Native Youth Learn to Heal Their Communities Through Mycelium | Civil Eats

Native Youth Learn to Heal Their Communities Through Mycelium

Spirit of the Sun is using traditional ecological knowledge to help address food insecurity and connection to culture.

A parent walks an infant through a corn field as part of spirit of the sun's traditional ecological knowledge programming. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun

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At Spirit of the Sun, Native American youth are not only learning about traditional ecological knowledge, they’re also empowered to do the teaching.

The opportunity to absorb Indigenous wisdom and share that knowledge with the community is what attracted 20-year-old Nyomi Oliver (Navajo/Chicana) to the Denver nonprofit, which offers a wide variety of cultural, culinary, and wellness programming. “I am a reconnecting Native and had lost my ways,” she says. “But Spirit of the Sun has shown me how important our Indigenous perspectives are and how our history has laid out a blueprint for us to follow in order to align with Mother Nature.”

Oliver got involved in Spirit of the Sun’s Indigenous science and foodways program in 2022, then joined the organization’s newest initiative, the mycelium healing project, which taps into the bioremediation properties of fungi to restore the land and feed the local community.

Mycelium—fungi’s web-like inner network structure—has been shown to remove toxins from the soil while improving its overall health. Last summer, for instance, the organization’s mycelium-inoculated foodscapes demonstration garden yielded more than 1,000 pounds of produce for the elder food share program.

Participants in Spirit of the Sun's Mycelium Healing Project (MHP) prepare mushrooms. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Participants in Spirit of the Sun’s Mycelium Healing Project (MHP) prepare mushrooms. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

These experiences prompted Oliver to pursue a nutrition degree and inspired her 14-year-old sister, Mia Madalena (Navajo/Pueblo/Chicana), to join Spirit of the Sun, too. “I was intrigued when Nyomi brought home mushrooms and was explaining how mycelium can help heal the world,” Madalena explains. She is now part of the organization’s youth leadership program and is interested in, quite literally, illustrating our world’s interconnectedness through her passion for painting.

At the helm of Spirit of the Sun is executive director and permaculture educator Shannon Francis (Diné/Hopi). She developed the mycelium healing project in 2021 to address the environmental injustice caused by known polluter Suncor Oil Refinery, located in nearby Commerce City. Since then, dozens of Native youth have participated in the program.

“I was a teen in the 1980s when the Exxon spill in the Gulf [of Alaska] happened, and I remember all the amazing things mycelium can do,” says Francis. “We wanted to share that knowledge in order to address the negative health impacts for the community around Suncor, which is primarily Chicano and Indigenous, including a lot of elders.”

Shannon Francis. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Shannon Francis. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Under the guidance of local mycology expert James Weiser, youth leaders have built out two mycelial mother patches—starter gardens full of fungi that can then be transplanted to create satellite colonies—and regularly host training sessions to teach their younger counterparts and community elders how to grow mushrooms. For the next phase of the initiative, they hope to develop additional mother patches and inoculate homeowners’ gardens to magnify the fungi’s positive impacts, which they are measuring through ongoing soil testing.

“When we’re healing the soil, we’re healing ourselves,” says Francis. “Our genetic makeup comes directly from the water we drink and the soil we eat from. Most of the soil in the Denver area is depleted of nutrients, so we have to constantly add nutrients back in. Mycelium is like a nervous system that does its job in conjunction with nutrients in the soil. There are so many positive benefits to soil that is healthy and alive; it is connected to our food, our ceremonies, our language, and our stories.”

Participants in the Spirit of the Sun's toddler program. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Participants in the Spirit of the Sun’s toddler program. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

At Spirit of the Sun, education starts early on, beginning with the Indigenous toddlers and teachings program for children aged 2 and up. “If we can teach our youth to observe the world through an Indigenous lens, they are better able to hold respect for the natural world, for the animals, for the elements, and for each other,” she notes. “Most adults have forgotten how to do that. But we know that everything is in kinship, with a function and a purpose.”

Francis is proud to have her 23-year-old daughter, Chenoa, closely involved as Spirit of the Sun’s youth outreach and agricultural support coordinator. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Chenoa has been an outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights since childhood.

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“Spirit of the Sun is about empowering Native communities one youth at a time,” says Chenoa. “Having our programs be youth-led is our way of letting them know they matter and giving them the power to take hold of their future. We also match our youth with elders to create that intergenerational connection. We want to help instill that even for youth who might not understand their connection to the past or their tribe, there is always a way to connect with the Earth.”

Young people work on the Spirit of the Sun farm. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Young people work on the Spirit of the Sun farm. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Although Spirit of the Sun programming is dedicated to uplifting Native individuals, the benefits extend to the greater community, which Eve Hemingway can attest to. After moving to Denver in 2021, Hemingway found a reconnection to place upon attending a Spirit of the Sun workshop about plant relationships and seed keeping. That led to volunteering with the organization delivering food to families in need, then eventually to their current role as urban agriculture coordinator at anti-hunger nonprofit Metro Caring.

“By focusing on decolonizing diets and promoting culturally responsive practices, we’re not just addressing immediate food security issues—we’re also working toward long-term food sovereignty.”

“Shannon helped me find my way back to the land, to the community, and to myself as a farmer,” says Hemingway. “What I find truly beautiful about my experience with Spirit of the Sun is that I can bring my whole, queer self to the table; I feel fully seen in all of my identities.”

Spirit of the Sun acts as a partner on Metro Caring’s Urban Agriculture Program, which supports community-based, farm-to-table food sovereignty. One of the project’s biggest obstacles is losing already rare Denver-area growing spaces to new construction projects, Hemingway explains. The Spirit of the Sun team has been instrumental in creatively approaching this challenge, with solutions like transforming willing homeowners’ lawns into mini gardens.

“Ensuring that our community has control over our food system cannot be achieved without organizations like Spirit of the Sun to steward the rematriation of the land,” says Hemingway. “As we continue to work toward food security for the Denver community and beyond, it’s imperative that we do so through a food sovereignty lens—ensuring that the foods produced are culturally relevant, factors of production are in the hands of the community, and food is produced sustainably through traditional Indigenous practices.”

In lieu of having its own land—which is a current focus area for Spirit of the Sun—the organization relies on partnerships with local individuals and organizations that allow Shannon and her team to utilize portions of their properties to grow those culturally relevant foods to feed elders, the unhoused, and others in need.

Participants in the Spirit of the Sun's youth cooking class. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Participants in the Spirit of the Sun’s youth cooking class. (Photo courtesy of Spirit of the Sun)

Colorado-based Kaizen Food Rescue, which aims to uplift refugee and immigrant communities in the Denver area, has been partnering with Spirit of the Sun since the pandemic, when food insecurity was at an all-time high. Founder and Executive Director Thai Nguyen values that collaboration not only for its real-world impacts but also for its symbolism.

“This exchange of resources and shared knowledge highlights the importance of community networks and the strength that comes from unity,” she says. “Shannon has generously taught our community members, volunteers, and youth how to nurture and grow food in a sacred manner. By focusing on decolonizing diets and promoting culturally responsive practices, we’re not just addressing immediate food security issues—we’re also working toward long-term food sovereignty.”

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These local partnerships reflect Spirit of the Sun’s goal to positively affect the lives of not only Native youth and elders, but also other marginalized groups that have been negatively impacted by the long-lasting effects of colonialism.

“We want to help these kids become more resilient and give them the tools, resources, and support they need to move through climate change.”

“Our intention is to try to heal ourselves from the intergenerational traumas that many Native and BIPOC folks experience,” Shannon says. “For example, I have boarding school survivors on both sides of my family. We believe that creating new positive memories can override traumatic memories. Through our programs, we talk about all these positive Indigenous principles and values. Our youth cooking classes, for instance, are focused on ancestral foods, the stories behind them, their health benefits, and the need to bring them back.”

That traditional ecological knowledge is also key for helping younger generations prepare for their role in mitigating the challenges of climate change. Both experts and research highlight the importance of Indigenous wisdom for biodiversity preservation, regenerative agriculture, and other holistic management approaches.

“A lot of it is genetic memory, which ties us to all our experiences and our ancestors,” Shannon says. “We have to remember the traditional ecological knowledge that will help us move forward. We want to help these kids become more resilient and give them the tools, resources, and support they need to move through climate change. Our programs are focused on uplifting youth to make them proud of who they are and give them hope about the future.”

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She's currently the editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She's interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, Andrew Zimmern, and chef Sean Sherman, and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Andscape, and more. Read more >

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