It’s time for the harvest. Traditionally, the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) are hunter gatherers. For generations, our children have gotten excited when the chokecherries turn black, because that meant they were ripe for picking.
Buffaloberries and wild plums are ready when the chokecherries are. Wild strawberries and raspberries were ready a month previous, along with wild onions; prairie turnips (timpsila) were picked two months before that. The berries and plums can be eaten fresh picked, and are made into jams and jellies. Wojapi is a delicious dessert made from honey or sugar and berries, usually chokecherries. Chokecherries mixed with kidney fat and dried meat are also used to make wasna, ceremonial food. My father, who is a wild game hunter, loves pemmican. We gather first. Hunting will come in another month’s time.
It’s time to pick medicine too. The prairie sage is tall. We start collecting sage and sweetgrass ahead of sundance, but we continue to collect enough to last us through the winter, which is well into March in the Dakotas. Do not pull them out by the root, and leave an offering along with a prayer of thanks for your bounty. There are many other Native plants that can be harvested and dried for medicine, like yarrow and purple coneflower. If you’ve never used these wild medicines before, I caution you against doing so unless you’re under the guidance of an elder, medicine person, or ethnobotanist. We like to pick from designated areas as well, as some plants have been exposed to manmade pollution and aren’t suitable for consumption.
We planted, as well. On my reservation, ancient caches of corn were discovered. Today, tribal members are reviving the practice of gardening, not only to preserve tradition, but for better health and to promote community sustainability and food sovereignty.
This summer, Ella Robertson (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), grew squash from seeds that had been preserved through hand-pollination to maintain their purity for over 5,000 years.
“This is my first year planting the seeds. They took off fast! I started them in a wet napkin and a baggy and they germinated in 4 days,” Ella says. “I will harvest my seeds for planting next year and to share with others in our community that have same passion for gardening and reviving these old, indigenous food sources. I plan on cooking it in different ways to see what it can be best used for and try different preservation methods to see how well it keeps.”
Ella believes that working the Earth has spiritual component that many of us in the modern world are currently lacking. She states, “Working in the garden and dirt reconnect us with Mother Earth. You become more aware of weather, and your environment. It gives you a sense of accomplishment to eat something you have grown, and you know where it's coming from.”
She also understands that practicing our ancestral methods of self-sustainability compliments living green and can protect us from harm into the future.
“I grow my garden to be more self sustaining. Someday I want to go off the grid. I want solar power and heat, I want a small-scale wind tower, and I want a water catchment system,” she says. “It’s about preparing for winter, canning, drying, and preserving our food and teaching it to our kids. Not only gardening, but gathering traditional foods and medicines. By growing our own seeds, we are combating the movement towards all plants and seeds being GMO (Genetically-Modified Organisms). I don't think people realize what type of modifications are being made to plants and seeds, with insect, fish and other materials being integrated into them. In the end, we hold that knowledge of a pure food source, in our indigenous seeds. We need to protect that knowledge, share our seeds and continue on the tradition of growing our own foods.”
I was taught that our ancestral teachings and spiritual instructions were not just a part of our history, but that they should be maintained, kept alive, and practiced continually because they can save us when situations are dire.
It only takes one natural disaster to remind us that ‘modern civilization’ is often a house of cards that is not infallible. If you watch the news, you know a time is coming when we won't be able to look to the government and outside organizations to rescue us, although Native Nations can work together.
Native communities need to start focusing on themselves and preparing for difficult times. Every tribe should have seeds, gardens, animals, pantries, and fresh water access. Food sovereignty enhances tribal sovereignty. We should be creating our own power sources and securing our own infrastructure. We need to protect our hunting and fishing rights and brush up on survival skills. Can and dry meat and berries like our grandmothers did. Learn the landscape, stars, weather patterns and your medicinal plants and wild edibles like turnips and onions. Teach your children these things.
The system isn’t particularly friendly to the concept of self-sustainability. It needs consumers. There is a better way. We can live in balance with the land, like our ancestors did. The resistance is green, and fertile.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.
This story was originally published on September 3, 2017.