Dig It! Northern Plains Gardeners Grow Food, Health and Sovereignty

Originally published in Indian Country Today in 2013. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Oglala gardeners plant greens on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

“I want to saturate Pine Ridge with healthy vegetables,” said Steve Hernandez, Oglala Sioux Tribe gardening instructor. “The interest in gardening here is huge, and education is key. Through classes in everything from soil preparation to preserving the harvest, we ensure that our people are learning do this for themselves.”

For Oglalas, eating fresh, organic produce will mean better health. It’s a declaration of sovereignty, according to Hernandez, a tribal member and a former educator for South Dakota State University’s extension service. And it’s starkly practical as well, he said: “Most of our food is trucked in. If there’s bad weather—common on the Plains—it doesn’t get through.”

Melania Two Hearts, 6, in Old West Gypsy Markets garden.
Working out of Oglala Vice President Tom Poor Bear’s office, Hernandez facilitates collaboration among a huge network of groups and individuals who spent the month of May tilling, planting and laying out drip irrigation lines throughout the reservation. These include Pine Ridge schools from pre-K through college; a youth emergency shelter in Pine Ridge village; Lakota Funds, in Kyle, which provides loans and grants; and Kyle’s youth center, Oyate Teca, where kids participate in gardening and other wholesome activities.

According to Oyate Teca director Rose Frazier, the center also hosts the Lakota Ranch Beginning Farmer/Rancher Program, with courses for adults in horticulture and animal husbandry. Then there’s Chet Marks, a master gardener and advisor from Nebraska, and National Relief Charities, a Rapid City nonprofit that turns up each spring to till plots on Pine Ridge and other reservations.

More members of the green team: Through Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program and their Can Wigmunke nonprofit, Patricia Hammond, Oglala, and her husband. Jason Schoch, put in school and community gardens and give teachers’ workshops. Outside the couple’s Kyle café and gift shop, Old West Gypsy Market, covered stalls serve as a summer market for gardeners and artists. On a recent late May afternoon, Hammond took time out from making cappuccinos to plant greens with Lena Nicolaysen, 8½; Melania Two Hearts, 6; and Nicole Cournoyer, 9 (left to right, with Hammond). 

Slim Buttes tipi trellis.
Before area gardeners can get the fruits of their labor onto the plate—let alone into a market—they face formidable obstacles, said Tom Cook, Mohawk, director of another major local gardening organization: Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corporation, in the reservation’s southwest corner. During a 10-week bilingual radio series on KILI, the Pine Ridge station, Cook and service coordinator Milo Yellow Hair, encourage their neighbors to stand firm through a near-Biblical onslaught of plagues.

In an ordinary growing season on the Northern Plains, indeed during an ordinary week, a gardener may face drought, grasshoppers, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail, ceramic-hard soil and raccoons and other four-legged raiders. Then there’s the heat, which is worsening as the planet heats up. “Between June and August last year, there were only five days below 95 degrees,” recalled Cook. “I have watched the climate change.”

Cook, who is married to tribal member Loretta Afraid of Bear, has been helping Pine Ridge tackle these challenges since 1985. With support from Running Strong for Native American Youth, Plenty International and other funders, Slim Buttes’s 18-plus workers till more than 400 Pine Ridge household plots annually. These provide nearly 2,500 people with fresh fruits and vegetables—a little more than 6 percent of the reservation’s population.

Milo Yellow Hair checks Slim Buttes seedlings.
The group hands out some 20,000 seedlings from its greenhouse, along with grocery sacks of seeds for peas, beans, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, squash and more. Also included are plants, such as the medicinal herb Echinacea, that have prominent blossoms and help attract pollinators. Bees, a crucial pollinator for many popular crops, may be facing dire health problems and the collapse of entire colonies across the continent—but not at Slim Buttes, according to Yellow Hair (at right). The group’s biodynamic methods (a type of organic horticulture) are pollinator-friendly, he explained, as we watched a bee meandering above the garden, seeking blooms: “Everything is interrelated.”

At Slim Buttes, gardeners amend the soil with needed nutrients, as they might anywhere, said Yellow Hair, who is Oglala. But they also pray: “Prayer is a little-understood energy source. Every day, everything we do coalesces the forces of the universe into our soil.”

Slim Buttes gardeners also go swimming—in a giant, pale-green culvert upended to serve as a pool, while a nearby taller culvert is used as a water tank. “It’s our swimming hole,” said Yellow Hair. Gardens provide liveliness, fun and beauty, in addition to fruits and vegetables, said Schoch, of Old West Gypsy Market: “Gardens are gathering places. They make the community a nice place.”

Crow Creek compost, ready for gardens.
On the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, along the Missouri River in central South Dakota, gardeners pick up packs of seeds and tools from Billy Joe Sazue, coordinator of the gardens program of Hunkpati Investments, a community development organization in Fort Thompson, South Dakota. First Nations Development Institute supports the program, which allows reservation residents to plant their own patches or help tend the 90-by-150-foot community plot in return for a share of its output. At the seed giveaway, staples like potatoes, onions and corn went fast—but salsa ingredients were really popular, said Sazue.

“There’s real excitement about gardening here,” said Corrie Ann Campbell, Oglala and the new director of Hunkpati. “It’s taking off. My first week on the job was last week, and everyone was coming into the office to pick up seeds. That’s in addition to what was going into the community garden.” (Campbell and Sazue are shown here.)

Sazue ensures that people have instructions for what they want to grow and the type of plot that’s right for them: “Elders might get gardens with raised beds, for example; being higher, they’re easier for older people to tend.”

Youth are much involved; Boys and Girls Club participants and others tend gardens, run farm stands, sell jams and bank their earnings in savings accounts.

Improving health is primary, according to Sazue. Campbell explained: “The focus on health comes out of love, as much as anything. People love their relatives and want each other to be around a long time.”

Economic development is also high on the list, as it is for other reservations. Crow Creek’s farmers market will be accepting electronic payments as well as cash this coming summer, said Sazue, a Crow Creek tribal member. “This will show participants gardening can generate a seasonal income. We are also looking into helping them create value-added products such as preserves and salsa.” Such items have the added benefit of allowing sellers to utilize produce that is not perfect enough for the farmers market. “Crow Creek’s gardens are woven into so many Hunkpati projects,” said the organization’s outgoing director, Krystal Langholz.
Steve Hernandez and Pauletta Red Willow choose a garden site.

At Pine Ridge, Hernandez looks forward to the day when Pine Ridge will have a mobile commercial kitchen to do the canning right in the fields, in addition to its already-existing farmers markets—mobile and stationary. (Hernandez is shown at the emergency youth shelter directed by his wife, Pauletta Red Willow.) Hernandez also anticipated producing enough to supply Pine Ridge schools and the commodities program with fresh, local, organic food. “Eventually, we could sell over the Internet,” he said.

Web-based sales are already underway on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in north-central South Dakota, where the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s garden output doesn’t just provide healthy meals and snacks to the after-school and summer program. The surplus is made into salsas, pickles and preserves and sold in a gift shop, as well via the Internet, to help support the project.

Said Sazue at Crow Creek: “There’s much more we can do here—we could raise buffalo and cattle and feed our children and our elders really well.”

Getting better food onto the school lunch tray came up on every reservation visited for this story. But the way schools feed children has changed over the years, said Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota and coordinator for the Native Gardens Project of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program, in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Skye, shown here, explained that many of today’s cafeterias—on and off reservations—don’t have cooks, but rather staffers who simply heat and serve ready-made meals. As a result, much has to be considered before fresh food can be integrated into school lunches.

Aubrey Skye gardens at Standing Rock.
“We’re talking to North Dakota’s Farms to School program and other organizations about a pilot project for a middle school here at Standing Rock,” said Skye. “We need to figure out ways to store perishables, including freezing, and must produce a booklet of institutional-size recipes. We’ll start with one school, and hopefully it’ll catch on. Then more local farmers can sell to the schools to generate income.”

Sazue reported similar efforts at Crow Creek: “One of our partners, Harvest Initiative, out of Iowa, is starting a school garden, and we’re looking into ways to preserve the output.”

At Standing Rock, Skye is also working with Pete Red Tomahawk, a former tribal official, on ideas for a bigger operation that could grow vegetables in quantities large enough to feed more of the community. Food security is a big issue for tribes, said Skye: “We must ensure our future by becoming more self-determined and less dependent on the federal government.”

However, a century and a half of relying on federal food handouts means tribal members may think of food as free—not something to be bought and sold. “We have to change how people think, and that’s a difficult task,” Skye said.

But right now, Skye has 30 more gardens to till. He’s already done 70. This is the fifth year of a six-year Centers for Disease Control grant that finds him putting in 100-plus plots annually on Standing Rock. It’s a gratifying job that lets him live close to the land. He encourages others to do the same. “I like the freedom I have here to garden and hunt and gather,” said Skye. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Said Frazier, of Oyate Teca on Pine Ridge: “Gardening and sustainability are here to stay.”

“Recycling” may be the usual term for what Rhonda Sankey does with unexpected items in her garden in Lame Deer, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. But that’s such an earnest word. Even, dare we say, boring. Sankey’s inspired approach is better described with the French word bricolage. It means basically the same thing—but with flair!

Ryhal Rowland, Northern Cheyenne, took me to meet Sankey, who is Blackfeet, as she landscaped her front yard with a line of 10 blue spruce obtained from the extension service Rowland directs. Sankey finished up and took us on a tour of her place, which features flowering and fruiting plants and shrubs, a vegetable garden, and creative ideas everywhere we looked.

At Sankey’s home, practicality meets panache. (Another perfect French word! This one means confident style!) A disused car becomes a greenhouse, as shown here. Sankey’s 10-year-old daughter, Nonee White, who is Northern Cheyenne, climbed in to show us tomatoes, peppers and other plants sprouting in containers on the seat.

Trampolines that had first been wrapped with chicken wire to shelter newly hatched chicks had been disassembled, so the circular frames could be used to suspend hanging plants. Wooden pallets were ready-made raised beds (“no sawing and nailing”), while stacked tires were filled with dirt to grow potatoes (“dig a hole and place them over it, so you need fewer tires”). Dirt-filled gunny sacks, such as those above right, were another potato-growing option. Sankey’s compost included manure from the chickens, goats and other animals she raises. In the house, a row of iced-tea bottles, shown here, sheltered morning glories seeds that could eventually produce a living flowery “curtain.”

“Pinterest is a great place to go for re-use ideas,” said Rowland.“Or try Google,” added Sankey. “Search for whatever you have lying around. I put in ‘trampoline + recycling’ and immediately got lots of suggestions.” And you can, too!

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard. 

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