A Native American and member of the Nanticoke Tribe, Courtney Streett ’09 has fond memories of attending powwows as a child. Her family operated a fried bread stand at the Tribe’s annual Delaware event. Courtney would chase bees away from the cinnamon and sugar toppings table and watch in awe as smoke and jingle dancers performed to drumbeats.
Four years ago, after powwow, she and her husband took a detour on the way home to New York and drove by the lower Delaware farm her great-grandparents bought in the early 1900s. At the time, it was rare for people of color to own property. Her family grew and sold crops including tomatoes, peas, and strawberries. When Courtney and her husband arrived at the nearly 100-acre farm, they noticed a “for sale” sign.
“My heart plummeted,” says Courtney. Her father’s cousins had listed the property, unbeknownst to her. She was devastated. “It made complete economic sense why my relatives, who were over 70, would want to cash out and retire,” she says. “But at the same time, there’s this family history, agricultural history, and cultural history.” Courtney felt connected to the land.
She knew lower Delaware was experiencing rapid growth, with developers buying up farmland from aging farmers at high prices, but she couldn’t bear to see more farms turned into shopping centers or parking lots. Worrying about it kept her up at night.
Courtney did something about it: She founded a nonprofit, left her dream job as an associate producer at 60 Minutes, and moved back to Delaware. “That one drive by the farm changed my trajectory,” she says.
Native Roots Farm Foundation’s mission is to reclaim, cultivate, and celebrate Native relationships with the land, plants, and communities for the next Seven Generations. It’s in keeping with a Native American philosophy that choices made today should lead to a sustainable world seven generations from now.
Courtney’s ultimate goal is to rent or buy land on which to start a public garden and farm celebrating native plants and practicing Indigenous agricultural techniques. She also wants to increase food security in the area. But, for now, she’s building community and spreading the word about her organization through community events that celebrate Native American cultures. “There’s strength in numbers,” she says. “As an individual, I’m limited in what I can do, but, as a community, we can do so much more.”
At Native American powwows and environmental events, Native Roots Farm Foundation sells homemade strawberry (tehim in Lenape) juice to engage with the public. A traditional Indigenous food, tehim is one of some 17,000 plant species native to North America. She also collects acorns, winter berries, sumac, and pawpaw seeds for children to use in art projects. Other plans include organizing a beadwork course led by women from Delaware’s two state-recognized tribes and an event to celebrate yaupon holly, the only known plant that’s native to North America and has caffeine.
Looking back, Courtney isn’t surprised that she ended up co-founding an organization honoring the earth. Growing up, she loved plants. At Wellesley, she double majored in environmental studies and Africana studies and did research in the greenhouses, and also spent her free time there. “It was my happy place,” she says. “Having my hands in the soil felt like home.”
She says, “The writing was on the wall throughout my life. Now, it’s exciting to be where we are with the foundation. But it’s also difficult. We’re an army of one: me. … The hope is we can keep more lands in Nanticoke hands so this tradition and story keep going.”