Transforming a Tribal Population
|Raising bees is one of the steps to a new agricultural livelihood envisioned by participants in an ongoing educational market gardening initiative run by a group of Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. |
Photo by Ann Krush
Life on South Dakotas Rosebud Sioux Reservation might be hard for most people to visualize. Residents lack outlets for nutritional food, money for gas to drive 50 miles to the nearest grocery and even fuel with which to cook. Many subsist on convenience-store food bought with welfare checks and government-distributed commodities such as flour and sugar. Both contribute to a perpetual feeling of dependence and a rising incidence of diabetes.
In the mid-1990s, reservation residents seeking a way to prevent diabetes decided to start gardening. They thought that exercise, fresh air and a harvest of fresh produce would improve their health. Today, with coordinator Ann Krush of South Dakotas Center for Permaculture as Native Science, Lakota community gardeners have encouraged scores of additional people to raise and eat their own vegetables. The practices have caught on, with some gardeners now supplying a new farmers market at the reservations only lighted intersection.
Its rural poverty there is no money and there are no stores, Krush said. We started with things that are the easiest to grow that people can eat without cooking. Many of them on [federal assistance] dont know fresh vegetables very well, and part of the motivation is a more nutritious diet.
The problems for the Lakota began, Krush said, in the late 1800s, when the Plains, which had provided them with a healthful diet, were taken over by settlers. The U.S. government agreed, by treaty, to provide food to the tribe, (which calls its members the People), but their hunting and gathering grounds were no longer available to them. The People responded negatively to having their land taken and receiving hand-outs.
The health of the People deteriorated. In the early 1990s, the new gardeners formed an autonomous participatory center they named after permaculture practices, in which people learn and do for themselves. A decade later, some 80 families participate.
The People say, We have to help ourselves, we cant just sit around through this situation, Krush said. The timing was right because things had gotten bad enough.
An important part of the program centers on program assistants working in their own neighborhoods. The assistants receive a stipend partly supported by a SARE grant to work side by side with fledgling gardeners and encourage their new efforts. To start, the assistants learn about nutrition, vegetable gardening, tree-planting, fruit-bearing shrubs, and food drying and storage. Then, they work directly with their neighbors to share their new knowledge. The assistants also mentor youth interns as young as 10, who receive a SARE-supported stipend.
The early lessons counter a long-held Lakota antipathy against working the land. Instead, the network of gardeners fosters a group that is proud of its achievements coaxing food from the soil.
New confidence shows clearly in the program assistants and, in turn, their neighbors, who are no longer embarrassed to garden, gather and dry, Krush said. In fact, they are doing so proudly.
Crops range from peas, radishes, onions and tomatoes raw foods that require no preparation to corn, squash and honey from Lakota-tended hives. Raising honey bees, in fact, has been a rewarding enterprise and, Krush hopes, a bridge to understanding livestock care and small entrepreneurship.
The farmers market, supported by a second SARE grant, attracts both Lakota and white customers. Given the small size of the garden plots, Krush was amazed that gardeners had enough to sell after feeding their households, but the market has proved a small success.
Its tiny, but its real and its happening, Krush said. There are plenty of buyers, its just a matter of producing enough of what people crave: fresh, healthy food.
Sicangu Lakota, Rosebud Sioux Reservation, Mission, South Dakota
|Educating Team |
Center for Permaculture as Native Science
* Note: The center closed in 2004.
|Challenges Addressed |
Historical bias against gardening
|Connection Strategies |
Training and supporting program assistants from within the community
Long-term commitment from educating team
|Teaching Methods |
Practical skills taught with participants in co-learning environment
Rearing honey bees as first step for livestock enterprises