In search of better health and nutrition, Indian tribes go back to land

Movement to promote indigenous farming sees uptick in Native Americans cultivating crops of their ancestors

Brady Hankins, who lives part time on the property of the Slim Buttes Agriculture Project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, checks tomato plants.
Kayla Gahagan

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota — A rainstorm had washed away his entire potato crop in a single deluge just days before, but Milo Yellow Hair ducked into a greenhouse made of a sturdy tarp and 2-by-4 wooden planks to survey a wide array of crops.

Tomato plants dangled from the ceiling in handmade growing pots, and basil, cilantro, beets, dill, zucchini, peppers, jalapeños and onions emerged from the dirt at his feet. Leaves and vines stretched out like fingers. The air was heavy with moisture, and thirsty mosquitoes swarmed at the open skin of his face and neck.

“Guess we’re growing mosquitoes here too,” he said with a laugh.

As the manager of the Slim Buttes Agriculture Project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, he speaks of the land in a patient, steady voice, with the click of the Lakota language heard faintly in his English. As healthy eating trends have waxed and waned across the U.S. during the past 30 years, the Slim Buttes project has stayed afloat — barely at times, he confesses — but still alive and providing food to local Native Americans each year.

It is not alone. Indigenous farming communities and projects are a big part of the U.S. movement toward healthier eating, said the executive director of Dream of Wild Health farm, Diane Wilson. The 10-acre farm, in Hugo, Minnesota, began as a small operation on the back of indigenous seeds donated by elder Cora Baker.

“There’s a need for our communities to have control over their own food,” Wilson said. “It’s the conversation about sovereignty. You can’t really be independent if you don’t have control over your own food.”

Brown University professor Elizabeth Hoover traveled the countryside with a filmmaker last year to research 40 Native farming and gardening projects. Over the course of three months and 20,000 miles, she discovered community leaders hopeful that upcoming generations would return to the indigenous food that buoyed their ancestors’ health.

“I definitely think it’s a movement,” she said. “One thing I always asked was if they saw themselves part of the hipster, white people thing, and I thought they’d say no. But they said, ‘Yes, we’re part of that.’”

Milo Yellow Hair, the manager of the project, checks on crops near the organization's main greenhouse earlier this summer.
Kayla Gahagan

One way that Native farming projects are now a bigger part of the discussion is in the manner they are counted, said Bill Meyer, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistic Service for the Mountain region. After much prodding by the Native community, the USDA agreed to collect more detailed information on Native-operated farms. Since 2007, the USDA has counted individual farmers on each operation. According to the Native American Census of Agriculture data taken by the USDA, there were 37,851 farms with Native Americans as the principle operator in 2012. In 2007 there were 34,706.

“Our focus now is to make sure all farmers on the reservation are counted,” Meyer said. “They were able to show policymakers how many people really are involved, and now we have a better set of quality data.”

The numbers for Native American farmers are highest in the West, including Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma and Montana. In 33 states with relatively small American Indian populations, Native farmers account for less than 1 percent of farmers.

They are set apart from non-Native farms by things other than race. Native farmers are more likely to own their land. Their sales are smaller, but the farms are significantly larger. Two-thirds of Native-operated farms are cattle operations, followed by sheep and goat farms.

Shaping U.S. policy will continue to be a struggle, said Yellow Hair, citing the 1868 treaty that provided access for Native Americans to U.S. farm equipment, seeds and intellectual property. The problem, he said, gesturing toward the nearby Badlands, is that the land they were given isn’t ideal for growing.

“This land is not suitable for farming, but the federal government said, ‘Indian, get off your horse, hook up your plow and get to work,’” he said.

The challenges for Slim Buttes — including weather, short growing seasons, long-term funding and apathy of some tribal members — are acute. “We’ve had more failures than success,” he said.

And yet in the last two decades, the farm has cultivated hundreds of plants to provide food for the community. From March through May, almost 30 workers spread across the reservation to visit homes with tractors, tillers and seed to help plant gardens.

“For some guys, it’s the only job they have all year,” Yellow Hair said.

The greenhouses for the Slim Buttes Agriculture Project sit empty after they gave away hundreds of seedlings to locals in the spring. Each year, the organization helps homeowners plant their own gardens in order to help them develop a healthy diet.
Kayla Gahagan

In a home on the property, couple Brady Hankins and Saka Cook live and work, tending the garden and greenhouse. Cook’s family farmed nearby when she was growing up. “I like gardening,” she said. “It’s organic, and we know everything that’s in it.”

Yellow Hair said that once people take responsibility for a garden, it translates to other areas of their life. “They can take care of other things and address issues, like how to keep their families together,” he said.

Teaching youths is the key. “They can gain an understanding of how food moves, the origin of a French fry,” he said.

Overstocked commodities often get shipped to the reservation, much of it processed and unhealthy. “It’s so disheartening to see kids standing in line with a 12-pack of pop and chips. The kids are the gateway to a lifestyle change,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be healthy on the reservation in a few years when we’re diagnosing 5-year-olds with diabetes.”

Wilson agreed. “Returning to these traditional foods is the way to recover the health of our communities,” she said.

In Minnesota the work has been tedious. Because their fields are surrounded by farms with genetically modified seeds, everything has to be hand-pollinated. “We want to protect the integrity of the seeds,” she said. “They’re under the constant threat of cross-pollination.”

They grow two kinds of Dakota corn, which hasn’t been cultivated in so many years, they had to relearn how to do it. And people had to learn how to eat it again.

“The corn now, it’s been altered and sweetened so much, it’s like eating a doughnut,” Wilson said. People are falling in love with the traditional corn. “It’s exciting, thrilling.” 

Dream of Wild Health has several branches to its work, including running a youth program by hosting young people who work on the farm. It operates community supported agriculture, in which participants pay an up-front fee for a share of the farm’s produce and pick up yields weekly.

The farm runs two markets, one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul, aimed at serving the 38,000 Native Americans living in the Twin Cities. It also operates a community garden in St. Paul. “Our main tactic is to feed people well,” Wilson said. “You get people eating healthy food that tastes delicious. You feel good while you’re eating it. You feel good after.”

Besides their bodies, the people will feel something emotionally and spiritually, she said.

“These were seeds grown by their ancestors,” she said. “They reconnect with the fundamental belief that food is your medicine and you are what you eat. When you’re eating indigenous food, you’re doing the work from the inside out.”

Wilson, who is Dakota and is enrolled in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said it’s easy to read statistics about Natives and get discouraged. “The high diabetes and the low graduation rates — it’s just sad,” she said. “But gardening is such joyful work, and it brings people together.”

The farm is a safe, stable place for youths to spend their time, she said. “I feel great hope looking at these young people,” she said.

At the Slim Buttes farm, Yellow Hair stood near a small greenhouse littered with empty seed boxes, the contents handed out to tribal members months ago. Attached to the back of the house is an oversize water container collecting rain to water seedlings. He reached down and plucked a peppermint leaf, or cheyaka in Lakota, from a nearby plant and ran it under his nose. It can be used in tea to soothe a sore throat, he said.

Farming hasn’t come easy, he said, but it’s in his Lakota blood to make a healthy life with what he has been given. “If it’s not good for farming,” he said, sweeping his hand across the horizon, “then it’s up to us to take the soil and make something work.”

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