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

“I want to saturate Pine Ridge with healthy vegetables,” says 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 increasingly able to 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 says: “Most of our food is trucked in. If there’s bad weather—common on the Plains—it doesn’t get through.”

Working out of 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 and planting greens to talk to a potential vendor. “Selling produce doesn’t require any inspections,” she told him. “However, if you’re doing any canning, you have to get it inspected by a professional lab to ensure food safety.”

Before area gardeners can get the fruits of their labor onto the plate—let alone into a market—they face formidable obstacles, says 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.

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, who is Oglala. The group’s biodynamic methods (a type of organic horticulture) are pollinator-friendly, he explains, as we watch 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, says Yellow Hair. 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’a our swimming hole,” says Yellow Hair.

Gardens provide liveliness, fun and beauty, in addition to fruits and vegetables, says Schoch, of Old West Gypsy Market: “Gardens are gathering places. They make the community a nice place.”

Stephanie Woodard

Black gold: Billy Joe Sazue, coordinator of Crow Creek’s gardens program, a project of community development group Hunkpati Investments, shows the development group’s director, Corrie Ann Campbell, some good-looking compost.

On the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, along the Missouri 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, says Sazue.

“There’s real excitement about gardening here,” says 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.”

Sazue, who is 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, Sazue says. “The focus on health comes out of love, as much as anything,” says Campbell. “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, says 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,” says the organization’s outgoing director, Krystal Langholz.

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 also anticipates producing enough to supply Pine Ridge schools and the commodities program with fresh, local, organic food. “Eventually, we could sell over the Internet,” he says.

Web-based sales are already underway on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in north-central South Dakota, where the output of the Cheyenne River Youth Project's Winyan Toka Win garden 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.

Says 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.”

Stephanie Woodard

Aubrey Skye, coordinator of the Native Gardens Program, part of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program, takes a break from tilling garden plots around the reservation.

Getting better food onto the school lunch tray came up on every reservation ICTMN visited for this story. Part of the problem is that the way schools feed children has changed over the years, says Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota and gardens coordinator for the Native Gardens Program, part of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program, in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Skye explains 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.

“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,” says 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 reports 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, about 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, says 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 says.

But right now, it’s late May, and 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 and encourage others to do the same. “I like the freedom I have here to garden and hunt and gather,” says Skye. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

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

Stephanie Woodard

Milo Yellow Hair checks seedlings in the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corporation greenhouse.