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Native Americans connect to past through gardens

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Screenshot 2014-08-16 11.08.05
In this July 10, 2014 photo, Lilah White, left, and Natalie Cree Arguijo carry plants during a gardening exercise with the American Indian Center in Chicago. The center is using gardens to teach urban Native American youth about the importance of their connection to the land. (Stacy Thacker/Associated Press)

CHICAGO — A train roars by as Native American children and instructors climb up a railroad embankment in Chicago, headed toward a barren patch of land that they’ll transform into a garden with edible and medicinal plants.

Some carry potted plants or spades to break up the earth hardened by the summer sun, eager to connect with their natural surroundings. They’re continuing an important cultural tradition that can be difficult to maintain for native people who, decades ago, left reservations for urban areas like Chicago, which now has one of the 10 largest native populations in the U.S.

“Even though we’re in the city, we’re not landless,” said Janie Pochel, 28, an instructor who identifies as Lakota and Cree.

The garden project, known as Urban Ecology, is sponsored by the American Indian Center on the city’s North Side. The first garden began 10 years ago in front of the center and has grown to include two more gardens in the city, including one lining an embankment of the Union Pacific railroad. There, the group is working on growing an oak savannah, like the one that inhabited the area years ago.

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