Plant a traditional-foods garden


FORT YATES, N.D. - "Gardening is an excellent way to improve health,
especially for people with diabetes," said Aubrey Skye, Lakota, gardens
coordinator for the diabetes program of the Standing Rock Sioux

Skye was getting ready to take seeds, soil and peat pots over to the local
elementary school so children could start plants for the 32 gardens he'll
put in around the reservation this spring. "We Native people are blessed
with the ability to lower blood sugar levels quickly with exercise.
Gardening offers both functional exercise and high-quality, culturally
appropriate nutrition - another key to wellness."

The gardening project began five years ago, when community members decided
they wanted a holistic way to prevent and control diabetes, which is
epidemic in Indian country. They put in their first plot near the
reservation's high school to catch the attention of the youngsters and
inspire them to eat more vegetables and fewer commodity foods, which Skye
calls "prisoner-of-war rations."

And frybread? "It should be classified with junk food in the USDA food
pyramid," he said. "It's the comfort food of an oppressed people." In fact,
he said, a community-specific food pyramid should be designed for Lakotas,
featuring bison, venison, dried meat, berries, wild turnips, corn, beans
and squash.

Not having an agricultural tradition - "We were hunters and harvesters who
traded for garden vegetables," said Skye - the community group looked far
and wide for ideas for their plots. Skye, who learned about agriculture
while growing up on the Navajo reservation, has studied with Clayton
Brascoupe, Mohawk, who runs permaculture and traditional-gardening classes
in Santa Fe.

Brascoupe's two-week summer course attracts indigenous people from all over
the hemisphere who share ideas from their gardening practices, both modern
and historical. "We Lakota can't depend on the buffalo anymore, but we can
look at ancestral agricultural systems and see how those people provided
for themselves. We can then adapt the ideas for today's needs," said Skye,
who brain-stormed with farmers from around the globe last fall while
attending Terra Madre, an agricultural conference in Italy.

Standing Rock's innovative gardens flourished, and in 2003 they became part
of the Standing Rock Diabetes Program. For the 2005 growing season, Skye is
setting up both raised-bed gardens with a preponderance of Native crops and
medicine wheel gardens with traditional herbs in the quadrants of the

The idea of using raised-bed gardens came to Standing Rock from Luis Salas,
gardens manager on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, who said raised
gardens offer many advantages. They warm up earlier in the spring, offer
good drainage, and support greater planting density than a conventional
garden. Their small size makes them easy for novices to handle and work
well in urban areas, where access to outdoor space is limited.

"They can even be constructed with higher sides, so people in wheelchairs
can reach in and get their hands dirty," said Skye. "And once you're
experienced, you can have several."

Native gardeners should grow Native crops, according to Skye, who farms in
Porcupine, N.D. with his wife, Monica, and two children. "Our seeds are
memory banks, encapsulating the experiences of past generations," he said.
"They've been through the good times and the hard times with us -
everything the people went through. As a result, they're tough and will
survive where a hybrid won't."

Next, Skye will start a farmers' market in order to sell his garden
surplus, but also to inspire others to grow and market their own crops: "We
can't let ourselves be forced into the agricultural-industrial complex with
its hybridized and genetically modified foods. As a people, we have to
realize we can do it.

"We can break the cycle of dependency. We honor our ancestors by carrying
on the traditions."

For gardening help and suggestions e-mail Skye at


"A garden is like a bank account. You get out of it what you put in," said
Skye. Here are his tips for reaping an abundance of fresh, healthy food:

Obtain seeds: Heirloom seeds saved by members of your own community will
have a natural edge in your garden, as they've been selected to grow best
in local conditions. And they have the flavor, texture, and other
attributes that work best in your traditional recipes.

Also check out Native Seeds/ SEARCH (, which offers
indigenous farmers free heirloom seeds through the Native American Outreach
Program; they're generally best for Southwestern gardens.

Organizations can obtain low-cost seeds from; log on
to download the donation form. Another good source is Horizon Herbs

Build a raised-bed garden: To determine when to start, grab a clump of
dirt. If it sticks together, it's too wet. Wait until the soil dries out
and breaks apart in your hands.

In a spot that receives about six hours of sun a day, make a rectangular
frame with 12 3-inch galvanized deck screws, two 8-foot 2-by 12-inch boards
and two 4-foot 2- by 12-inch boards. (Don't use pressure-treated wood, as
it contains dangerous chemicals.)

Fill the frame with soil and mix in a few buckets of compost. If necessary,
buy topsoil and compost from a garden center.

Plant: If your seed is in packets, check the envelopes for general
guidelines on figuring out when the soil is warm enough to sow in your
area. For exact times for each crop, consult your tribal gardening program,
your local extension service, a garden center or an experienced gardener.
If you end up with extra seeds, store them in a cool, dry place to use next

Some plants (including tomatoes, peppers and basil) go in the ground as
seedlings; sprout their seeds in peat pots six to eight weeks before
planting time, or purchase transplants.

Mulch the soil: Find free local materials to place around the base of
plants; covering the ground squelches weeds and conserves moisture.
Dampened newspaper sections (black ink only) can be covered with straw,
grass clippings or chopped leaves (run a lawnmower over them).

Welcome bugs: They're hardworking garden helpers. Put in a variety of
flowers to draw bees and other pollinators. Rely on beneficial insects,
such as praying mantises, to gobble up pests like aphids.

Irrigate: For efficient watering, try drip irrigation. Make a no-cost setup
by using a thick needle or awl to poke a few holes around the necks of
clean plastic soda pop bottles or milk jugs. Fill the containers with
water, put on the caps, and push the perforated necks into the soil near
groups of plants.

Organic fertilizer: Fill a burlap sack with composted manure and tie it
shut. Hang it in a water-filled drum or barrel and let it steep for about
10 days, stirring daily. Each week, apply this concoction liberally to the
plants. An alternative is fish emulsion, available from a garden center.