2017-11-08 / Top News

Food sovereignty at Kyle

Re-engaging the Pejuta Haka Community
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Today
Health & Environment Editor

Emit Vine King, “I wouldn’t be here.” He thanks the Native American Beginning Farmer Rancher Program for preventing his suicide. 
Photo by Talli Nauman Emit Vine King, “I wouldn’t be here.” He thanks the Native American Beginning Farmer Rancher Program for preventing his suicide. Photo by Talli Nauman SPEARFISH — When the garden at Kyle community housing development on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation lost its grant funding, the managers also lost track of the volunteer gardeners. Then they found out that one had committed suicide.

“Because the garden project wasn’t there, we had lost contact with the youth, and so we didn’t know he was having a hard time until it was too late,” lamented the director, Jason Schoch.

Schoch and his assistant Patricia Hammond learned the young man had been subjected to bullying, and they vowed to secure replacement funding to re-engage in the Kyle community through gardens.

“So, when the auntie asked us to bring a community garden back to Kyle, we did,” Schoch said.

Now, 12 years from initial efforts to launch community gardening on the reservation, the Serenity Garden is saving lives, and the Native American Beginning Farmer Rancher Program that Schoch manages has grown to include plots in Martin, Wanblee, and Potato Creek.

Community gardener Jackie White Face Solano is one who credits the program personnel for saving her life.

“If I didn’t find them, I don’t think I would have stayed sober,” said Solano.

Without the program, said fellow gardener Emit Vine King, “I wouldn’t be here.” He thanks the endeavor for preventing his suicide.

“We call ourselves a team,” said Schoch. “Sometimes we gotta pull each other out of the mud,” said Hammond.

Their 2017 planting season just ended two weeks ago, with sowing of garlic, spinach and lettuce, they told the Native Sun News Today on Nov. 3. However, Hammond noted, “Food production is not all we do. We need to build people, so they can grow food.”

Their experiences are some of many shared during tribal production and health presentations at the seventh annual South Dakota Local Foods Conference held in Spearfish, Nov. 3 and 4, under the auspices of government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations.

Participants shed light on the complexities of community gardening and food sovereignty, critical emerging focuses here in Indian country. Hammond sees these issues as threads to strengthening community social fiber.

“It sucks out in the community, with the violence and people screaming next door,” Hammond said. “I don’t care how well you eat, if the drugs, alcohol and sex abuse is crazy bad. People don’t want to talk about that, but we need to get right into those communities and stop all this ugliness that’s going on.”

When Hammond recruited King to the garden, she said she didn’t know that the 31-year-old Kyle native struggled with depression, an outcome of fetal exposure to alcohol and drug abuse. Then one day someone found him “lying on a couch, clocked out,” with a suicide note in his room and a noose in his closet.

“I still have that noose as a reminder,” King said. He was trying to cope with the diabetes and cancer deaths of two uncles who had raised him, as well as the suicides of some of his best friends.

“I was gonna go do it, but I didn’t,” King said. He was volunteering at the Serenity Garden. “We planted watermelons, and when I went back, there was this bush with a big old watermelon,” he recalls. “I said, ‘My babies are growing! Wow, I did that!’ The pride of seeing them growing, it made me want to live.”

Hammond said she got a tip from a secretary that Solano might be another possible recruit, since the Kyle mother was known to be growing flowers and giving them away. But the tip came with a veiled warning that the gardener had “a history.”

That turned out to be a history of drug addiction that got her blacklisted in the small community. “Because of my past, they wouldn’t give us a chance,” Solano said. Recalling that the employer at a store put her on the schedule to start work but the first day she expected to be on the job, she found she had been taken off the payroll “because someone went in and told him.”

Hammond was more concerned about Solano’s future than her past.

Now Solano’s husband and four-year-old help her in the community garden, and she said she was pleased her sister visited to see if it would help with her own addiction.

“Before, I felt my life was on hold and I couldn’t move forward because of my situation,” Solano said. “I was being judged all the time. People were watching. This kind of let me redeem myself,” she said.

Hammond recently attended a national training of the 25-year-old, multi-sector AgrAbility initiative created “to enhance quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities.”

Now she wants the gardens to emphasize “promoting people with mental and physical health problems. That’s the target,” she said.

For his part, Schoch noted continually sprouting interest in local growing on the reservation, with a recognition of the need to focus on treating trauma by social involvement. Whether from drought, storm or other loss, people, just like gardens “give up without the support of the community,” he said.

South Dakota State University administers the gardens he manages through the Native American Beginning Farmer Rancher Program.

The food sovereignty initiatives at the community development corporations on Pine Ridge and on Rosebud Sioux Indian reservations are also examples of involvement in local foods, Schoch observed.

Food sovereignty is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,” according to Via Campesina, an alliance of indigenous peasant farmers in Latin America that coined the term in 1986.

It could be defined just as simply as “feeding myself,” said Ernest Weston, director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation Food Sovereignty Initiative on Pine Ridge. However, he admits it is also a very challenging concept.

“If you want a good healthy community, you’ve got to have good healthy food,” he said. He agreed that to achieve that you have to answer: “How do we produce producers?”

His Lakota Food Sovereignty Initiative is aimed at putting control back into the local community by “reconnecting to our food system and modernizing it using knowledge that’s always been there,” he said.

“The philosophy that guides us simply is to be a good relative,” he said. “It’s people who are in the middle of the food system. The plant nation and the buffalo nation, they are taking care of us. We need to be good relatives to those entities, understand food is medicine, and have respect.”

Thunder Valley is developing a geothermal greenhouse and laying-hen facility at the center of a 34-acre apartment building tract near Kyle. By 2018 it could be producing 180 dozen eggs from recently acquired Rhode Island Reds, which will range free in a rotating paddock system on land complete with fruit trees, feed grain production and cash crops, such as garlic.

In addition, its 10-part, fifth-grade curriculum for rebuilding the local food system, founded on traditional knowledge shared by local elders, is slated to be taught in three reservation schools in the upcoming semester.

At the REDCO Community Food Sovereignty Initiative serving 29,000 people on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, outreach to elders for knowledge not available in print produced gems such as this one: Children should eat a lot of root vegetables because it grounds them to the earth.

REDCO is tribally chartered organization based in Mission that has a three-year grant to serve 20 communities across the reservation. It just completed a survey that revealed people aren’t necessarily anxious to run community gardens or produce for markets; their main interest is having access to quality food.

The Sicangu Oyate Nation is a food desert in official terms because most people live more than a mile from a full-service grocer. In fact, a large proportion live up to 30 miles from the sum total of one in Rosebud and two in Mission.

REDCO is drawing on existing programs to provide youth with jobs in cultivating, harvesting, buffalo hunting and processing, and wild plant gathering. At Horse Creek Community, where the residents wanted an orchard, its resource providers pooled efforts to plant 800 fruit trees in yards and a common area.

In the past three years, REDCO’s one-acre demonstration garden has resulted in 3,000 pounds of produce. Its farmers’ market has generated $2,000 in revenue that stayed on the reservation.

“Historically, Lakota ate a highly local and seasonal diet; there is a push to go more back to this,” said REDCO Community Food Sovereignty Coordinator Michael Prate. “True sovereignty cannot be achieved unless there’s more control of food system that keeps more dollars in the local and tribal economy,” he said.

“Building a movement in the Rosebud Reservation takes into account that food is more than physical nourishment, but plays an important role in cultural and spiritual ceremonies and is tied to achieving tribal sovereignty,” he noted.

Stakeholders at Rosebud have formed a comprehensive and collaborative food sovereignty coalition. It brings together a diverse group of organizations and people interested in local, healthy foods and in building a better food system.

“Food is the central catalyst that can connect organizations and community members from all walks of life in working towards regaining sovereignty,” Prate said.

Coalition members are working to learn best practices from other places and then bringing them back to Rosebud.

The Community Food Sovereignty Initiative is building a solar powered greenhouse and high tunnel for year- round production and seed saving, with hopes of selling to local stores and restaurants. Promoters want to increase home garden assistance to empower community members to grow their own food.

The Rosebud Community Development Corporation has invited the REDCO to put the gardening operation at the center of its housing project.

When Prate and others broached the idea of holding a future South Dakota Local Foods Conference in a tribal jurisdiction, the 2017 conference goers heartily agreed with a round of applause.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail)

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