And it's great to have white corn products in your refrigerator. I remember as a kid growing up, the only way to get corn bread, white corn bread, these hard heavy loaves, was usually at Thanksgiving time and they were hand-made by elders in the community. But now you can get them every day.

Area farmers, another place where we're having some leadership is with area farmers. I think when the Farm was starting in those early years, local farmers looked at Oneida and said, "˜Can these Indians farm? What are those Indians doing?' And now they are still asking that same question, but they're doing it because they want to learn and replicate our practices. So what's happening there is we're building relationships with our neighbors, and understanding.

Pat, as the manager, also is changing the role of women and the role of age. At 69-years-old and a woman managing a farm, she's breaking stereotypes and setting new examples for us.

The Farm also is helping us maintain the rural character of the reservation. And as I described all the multiple layers of jurisdiction, we have lots of competition for land use with Oneida and that competition is from developers. And Oneida is struggling right now because we don't have strong zoning rules, we don't have a comprehensive plan in place. And so the people that are defining how Oneida will look, how the geography of Oneida will be used, are the developers. And I see it happening on the outer perimeters of the reservation. I drive around and what was once rural, is now filled with pole metal buildings, storage sheds, and they're starting to define what my place is going to look like. So the farm is a way to kind of get this land, put it to use, and kind of slow development for a bit. And it's also good for, when we're paying taxes, because agricultural land, maybe some real estate people will argue with that, but it's a better tax base because there's less infrastructure to support it. So they're happy. And then it also helps to preserve the continuation of hunting. My dad, my brothers grew up hunting on the reservation, but as Green Bay encroaches into the res, hunting is becoming less and less. There are less places to do that. And, in fact, the village of Hobart, which is on half of the reservation, is starting to assert its rules of not allowing hunting.

The Farm has become a place to teach children and families about where their food comes from, the cultural values that Oneida had in regards to food and in regards to the land. And it's also a place where we're learning, revitalizing our language. One aspect of the Farm is called Tsyunhehkwa. And it's an Oneida word that means "˜provides life for us.' And sometimes, on a good day, as I'm writing out a check for something there I can spell it from memory. But I run into my friends who aren't Oneida and they talk about going to Tsyunhehkwa to get essential oils or an herb. And the Farm has become a place to gather for community events. They have husking bee events, jigging contests.

The idea of the Farm, like I said, has been worked on by many people and I've watched them struggle; but Pat, I have to give credit to Pat who said to me -- when we were talking about what she does and what I do and the struggles that Oneida is having now and she said, "˜You couldn't pay me enough money to be on the Business Committee.' But I think she's found a place to provide leadership for people who get elected to the Business Committee and she is an example of many community leaders from her generation who saw a problem, who took the initiative, had the spirit of entrepreneurism, and they went to work and they found ways to solve it. And my mother is an example of that generation. Pat's 69, my mom is 64, and when my mom was 32 years old (and I'm 45), she and another woman started Oneida Bingo in the gymnasium of the tribe's civic center. And they started it because, she was working in the civic center, couldn't afford to pay the utility bills, and they were playing Bingo at the local VFW and they started their own game; and it grew and grew. And in 1980, the tribe was issuing payroll checks for the first time and she was building a new building across from the airport in Green Bay. It's an example I think of people taking the initiative of that generation. And many projects I think that Oneida has been proud of have come from the community.

Oneida has a system where -- we have a direct democracy system where you can petition to have a special meeting, take action. So we have a representative system that I think sometimes is in conflict with that direct democracy system. Fifty people can petition; they get a meeting. As long as 75 people show up for that meeting you have, what you call, a General Tribal Council (GTC) meeting, and it's there where decisions can be made and they are often made there. But from there came ideas like the Farm, where it got its support; a scholarship program that is now in place, where Oneidas who want to pursue higher [education], wherever they live, get $20,000 a year to do that at three different levels -- undergrad, masters and a doctorate program. All those ideas came from the community.

The Farm is also a place like I said to exercise our sovereignty and they do that quietly, I think. It's a place where we can work more at, in the future I think, to develop land use policies. Because I think it's in the land use area where the tribe really is going to need to put its work toward improving, enhancing, our sovereignty. And so it's in zoning, it's how we control development. It's how we decide how someone is going to care for the land, storm water, runoff practices. And it starts with comprehensive planning. And the tribe started a comprehensive-planning process and has been doing it over and over and over again. And we are about to engage a consultant to come and help us do that. And I hope we get it finished next year.

Exercising sovereignty also happens too by knowing where our food comes from. And I have a cousin who's on the council, Paul Ninham, who really is a strong supporter of food sovereignty, and he's been introducing that concept wherever he goes. But it's really, kind of, being able to sustain yourself, sustain the production and the distribution of your food. Diabetes is a big problem in Oneida and according to the application that we submitted 10 percent of our population -- we have 16,000 members -- have diabetes. And they say we get one new patient a day with diabetes. And I think it starts with, it stems from food as one of the components.

My husband and I and our two kids last year started, for one month, for 30 days, we did the local food challenge, the 100-mile diet, where, in October, for one month we would only eat foods that we could find within 100 miles of where we lived. And what we learned from that was that our family became closer, because we spent more time preparing meals. We sat down and ate. Breakfast was really great. We produced less waste. We had less garbage that we brought to the curb. And it tasted better. We went to farmers' markets. We got to meet local farmers. We got to meet people who produce food. But the one thing that we found out was that it was very expensive. That if you wanted to eat good food, you have to have a higher income to do that. And so I think that's a challenge for Oneida too is because even white corn, dried white corn, I think, a pound of it was nine dollars -- very expensive. Controlling our seeds and you talk about heirloom seeds and our farmers market, we have a farmers' market. I forget how old it is, but it's located on an asphalt parking lot behind the tribe's Oneida One Stop gas station in the center of town. And as I was sitting there with Pat last week, we were sitting on a picnic table eating Oneida buffalo burgers and -- but the trucks that were using the gas station, semi-trucks would roll by us as we were talking and I thought, "˜This is not the place for a farmers market.' But those are challenges that Oneida has in developing our space.

And then the Farm, as an exercise in sovereignty, helps to spread our ideas about Oneida; our values of Oneida get spread. When people use our food, when they start to depend on us for food and they start to trust what we are providing, I think then that's another chance to express our sovereignty. So, in conclusion, I think we have lots of challenges, lots of opportunities, the Farm is one of those quiet places I think where the community needs to look at as a source of inspiration. We're at a crux in Oneida; we're at a crossroads, I think. We have, we're searching for leadership, we're searching for people like Pat who can help guide the tribe in our next path, our next journey.

The tribe just recently passed a motion at a GTC meeting that created a per capita distribution plan. And on August 11 of this year [2007], we had more than 800 people show up for a GTC meeting. And more than 500 of them agreed that we would have a one-time per capita distribution by December 12 of this year. Tribal members 62 and older will get $10,000 and everyone younger will get $5,000. With 16,000 members, that'll be more than $88 million. It will deplete the rainy day fund that we have spent years and years of building. The vote, I think, is an example of, or a symptom of, an expression of frustration with tribal leadership. And the Business Committee constantly gets blamed for that. And it doesn't matter who's on the Business Committee, it's just the Business Committee gets blamed for that. And I think there's a lot of people who feel they've been invisible, that their needs have not been met. And I think too, the tribe, Oneida -- and I'm very critical of the tribe right now, I'm trying not to be. But I think we've lost sight of our purpose, that we've become great casino managers and thought that the casino was the end result when really it was supposed to be the means to the end. And this vote, as we're trying to figure out how we're going to pay for this and how we're going to distribute it, it really is forcing the entire community, the entire organization to think and reflect on who we are as a people and who we want to be in 25 or 50 years from now.

So I've heard people talk, it's about back to the basics and it's forcing us, that vote is forcing us to go back to the basics and really talk about what we want to be. I'll just leave this -- I was at a history conference in Oneida this summer and I got to hear just the end of someone's talk. It was a professor from Minnesota traveling back to Oneida. He's Oneida. And he said as he was driving home he asked himself, "˜How do I know I'm Oneida. How do I know that?' And he said, "˜I know because I have a home to come to, I have a place.' And to me, I think part of my purpose, part of being on the Business Committee, part of working for Oneida, is really trying to build, define this vision of what Oneida is going to look like. And it's really busting the stereotypes about a reservation community, about what a reservation community should look like. It's rethinking everything. So the Farm is, I think, a step in that direction at defining the place. And I'm just hopeful that the rest of the community will see it that way. And hopefully, when we come back and talk again that we'll have something more positive about what that vision's going to look like. Thank you very much."

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Oneida Nation Farms

In the 1820s, a portion of the Oneida people of New York moved to Wisconsin, where they took up their accustomed practices as farmers. Over the next hundred years, the Oneida Nation lost nearly all its lands and much of its own agrarian tradition. In 1978, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin established…

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Manager of the Oneida Nation Farms Pat Cornelius presents an overview of the organization's work to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.