Reclaiming Native culture through locally grown foods
South Dakota tribe strives for food sovereignty
After cranking open the sides of her high tunnel, Ella Robertson examines her tomato plants inside. She picks a handful of ripe, purple cherry tomatoes off the overgrown vines before she goes to check on her squash.
Robertson is just one of many in South Dakota’s Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe who is growing her own produce in an effort to promote food sovereignty, or the ability to easily access healthy, culturally appropriate foods.
Self-sustainability has been a growing trend among Native American reservations across the country. The Dakota Native Americans on the Lake Traverse Reservation are implementing natural, homegrown food sources into the community in an effort to provide accessible, nutritious food and reduce high rates of obesity and disease.
“I feel like we would be a stronger people individually and collectively once we start doing things for ourselves,” Robertson said. “[Relying on the government] made us a really dependent people and I don’t think that we really realize that until you start to do things on your own and you don’t depend on the tribe or the government.”
Some projects include individual and community gardens, orchards, a honeybee colony, a walleye hatchery, hemp and two herds of purebred buffalo for the tribe to use and distribute. The tribe also has a health and fitness center and a grocery store.
The initiative for food sovereignty is still struggling to hold consistent funding and community participation. Frequent turnover in leadership positions for the various projects has made building momentum for the program difficult, according to Lorne Aadland, tribal liaison for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Poverty rates are considerably higher on reservations. Problems like disease, depression, addiction and suicide have plagued tribes across the nation since their forced relocation to reservations in the 1860s and 70s.
The Lake Traverse reservation exists across five northeast South Dakota counties and small portions of two southern North Dakota counties. The 106,000-acre region is extremely rural and consists primarily of grassy hills and vast prairies. The reservation, like at least 59 other Native American reservations, is considered a food desert.
According to Partnership with Native Americans, more than 50 percent of the 4,000 Dakota on the reservation are unemployed, and nationally one in four Native Americans face food insecurity, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from.
Food deserts have high rates of obesity and diabetes because junk foods high in sugar and sodium are cheap and easier to find. Providing locally sourced, natural foods would help the Dakota on the reservation improve their health in an accessible way.
Gardening has been a primary focus of the food sovereignty initiative. Twenty-five high tunnels, which are similar to greenhouses, have been built on the reservation. The plants are still grown in the ground, but have a longer growing season. The sides of the high tunnels can be rolled up to control the temperature. There are also community gardens, and the tribe gives free seeds to community members.
Charlene Miller, manager of the tribe’s department of natural resources, said about 300 households request seeds from the tribal extension each year that are used for their personal gardens. During the reservation’s fall harvest festival, 90 producers from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate community displayed and sold their local produce.
“I was really happy because that’s what I need to know: Are they really utilizing these seeds? Are they being successful? Are we doing this in vain?” Miller said. “So at this time it really helps me to feel better and see that, yeah, it’s a success. The families are growing food and being successful at it.”’
The local Sisseton Wahpeton College offers classes to teach people gardening and cooking skills. Sophia Hoss, extension program assistant at the college, said the classes held throughout the summer each draw 20 to 30 people who come for education and tips on healthy lifestyles.
A large part of food sovereignty, along with the benefits of health and sustainability, is the reclaiming of Native American cultural traditions. Hoss said part of the goal is to reteach skills that have been lost since tribe members stopped handing down traditions. Many early reservation policies forced Native Americans to stop practicing cultural traditions of hunting, gathering and fishing.
“When I was growing up I never identified myself as a traditional Dakota person,” Robertson said. “My grandpa forbade [my family] to speak Dakota because he said that there was no place for it in modern times, so it just seemed like we lost that.”
When a farmer’s market was proposed, Aadland heard a positive reaction from the tribe. He assumed this meant tribe members would sell their excess produce grown in high tunnels and community gardens. But while Dakota people were shopping at the farmer’s market, the vendors were all local non-Indians.
“It’s a great idea, the farmer’s market, but I missed out on the cultural end of things,” Aadland said.
A cultural practice of Native Americans is to give away food to family and friends, so most people were not willing to charge for their produce. According to Miller, there are plans for a co-op to buy the extra produce and repackage it to be sold at the tribe’s grocery store. The program should be started by next year.
Another notable source of local food is the buffalo herds. The Lake Traverse Reservation is home to one of the only pure bison populations in the nation. Close to 500 buffalo and calves are raised on rotation-grazing pastures. About 36 are used for traditional Dakota ceremonies each year, Aadland said, but the buffalo also provide a healthier alternative to beef. Buffalo meat is lower in cholesterol, which could lead to lower rates of diabetes in the tribe.
Miller said a big issue with the buffalo is finding open space in slaughterhouses, especially in the winter during deer hunting season. She hopes a butcher shop will open on the reservation in the near future to handle the buffalo locally, and eventually she hopes the majority of food sold will be as local as possible.
“Little by little, we’re gonna get there,” Miller said. “I think in five years we’ll be well on our way for ourselves.”