The Center of the Universe

In Conversation With Joy Schelble

In the week before we departed from Ashland to start running, we spent time in conversation with Joy Schelble, a woman who has been working with issues of food access and security in the Chequamegon Bay region for many years. We spent a bright and gorgeous morning sitting and talking in the Lake Superior Primary School Garden. Joy shared with us some details of the work she has been doing as well as some ideas of what it means to engage in your local food system. By reconnecting to our means of growing food we reconnect ourselves not only to healthier living and nutrition but also to our sense of place, justice and spiritual life. Joy worked for the federal food stamps program in Hurley, Wisconsin for five years before holding her current position as the Bad River 4-H Youth Development Coordinator on the Bad River Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. We wanted to share the following edited conversation, which includes Joy’s thoughts on love, gardening, institutionalized oppression, and living at the center of the universe.

Can you talk a little about the work you’ve been doing in the area and on the Bad River Reservation?

I’ve worked with federal food stamps for several years. I understood from early on that some of the barriers to eating healthy foods were really institutionalized oppression...we know brown-skinned people have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, poverty. This is institutionalized oppression. This is intentional. We have to refuse that, and now is the time. I don’t want a world where the kids I know from Bad River are gonna die younger, are not gonna have opportunity for as much health as my own child. It just doesn’t make sense to me… I’ve always felt like gardening was a way for people to reconnect with their bodies, reconnect with the land and have a much more clear understanding of food as medicine.

We can see in this space, there’s magic in this space, there’s a deep and sort of language-less understanding of what it means to grow something and what it means to be part of a system that is natural and what it means to eat from there. We have to reclaim the spirit of what we’re talking about. This is not just nutrition, it’s not just, you know, the sustenance of drinking clean water. It’s life in its most spiritual form. That’s powerful.

It’s social justice, it’s spirit work. It’s fun, it’s food. I draw on many people’s wisdom, I consider myself a sort of conduit and less of a thinker myself. Vandana Shiva, who you know, she always said food is sacred but it’s as common as mud. We have to be in that space too. It’s not like food is so very special and we need to revere it and it’s sort of untouchable but it’s a real personal and daily relationship.

 What was it like to be welcomed into a community that you’re not originally a part of?

Ojibwe people have knowledge that we need to go forward here. They have lived here for a long, long time with no chemical inputs and no bottled water. There’s been a lifeway here that has been very successful… It’s funny to see that you come to your conclusions about your soil, your weather, your land and if you’re thoughtful and you’re learning as you go, you’re gonna come to the same conclusions that anybody ever has. Heugel beds sound innovative and they’re permaculture and they’re biodynamic and all these great hipster cool farmer things but it’s actually all old Indian stuff… As non-indigenous people our people that came here were like, we’re gonna start a brand new thing. We’re gonna discount the old thing and we’re gonna start a brand new thing and that makes us like middle-schoolers, that’s where we’re at. It’s great to be in a community that’s got some ancient wisdom still floating around.

What brought you North, to the lake, in the first place?

My partner and I moved here to step out of mainstream society and try to slow down and try and have every day a little bit in the woods. Now it turns out we live in the center of the universe because we live on Lake Superior with the world’s water supply at our feet and this really unique agricultural system that’s developing where there’s equity in the food system here.

How has living and working so close to the lake affected the way you live your life?

I am a much better person than I ever thought I would be. I’m calmer, I’m more content. Don’t know if I would have been as good of a mother had I not been here.

What was it like to work through the mining issue with this community? [Referring to community efforts against a recently proposed taconite mine.]

People can just come in here from across the world and subvert our lifeway. Wrap a bunch of language around it to make it sound benign but it’s actually genocide, like, that’s possible. The thing that pushed the mining company out wasn’t senators and it wasn’t politicians, it was love. It was love. That’s what did it. Because that confused them, they just didn’t understand it. When you got a bunch of people that need money, that need jobs, there’s a lot of stuff we need and we just don’t want it that way. That was an amazing experience…I had a couple of really, really, traumatic personal tragedies too, five years ago and strangely enough because of the mining issue revived me and helped me move through that and helped me heal.

Can you talk about your experiences while trying to organize with the community during that time?

The [mining] company thinks it was gonna unfold in the same way it unfolds the same way all over the country. You get some rage, some pushback. You pit neighbor against neighbor. You get the ‘jobs’ people. You get the hippies, then the battle blows out, then you get what you want… You can make change doing what you do where you’re at. You know en masse is not necessary. If I take a group of Native kids and Hurley kids and we collect onions together, there’s an act of justice in that. And that is what I could do. My friends did other things. Some people made art, some people did direct action, some people travelled with technology to document their journey, some people were storytellers. All of it fit and I think that was powerful for me because I thought activism was something else, I thought it was like a million people on the square kind of thing. It was incredible how also those forces that are driven only by profit were unable to get their claws into it. Because it might be someone in a jingle dress, or with fry bread at a county board meeting.

Any final thoughts?

Ojibwe people say this time was the time that was prophesized as a crossroads where humanity, all colors of humanity would come to this place where we would have to choose a charred path or a green path. I think we’re choosing the green path, I feel it… I was raised by parents who were like “we totally messed up the environment, oh my god you gotta do something” And I have. And now when I rally kids I’m like we’re doing it. I’m here at your side, it is our responsibility.