SLIM BUTTES, S.D. - Holiday fare on many Pine Ridge tables will include
home-grown vegetables, something that has been missing for many decades.
It may not seem significant to many people, but to children and elders on
Pine Ridge, located in one of the poorest counties in the nation, any extra
or special foods, especially those nurtured and grown by families
(tiospaye) are very welcomed.
The food represents work, hard work by some of the families. Youth and
elderly work together. Grandmas and grandpas teach the grandchildren the
value of growing plants and the value of work. With unemployment estimated
at around 80 percent for the Oglalas who live on Pine Ridge, any type of
work that brings in goods or revenue is appreciated.
Running Strong for American Indian Youth is a primary supporter of the
garden project. Olympian Billy Mills is the Running Strong spokesperson
worldwide. Foundations and other tribes help finance the remainder of the
expenses, said Tom Cook, project coordinator for Running Strong. He added
that Mills is the project's champion. "He is running races for us."
There are 500 family gardens on Pine Ridge that feed an estimated 3,800
people, 10 percent of the reservation. Pine Ridge, like many reservations,
fights diabetes and obesity. Fresh vegetables at the center of a healthy
diet and exercise are ways to overcome the deadly disease.
The Slim Buttes AG project, as it is labeled, gives seedlings and seeds to
the families that sign up to host a garden. The project also sends in a
tractor with a plow or disc to work the plot to be used as a garden - it's
all free to the family.
Pine Ridge is located in a desolate area where rain is infrequent and heat,
grasshoppers, noxious weeds and wind all work against the gardener.
The project adds water to the mix, in the form of drip irrigation. It is
more efficient so each plant gets watered and water is not wasted. There
are nine miles of irrigation lines set up.
But it is hard work.
Milo Yellowhair, who works with the project, said it is hard to get some
people to understand that a pretty flower that grows in the garden is
really the plant that produces burrs and will crowd out the vegetables.
Pretty is not always welcome.
He tells the people they can look at the flower outside the garden area.
"We don't push the gardens on people, they have to apply," Cook said. Not
all gardens are successful. Forty percent failed this past year, mostly
because of drought conditions and extreme heat.
The average garden is 50 feet by 50 feet which totals up to something near
29 acres of land that dedicated to healthy activity and food production.
Gardens are located in all nine districts on Pine Ridge and it takes nine
tractors, one for each district to keep up with the work.
Yellowhair said that some grandmas will put a garden in the same area that
grandpa had one, maybe some 70 or 80 years ago. Then they get the
grandchildren involved in the work.
The project is separate from the tribal government, Cook said. In fact,
only one councilman offered to help with the project.
Cook and Yellowhair are very quick to point out that the garden project is
even more than creating a healthy lifestyle; it is practicing sovereignty
at the grassroots level.
The families used 30,000 seedlings: Peppers and tomatoes for example and
donated seeds. Cook said they used last year's seeds from various
Running Strong provides $90,000, which is the base income for the project.
The total cost runs more than $200,000. Cook raises most of the money from
tribes and foundations. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribe donated
$15,000; Natural Tobacco company, $40,000; All Tribes Foundation of
Minnesota, $10,000; the Oneida Nation of New York, $40,000; the Kellogg
Foundation $5,000 and an anonymous donor $5,000.
"As we went around we saw the poor area," said Chuck Fougnier, chairman of
the Oneida Nation Foundation.
The Oneidas had given $10,000 then increased it to $30,000 more after
seeing the project.
"We decided to go further with our contribution to the gardens. We saw a
need for a tractor. Five of them are old and in need of repair and they
needed a truck to transport tractors back and forth," Fougnier said.
Cook said the gardens provide food people can trust to eat. He added that
Billy Mills said live food has enzymes that kill the dead food we eat.
"It is basic stuff. We need to get the people thinking that way," Cook
Some people want spiritual food, and it is available for harvest throughout
the area, but the everyday foods are also grown.
"The main thing is to get the people's blood moving and to break a sweat
every day," Yellowhair said. "We get feedback from little kids. When they
get the taste of a cantaloupe or watermelon it stays with them.
"It makes you feel good. There is a role to fill, it is something worth
doing and the people are thankful," Yellowhair said.
The project hires people on a part-time basis in the summer to drive the
tractors, package the seeds and seedlings and set up the irrigation
systems. The expense of running the operation, according to Cook, is $4,800
per week during the season. He is a full-time employee of Running Strong.
The application families fill out asks what their needs might be. Some
write down: Garden tools, fencing, advice, seeds and one person wrote that
she needed "rain to make a successful garden."
"This is a self-sufficiency circle. We make use of the land, the poorest
land in the United States and make it blossom and grow stuff," Yellowhair