Gary Besaw explains how Tribal Elder Food Boxes connect nutrition with restoration of wild rice

Sep 7, 2023 | Agriculture, River:30

Gary Besaw is the Director of the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, a tribe whose true name is Kaeyas Mamacitawak, which means “the Ancient Ones” or “the Ancient Movers.” Gary has served as tribal chair for several terms. You can tell he has a deep love for Wisconsin when he describes his tribe’s ancestral relationship with Weskohsek, which means “a good place to live—with clean water, clean air, bountiful fish and game, medicines for our use, and good land.”

River Alliance of Wisconsin launched an effort in 2020 to create the Wisconsin Water Agenda. The Agenda can inspire a future in which we have a comprehensive or integrated system of water management, a shared goal for protecting our water, and a dedication to the ethics of defending the water that is essential for life. Gary Besaw served on the Core Team to develop the Wisconsin Water Agenda and generously lent his wisdom and experience to help shape the document. Read the Wisconsin Water Agenda on our website.


Posoh Netaenewaymakenak. Oskapaewis iniq aes wesiyan. Netotem enuaq eyawet Awaesaeh. Nekataw-manawac kikitem.

Greetings my relatives. My real name is Oskapaewis, meaning a messenger or translator in old Menominee as I am told. I am Bear Clan, whose role is as a speaker and keeper of the law.


How is the Tribal Elder Food Box going, and how is this program a model for tribal food sovereignty?

The Tribal Elder Food Box Program started during the pandemic to improve the quality and quantity of indigenously-grown foods available to our tribal knowledge holders, our precious elders. The pandemic showed us that the existing food systems in the U.S. were not the best for our tribal nations. We have purposefully solicited many great partners that are mentoring us in the development of our producer, transport, aggregation, and delivery systems.

The Tribal Elder Food Box Program tries to focus on several important tenets, ones that we believe can help serve as a model for tribal food sovereignty for many other tribal nations to adjust to their regions. First, the concept of healthy food for elders, or even everyone in our communities, for that matter, makes sense. Organic food, or indigenously-grown food, means trying to stay as clean and natural as we can with what goes into our bodies. Second, growing, raising and selling within our own communities, with food that we know is healthy, recirculates funding sustainably into our communities and reduces some of the needed healthcare costs over time. Third, healthy, locally and sustainably grown and environmentally friendly food systems help our environment by reducing greenhouse gasses by storing more carbon, supporting diversity, and using less fossil fuels for transport and storage.

Tribal Elder Box Program by the numbers

2021 – pilot year

10,800 boxes delivered to tribal elders in seven tribal nations in Wisconsin and Michigan

$471,000 in funding

Seven indigenous producers participating, received 35% of funds



30,000 boxes to be delivered to tribal elders in all 11 Wisconsin tribal nations and two tribal urban areas

$1.7 million in funding

21 indigenous producers to receive 60% of funds

The Tribal Elder Food Box Program is a model that shows a great start towards rebuilding our tribal and intertribal economies. It’s working in the ways our ancestors knew was right, meaning through environmentally sound, green economies. The concepts of “food as medicine” and “indigenous trade routes” are important threads in the survival stories of our Nations. As we now move to re-establish old trade routes and redevelop our agricultural independence, one of the stark realities we find is that there are not nearly enough indigenous ranchers, fishers, gatherers, and producers who, for various reasons, are ready to grow and sell back into our own food systems.

By providing a ready buyer through purposeful food systems, we allow producers, ranchers, fishers, and gatherers the capital to improve and sustainably grow their lands. Giving them access to markets in our communities formerly dominated by high-volume, chemically-manipulated row crops, grown far away, that small scale indigenous producers couldn’t compete with pricewise is starting to open eyes. Given the unpredictability of our weather, this opportunity can’t come too soon.


What is the Menominee Tribe working on this year for wild rice restoration? Explain the connection between protecting wild rice and protecting larger clean water ecosystems.

Wild rice, or manomaeh, is the name given to our tribal nation after others came into our homelands and observed the sustenance and reliance connections we had with the wild rice. In fact, our name given to us by others translates to “People of the Wild Rice.”

We have wild rice on our reservation and nearby lakes and rivers, but not in the quantities we used to have. Climate change, invasive plants, shoreland development, dam development, and recreation intrusion have removed much of the wild rice beds once located in the original 12,000,000 acres of homelands of the Menominee, which includes northeastern Wisconsin.

Wild rice is a “Canary in the Coal Mine” of sorts. It is bountiful in clean, stable environments. But wild rice is adversely impacted by unpredictable storms, water and sediment pollution, shoreland and dam development and recreational boat over-use. Wild rice is part of a larger ecosystem, and the loss of any one part of any system impacts other parts of the system in ways that can create domino effects of unpredicted and harmful consequences.

We are reseeding our lakes and rivers, and are in the early years of researching how human impacts affect its recovery.

Raj Shukla and Gary Besaw

Why are you involved with River Alliance and what does River Alliance do that is unique among other environmental groups?

River Alliance of Wisconsin does many things that other great environmental groups do. I like the fact that in River Alliance’s thinking, they understand that there is power in the people. River Alliance provides help and works systemically to assist communities to have a voice, to stand up, and to organize.

River Alliance also stays focused on helping communities on the local level to understand their rights. They do awesome legal work to challenge powerful entities through our court system. They focus on this amidst the chaos of today’s environmental and political disasters.

Sharon White, Gary Besaw, Raj Shukla


Why did you participate in the Wisconsin Water Agenda? What about the Agenda gives you hope for the future?

River Alliance understands that the Wisconsin Water Agenda must work collectively to find the best way forward for decision-makers and stakeholders at all levels. Realizing that we all have wants and needs, the Wisconsin Water Agenda attempts to engage all stakeholders, listen, and ask Wisconsinites to embrace a single, state-wide goal that educates and communicates the true life-giving value of water. The systems-approach to fixing root causes, not just quick fixes for symptoms, and researching regenerative, natural systems while remaining flexible and adaptive in all environments, whether political, social, or environmental, means there may be hope for our future.


– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water.

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