Garden brings community back to its roots
There’s a sense of pride that comes with doing something for yourself, and growing food is a major part of being self-sustaining, healthy and whole.
A one-acre community garden on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota is connecting Tribal members with the land, with food, and with their past.
“It’s about food sovereignty. It’s about having the choice of where and how you get your food, knowing how to feed yourself,” said Matte Wilson. “If that grocery store wasn’t here, would you know how to feed yourself and your family?”
Born and raised on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, Wilson is now director of the recently re-branded Sicangu Community Development Corporation (CDC) Food Sovereignty Initiative. One of its major projects is the Keya Wakpala Garden. Since moving back home in 2018, food sovereignty has played a major part of Wilson’s life.
“It is something that really excites me, something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life,” he said.
The food sovereignty movement has gained significant momentum throughout the country in recent years and is largely being led by indigenous communities. According to Wilson, you don’t have to be indigenous to appreciate delicious, locally grown foods.
“Food has the power to bring people together – it’s always been an essential part of all of our social interactions, whether or not you are Lakota,” he said.
For Keya Wakpala garden manager Ed Her Many Horses, the garden and learning how to grow food has been nothing short of transformative.
“It’s impacted me in a lot of different ways,” he said. “It helped give me a reason to get up in the morning – it still does. There is so much to appreciate in the garden.”
But it’s more than food, he’s found. Caring for a garden fosters community. The Keya Wakpala Garden is a place where interns, volunteers, community members, and children come together to work, and they take pride in the outcome.
“It’s a beacon of hope, I think,” Her Many Horses said.
The Boys and Girls Club brings kids to the garden where they can plant, pick vegetables, and even harvest indigenous foods such as ceyaka, wild mint, in the nearby wetlands. They learn to identify foods as they’re grown and harvested, and follow-up field work with cooking sessions. Starting with young kids, the project aims to make gardening and producing food something that’s second nature – something they’re able to pass on to future generations.
Learning by doing is key, according to Wilson.
“When they are able to see it in person and participate in the process, it is really powerful. It makes people appreciate food and agriculture more,” he said.
Foster Cournoyer-Hogan is a student at Stanford University from the Rosebud Indian Reservation who interned for the summer at the Keya Wakpala Garden. His additions to the garden plot included the signs that identified the plants with Lakota words. There was wagmu (squash), tinpsilazizi (carrots), phangi sasa (beets) and mastincatawote (lettuce).
Using the Lakota language is a way to stay connected to traditional culture. That’s especially important when children and elders visit the garden, he said.
Along with strengthening connections to culture and community, the garden is helping solve another issue on the reservation – addressing health challenges. Diabetes and diet related illness is high on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, but the produce from the garden gives people access to nourishing food.
“Our food is everything,” Cournoyer-Hogan said.
“Food is medicine,” added Wilson. “The way we treat our garden, the way we treat the land is how we treat ourselves … we take care of the land, and it takes care of us.”
The group has some expert resources when it comes to taking care of the land and the plants. Master Gardeners and university extension experts have volunteered their time and advice, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides support and funding through soil health programs.
The mission of NRCS is “Helping People Help the Land.” That land usually refers to range land and farm acres, but the same programs and principles can apply to community gardens.
“We’re trying to get people together to go back to some of the things that were important years ago to our people for self-sustainability,” said Mary Scott, a Rosebud Indian Reservation member and tribal liaison with NRCS.
The reservation’s growing environment presents some significant challenges. The garden site had been a conventional field, growing sunflowers, corn, soybeans, and wheat. The heavy clay soils made it difficult to hold enough water for the garden, especially given the sloping hillside where it sits. Long, hot days would burn up the plants one day, and then next they’d be hit by torrential downpours, hail, and wind.
“There are a lot of things outside of our control,” said Her Many Horses, “and that can be tough in such an extreme weather environment.”
Rather than give up; however, the team has simply learned to adapt and make the most of what they have.
“We have to be really strategic about how we plan out our year to make the most of this short window,” Wilson said. “We have branched into utilizing some year-round growing structures to expand our season.”
The garden is tended with organic methods, using fish emulsion and compost for fertilizer. Local ranchers have donated hay bales – the more beaten-up and weather-worn the better. As ground cover, they help with weed control. Adding mulch or organic matter has helped break up the hard clay soil and has been a huge asset for moisture retention as well.
We’re using a regenerative approach to agriculture,” said Her Many Horses. “We’re always trying to give back to our soil.
The garden also incorporates time-honored growing techniques of the Tribal community. Produce is grown with the three sister’s method – beans, corn, and squash grow in rows and benefit from one another.
“Beans help fertilize the soil by providing nitrogen,” Wilson explained. “The corn, when it grows up the stalk, the beans are able to wrap around the stalk, and the squash actually helps keep out pests and other weeds.”
It’s one of many ways the garden is bringing the community back to its roots. It also brings youth and elders together, sharing a positive outlook while producing something for the whole community. It connects people with land and community, giving them knowledge to pass along wherever they go.
Sharing knowledge is a big part of the project, Scott said, because it’s how cultures and traditions are kept alive.
“Growing our own produce is very important, so that this community can become self-sustaining, not only as a people, but as a Tribe,” she said.
The ultimate goal is to completely change the food system on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
“My vision is that our community becomes a food center where we have restaurants and food trucks sourcing their foods locally,” Wilson said, “and the garden is the first step to helping change our community mindset about food.”
But it goes even deeper than that.
“I hope that our community can be healthy and happy, that we can be sovereign,” said Her Many Horses. “And for us, that starts with everyone knowing where their food comes from.”