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Healing the Lakota prairie: Part Two

HAYES, S.D. - Although Clarence Mortenson considers himself 'retired', he still flies from Phoenix to South Dakota on a regular basis to see the results of his life's work. Now two of Clarence's sons, Todd and Curt have taken over actual running of the cattle operation. But it is primarily Jeff Mortenson who is continuing his father's work on the restoration of the land. Because the forage on the land is the actual crop of the ranch, none of the rest could exist without it. Jeff understood that and like his father he also felt a calling from the past that he had to follow, closeness to the land developed that soon made him a caretaker of the prairie.

By 1992 his days were filled with planting and harvesting seed by hand across the family ranch. The once monochromatic grasslands became a vast kaleidoscope of colors, colors he had never seen on the prairie before and memories of old paintings now come to mind. "We were just starting to see those native plants come back, all those complex plants and the beautiful flowers," he remembered. "And I always thought of the paintings that were done by Harvey Dunn. A lot of his paintings showed a very colorful prairie and that wasn't what I had seen growing up. We had all the grasses, but we didn't have that large diversification of forbs that you really notice. In the restoration we have done at the ranch you can start to see those flowers again and you can begin to picture what my great-grandmother talked about when she talked about what a beautiful complex place it was; and the banquet it provided for the large herbivores and Native people who traveled upon it and lived along the creeks."

Settlement of the land had taken away the diversification and beauty of the prairie and as the plants disappeared, so did the wildlife native to the area. Now the wildlife is returning and species thought to be long gone have returned. Looking across the fence line to land managed by the Bureau of Land Management shows the stark differences in how land can truly be healed. Now the old plants are back with deep taproots (forbs) that work to aerate the soil, taking the sparse and precious rainfall and allowing it to leech back into the land. Natural legumes, once a source of food for generations of the past feed the soil making it stronger every year. Even after drought years, the Mortenson Ranch lands come back much quicker and in much better condition than those of neighbors who have over grazed and "used up" the land.

"After this country was settled and abused, it lost that diversification," Jeff said. "We have always been on this path on the ranch, of a ranch that is getting more diversified and more beautiful every year. Other ranchers aren't that way because they don't remember the springs, they don't remember the trees, they were gone by the time they took over. But we remember those things through our Lakota heritage. We see the springs coming back to life and the trees and the forbs. Every year we find new things. It shows you how Mother Nature can recover her diversity, if given the philosophical management plan that she needs, she will recover herself."

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But Jeff Mortenson believes that restoring the prairie is more than just making sure that native plants return to the area. "Once you regain that beautiful diversification, then you regain the spiritual connectiveness that was the center of Lakota life and of the earliest of the whites who came into this country," he continued. "My early relatives married into that way of life because they saw that Lakota way of life as so much richer and fuller than the life they had left. It wasn't a life of exploitation; it was a life of living in unity."

His work in prairie restoration can be seen at various locations across the country in the traveling Smithsonian Exhibit, Listening to the Prairie, Farming in Nature's Image. Jeff is the only Native American who was selected for this honor. For him the honor was full of irony. He originally refused to accept the honor unless his father was also included in it. But it was the sense of loss and pride that warred with each other as he saw the display for the first time in Washington, D.C. "This isn't my work alone," he said. "It was my father who led the way and taught me. Anything I learned, I learned from that man, to respect the journey my forbearers had traveled.

"I thought it was a great honor, one of the proudest moments of my life. But as I looked at the buildings around us I just looked at my dad and told him that we were survivors, it could have been our bones stored in those nearby buildings," Jeff concluded. "That is why it wasn't my honor, I just kept thinking about the sacrifice and the journey that the elders had been on and that I was just a vehicle for them. It wasn't my personal accomplishment; it was that of all the people who had come before me. But it was just the beginning for people to be able to see and respect the knowledge of the Native people."

Although the prairie restoration project at the ranch has been a huge undertaking, the Mortensons believe smaller plantings of native prairie plants can be done on any size ground and in virtually any soil. For more information on the restoration, write to The Mortenson Ranch Project; Horticulture, Forestry, Landscape, and Parks Department; PO Box 2140A; South Dakota State University; Brookings, SD 57007.