More than food takes root in reservation's community garden

Natural Resources Conservation Service
North Dakota

Big things have sprouted in a small community garden in Fort Totten, North Dakota, on the Spirit Lake Reservation.

Created in 2018 with the help of a three-year USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services grant, the Cankdeska Cikana Community Garden (CCCG) doesn’t just grow vegetables.

“It seems to be making a real difference in people’s lives,” says Gabriele Nelson, CCCG manager.

She noted that the garden also bringing families and neighbors together in unique ways by reconnecting tribal members with a part of their culture that has been lost and making more nutritious, locally grown food available in a region that has been called a food desert.

First garden

The CCCG is the first community garden that NRCS in North Dakota has funded.

“Agriculture is more than traditional farms and ranches,” says Mary Podoll, NRCS state conservation, “and our mission is to serve all of agriculture.”

One of the purposes of the USDA Conservation Collaboration Grants, which the community garden received, is to help build and strengthen local food projects that provide healthy food and economic opportunities.

“In the past 4-5 years, USDA has increased its grant flexibility to provide additional support for local foods, smaller farms and beginning farms,” Podoll says. “The CCCG was a good fit for the grant and we are extremely pleased to be working with the Spirit Lake community. [The project] fits into healthy soil, healthy food, healthy communities!”

The NRCS funding was key in launching the community garden. The money helped prepare and fertilize an acre of a former buffalo pasture on grounds of the Cankdeska Cikana Community College, hire a garden manager and purchase tools, seeds, seedlings, compost and other supplies. The college and the Native American Ag Fund also provide money to support the garden.

Cultural connection

Gardens were once a big part of Dakota culture.

Rob Greywater, a Spirit Lake Dakota community member and director of the Spirit Lake Nation Fish and Wildlife Department, proposed starting the CCCG.

He remembers that his mother’s family had two gardens. One was near the house and they ate the produce from it themselves. The other, a larger garden, was further away and they sold produce from it and collected seeds from it for next year’s gardens.

“I think that [gardening] has been lost to an extent with so many people [now] living in the housing complexes and not having enough space in their yards to plant,” he said, according to an article in Tribal College, Journal of American Indian Higher Education. “I was hoping that by starting a community garden, some of the older people would like to capture some nostalgia and possibly pass on some knowledge to the younger generation who have never enjoyed the benefits from planting and caring for and harvesting their own produce.”

Food desert

Like many rural areas, the Spirit Lake Reservation is a “food desert,” says Heidi Ziegenmeyer, land grant director and natural resources instructor at Cankdeska Cikana Community College. Little of the fresh food consumed on the reservation is grown on the reservation. Grocery stores are few and far between. Because the reservation is large (it takes more than an hour to travel from one end to the other), it is difficult for some people to travel long distances to reach a store, she says.

“Food sovereignty — the right to access healthy and culturally appropriate food — is a widespread problem and one that the college has been battling for years,” Ziegenmeyer says.

The college’s land grant department has tilled individual garden plots, provided seed and seedlings and conducted gardening and food preservation workshops.

The community garden supplements those efforts and promises to be the cornerstone of future food sovereignty projects, she says.

Social connections

The CCCG is also strengthening social connections, says Nelson, the garden manager.

Whole families are working together in the garden. “I have seen a 4-year-old planting the seeds, their 12-year-old sibling covering the seeds, Mom and Dad labeling the garden row and Grandma right behind watering the seed promise and then Grandpa commenting on a hopeful garden bounty with, ‘Let’s grow!’”

Nelson started Saturday Gardeners, an informal club that meets at the garden.

“I brought the donuts; our gardeners brought their chairs, and we sat appropriately socially distanced and talked about anything and every little thing. Those summer Saturdays became a happy place during the pandemic where comradery and friendships bloomed,” she says.

Community festivals have been held at the CCCG and the nearby children’s garden.

New enterprises have sprouted from the garden, as well. College staff and garden members created a corn maze and pumpkin patch. More than 900 people attended the fall festival last year.

“We are planning an even bigger maze and pumpkin patch this year,” Nelson says.

The college started a mobile farmers market to help community gardeners sell their produce throughout the reservation.

A medicinal garden is part of the CCCG, too. White sage and sweetgrass, which are used in Dakota prayers, were planted. Any member of the community can pick sage and sweetgrass for their use.

“It is wonderful seeing more people get back in touch with Mother Earth,” Nelson says.

More gardens

The CCCG has had such a positive impact in a short amount of time that tribal council members are talking about starting community gardens in the reservation’s three other districts.

“They would make gardening, and therefore food sovereignty, accessible to even more people,” Ziegenmeyer says.

Darlene Myhre, named the Cankdeska Cikana Community Garden gardener of the year in 2019, grew vegetables, melons and flowers in the garden.