Plant a traditional-foods garden

Published in Indian Country Today in 2005. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Fort Yates, N.D. — “Gardening is an excellent way to improve health, especially for people with diabetes,” said Aubrey Skye, Lakota, gardens coordinator for the diabetes program of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Skye was getting ready to take seeds, soil and peat pots over to the local elementary school so children could start plants for the 32 gardens he’ll put in around the reservation this spring. “We Native people are blessed with the ability to lower blood sugar levels quickly with exercise. Gardening offers both functional exercise and high-quality, culturally appropriate nutrition — another key to wellness.”

The gardening project began five years ago, when community members decided they wanted a holistic way to prevent and control diabetes, which is epidemic in Indian Country. They put in their first plot near the reservation’s high school to catch the attention of the youngsters and inspire them to eat more vegetables and less commodity foods, which Skye calls “prisoner-of-war rations.”

            And fry bread? “It should be classified with junk food in the USDA food pyramid,” he said. “It’s the comfort food of an oppressed people.” In fact, he said, a community-specific food pyramid should be designed for Lakotas, featuring bison, venison, dried meat, berries, wild turnips, corn, beans and squash.

Not having an agricultural tradition (“we were hunters and harvesters who traded for garden vegetables,” said Skye), the community group looked far and wide for ideas for their plots. Skye, who learned about agriculture while growing up on the Navajo reservation, has studied with Clayton Brascoupé, Mohawk, who runs permaculture and traditional-gardening classes in Santa Fe.

Brascoupé’s two-week summer course attracts indigenous people from all over the hemisphere, who share ideas from their gardening practices, both modern and historical. “We Lakota can’t depend on the buffalo anymore, but we can look at ancestral agricultural systems and see how those people provided for themselves. We can then adapt the ideas for today’s needs,” said Skye, who brainstormed with farmers from around the globe last fall while attending Terra Madre, an agricultural conference in Italy.

            Standing Rock’s innovative gardens flourished, and in 2003 became part of the Standing Rock Diabetes Program. For the 2005 growing season, Skye is setting up both raised-bed gardens with a preponderance of Native crops and medicine-wheel gardens with traditional herbs in the quadrants of the circle. 

The idea of using raised-bed gardens came to Standing Rock from Luis Salas, gardens manager on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, where they’ve had many advantages. They’re small, so easy for novices to handle. They also work well in urban areas, where someone might have access to just a limited outdoor area.

“They can even be constructed with higher sides, so people in wheelchairs can reach in and get their hands dirty,” said Skye. “And once you’re experienced, you can have several.” To set up one or more, see the accompanying step-by-step instructions.

Native gardeners should grow Native crops, according to Skye, who farms in Porcupine, North Dakota, with his family. “Our seeds are memory banks, encapulating the experiences of past generations,” he said. “They’ve been through the good times and the hard times with us — everything the people went through. As a result, they’re tough and will survive where a hybrid won’t.”

Next, Skye will start a farmers’ market in order to sell his garden surplus, but also to inspire others to grow and market their own crops: “We can’t let ourselves be forced into the agricultural-industrial complex with its hybridized and genetically modified foods. As a people, we have to realize we can do it. We can break the cycle of dependency. We honor our ancestors by carrying on the traditions.”

Step-by-Step to a Bountiful Harvest

“A garden is like a bank account. You get out of it what you put in,” said Aubrey Skye, gardens coordinator of the Standing Rock Diabetes Program. Here are his tips for reaping an abundance of fresh, healthy food. 

• Obtain seeds: Heirloom seeds saved by members of your own community will have a natural edge in your garden, as they’ve been selected to grow best in local conditions. And they have the flavor, texture and other attributes that work best in your traditional recipes. Also check out Native Seeds/SEARCH (, which offers indigenous farmers free heirloom seeds through the Native American Outreach Program; they’re generally best for Southwestern gardens. Organizations can obtain low-cost seeds from Seeds of Change (; log on to download the donation form. Another good source is Horizon Herbs ( Before you order, think about what you’d like to be eating — perhaps some combination of tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, beans, peas, squash, melons, greens and/or herbs. Corn should be grown separately in its own plot.

• Build a raised-bed garden: To determine when to start, grab a clump of dirt. If it sticks together, it’s too wet. Wait until the soil dries out and breaks apart in your hands. Then, in a spot that receives about six hours of sun a day, make a rectangular frame with twelve 3-inch galvanized deck screws, two 8-foot-long 2x12-inch boards and two 4-foot-long 2x12-inch boards. (Don’t use pressure-treated wood as it contains dangerous chemicals.) Fill the frame with soil, and mix in few buckets of compost. If necessary, buy topsoil and compost from a garden center.

• Plant: If your seed is in packets, check the envelopes for general guidelines on figuring out when the soil is warm enough to sow in your area. For exact times for each crop, consult your tribal gardening program, your local extension service, a garden center or an experienced gardener. If you end up with extra seeds, store them in a cool, dry place to use next year. Some plants (including tomatoes, peppers and basil) go in the ground as seedlings; sprout their seeds in peat pots six to eight weeks before planting time, or purchase transplants.

• Mulch the soil: Find free local materials to place around the base of plants; covering the ground squelches weeds and conserves moisture. Dampened newspaper sections (black ink only) can be covered with straw, grass clippings or chopped leaves (run a lawnmower over them).

• Welcome bugs: They’re hardworking garden helpers. Put in a variety of flowers to draw bees and other pollinators. Rely on beneficial insects, such as praying mantises, to gobble up pests, like aphids.

• Irrigate: For efficient watering, try drip irrigation. Make a no-cost set-up by using a thick needle or awl to poke a few holes around the necks of clean plastic pop bottles or milk jugs. Fill the containers with water, put on the caps, and push the perforated necks into the soil near groups of plants.

• D-I-Y organic fertilizer: Fill a burlap sack with composted manure, and tie it shut. Hang it in a water-filled drum or barrel, and let it steep for about 10 days, stirring daily. Each week, apply this concoction liberally to the plants. An alternative is fish emulsion, available from a garden center.

• Make compost: In a shady spot, wrap chicken wire around four sturdy stakes driven into the ground to form a square that’s about three feet on a side. Toss in a few shovelfuls of dirt and worms, and add garden cuttings, grass clippings, leaves and kitchen scraps (vegetables and eggshells only). Mix with a pitchfork, then cover with a tarp. Add ingredients as they’re available. Each week, mix the heap and dampen it. The compost is ready when it’s black and crumbly. 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photos courtesy Aubrey Skye.

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