Kenaitze greenhouse to sprout in Old Town Kenai

A grassy spot in Old Town Kenai next to the parking lot of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Dena’ina Wellness Center may be occupied next summer by gardens, raised plant beds, and a 1,512 square-foot greenhouse full of vegetables and plants that the local Dena’ina Native people traditionally used for food and medicine.

This summer the Dena’ina Wellness Center’s Traditional Healing program hosted workshops about traditional and contemporary ways to use local plants as food and medicine. The plants used in those workshops and in the wellness center’s traditional treatments were harvested from the wild. Kenaitze Wellness Director Deborah Nyquist said the greenhouse would expand these programs.

“In order for us to do that in a more comprehensive way, we’d like to be able to dig in the dirt,” Nyquist said. “To have access to foods and medicines that were not only traditionally ours, but other fruits and vegetables the Dena’ina people wouldn’t have had, but are part of our contemporary diet.”

Nyquist said the specific plants that will grow in the greenhouse “depend on what our tribal members want.” She said the Kenaitze Tribe is organizing a team to look at food sovereignty — an issue she said has attracted a lot of attention when it comes to salmon, but less with regard to vegetables.

“If you think about a typical food you’d purchase in a grocery store, like a loaf of bread, and think about all the steps it takes to get that loaf of bread here to a store for you and I to purchase… There’s many, many steps, and most of those steps I have no control over,” Nyquist said. “The only thing I have control over is picking it up off the shelf, paying for it, taking it home. Food sovereignty is looking at the foods that make me well — do I have access to them? And what do I have control over, in that process? If I take a salmon from the river for my personal use at home, I have control over many of those steps. There’s certain things I don’t have control over — the season, if they’re running. But I can go down to the river, net that salmon, bring it home and process it, prepare it, serve it to my family. I have more power, more sovereignty, over that particular food item. This is a way for our tribal membership to think about a lot of their food, and the medicinal plants as well — what do we have access to, what do we have sovereignty over, and what do I want to make sure my family has access to?”

Rusty Swan, Kenaitze’s Director of Housing Programs, was involved in planning and designing the greenhouse. He also co-owns a commercial greenhouse, the RustyRavin Plant Ranch, with his wife. The Kenaitze’s greenhouse is designed for growing year-round, Swan said. Its north wall and the northern half of its roof will be conventional opaque material, while the southern part of the building is transparent hard plastic, open to light.

“It’ll be easier to keep warm and still get the benefits of the sun,” Swan said. “It’s kind of a unique design.”

Local plants that might be less suited to a greenhouse climate will grow in the outdoor gardens and raised beds surrounding the greenhouse, while the warmer inside could be used for imported vegetables. The greenhouse is planned to sit on the corner of Overland and Mission Avenues, in the Kenaitze’s campus in Old Town Kenai. The Dena’ina Wellness Center is nearby, and a short walk away down Mission Avenue is the Kenaitze’s Tyotkas Elder Center. Though Swan said the greenhouse location has moved several times since the tribe began planning it last summer, it has landed near the programs that will be using it.

“Our elders might come over to the greenhouse, do some planting, perhaps storytelling of what plants they traditionally used, gardening activities with the youth, and actually growing vegetables that we can then incorporate back into our elder’s lunch program,” Nyquist said. “There’s a whole host of ways we want the greenhouse to be available to our tribal programs and our membership. It isn’t just going to be program-specific for how people can access the greenhouse.”

Presently the Tyotkas Elder Center gets its vegetables from vendors, Nyquist said. Other tribal programs that may use the greenhouse include early child care and diabetes prevention, according to an application to the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission for a required permit.

In addition to being harvested, Nyquist said the greenhouse’s collection of local plants will be used in classes that teach not only the practicalities of plant identification, harvest technique, and etiquette, but also cultural knowledge.

“We want to be in the right spirit — harvesting with gratitude,” Nyquist said. “There might be a particular ceremony that folks will need to learn, giving thanks for that plant offering its fruits and benefits to us. All of that is a part of what we want to develop on behalf of the tribe.”

What happens at the greenhouse won’t necessarily stay at the greenhouse.

“We also want to empower our folks to do what they can in their home,” Nyquist said. “They can be container-gardening if they live in a smaller apartment, or perhaps create a garden bed on their property. We have a lot of folks who are very interested in greenhouse gardening, but don’t have access, and we hope to provide access here, in addition to education and how they can carry those skills home.”

Swan said the tribe plans to start building the greenhouse in the spring and have it ready for planting in the coming summer. Some tribe members are preparing by cultivating medicinal wild plants in home gardens and their own greenhouses, Nyquist said.

Swan said his RustyRavin greenhouse started off selling flower starters but has gradually became more food-oriented as he sees the growing popularity of raising your own food. For him, food sovereignty is an attitude he’d like the next generation to inherit.

“Now that I’m older and wiser, we’re eating better,” Swan said. “I wish we’d thought of this 20, 30, 40 years ago. But we obviously can’t change that. The only thing we can do is pass this information on to our kids and grandkids. I can’t change what happened to me, but I can change what will happen to you.”

Reach Ben Boettger at

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