Inside the Lakota Sioux's Fight for Food Sovereignty
“Permaculture is a white people word. We already lived that life; we just have to practice it.“
All photos by the author.
"Chokecherries!" Winona Katso shouts from the passenger window. She points to a bush sagging heavy with deep crimson berries just a couple feet away, and the pickup truck she is riding in halts to an abrupt stop on the single lane road, surrounded by prairie land. Volunteers jump out of the back of the van with plastic buckets and piles of enthusiasm.
"Wait, wait!" Katso says, climbing out of the van with a handful of tobacco. "We need to make an offering to the land before we pick."
This is Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Lakota Sioux tribe and one of the country's largest reservations in size. Located in South Dakota, it spans more than 2.8 million acres and was formally established in 1889 for indigenous prisoners of war. A year later in 1890, government troops slaughtered over 300 residents on the reservation, most of which were the elderly, women, and children.
It's a place heavy with history and politics, still haunted by the effects of colonization and corporatism on indigenous land. The reservation sits on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, a million-year-old water table that spans eight states and provides water for drinking and agriculture for the residents of Lakota nation. The Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, two oil pipeline projects that were approved by the Trump administration in January, threaten that water supply.
Life on the reservation is difficult.
Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest of any place in the western hemisphere besides Haiti. That number for men is about 48 years; for women, it's 52 years. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the country and the death rate from alcoholism on the reservation is 300 percent higher than it is in the rest of the country. Up to 95 percent of residents are unemployed. The reservation is located in Oglala Lakota County, where its per-capita income, at $3500, makes it the second poorest county in the United States.
According to 2006 resources, about 97 percent of the population lives below federal poverty levels, and at least 60 percent of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with black mold.
Physically, the reservation is characterized by rolling prairie land with blazing hot summers over 110°F and biting cold winters, where temperatures drop to -50°F. Severe storms and occasional tornadoes have a history of rolling through and devastating homes and crops.
The grasses used to be waist high, but the overgrazing of cattle by ranchers has compacted the soil, which has drastically hindered growth and patterns of succession. It is estimated that only 4 percent of the land is deemed suitable for agriculture.
But it's not the geography or even the weather conditions that makes life tough on the reservation. It's been the home of the Lakota people for their entire history and in fact, it's actually a land of much abundance, depending on who's giving you the tour.
Back to Katso, with the chokecherries. She closes her eyes, bows her head, and whispers a prayer to thank the ancestors for the opportunity. The tobacco is scattered on the ground with intention. Katso opens her eyes and she looks up at the group with a big smile.
"Okay, happy pickings," she says. At her feet, she spots a cluster of rosehips clinging close to the ground and instructs the group to gather a handful for tea. Someone spots a bush of bright pink buffalo berries nearby and Katso shouts with delight.
"Get some of those too," she says.
Katso points out more bushes heavy with buffalo berries, wild currants, and chokecherries tucked alongside the hills. These can be fashioned into jams or paired with meats. Rose hips and currant leaves can be brewed into medicinal teas. Wild onions and turnips, found growing alongside the tall grasses, are great in stews. Curly dock, when tender, can be eaten as a salad or stir-fried; and, when they go to seed, the seed can be winnowed and processed into flour for breads.
"A lot of our people don't know how these things anymore. They really should," Katso says. "It's a shame."
A traditional Lakota chef, Katso grew up by the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation just northeast of Pine Ridge. During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, she was a main cook at the Oceti Sakowin camp near Standing Rock, providing food to over 400 people daily in heavy winter conditions. She's an advocate for indigenous foods, is adept at butchering buffalo, and is one of the few Lakota people left who have retained the know-how on processing and cooking native ingredients.
"As Lakota people, it is our responsibility to share what we know each and everyday," Katso says. "Long ago, there were no hand-outs. You had to go out and harvest the bounty on the land. There are chokecherries, buffalo berries, juneberries, beans, turnips, deer, elk, and buffalo."
WATCH: Cooking Polar Bear Meat and Caribou Head in the North
While historically a nomadic tribe, the Lakota Sioux used to spread seeds alongside the riverbanks to assure a plentiful food supply for the next year. Their food sources depended on the bushes, plants, and the animals.
Wild buffalo was the main lifeline until the 19th century, when the U.S. Army launched a buffalo genocide during the Plains Indian Wars in order to starve out the Native American population. "Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone," Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior, wrote in his 1872 annual report. "The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs."
His thought process: if the bison were driven to execution, then the Indians would be forced to surrender to the reservation system.
It worked. In the mid-1800s, peak bison population was estimated to be near 60 million. By 1893, less than 400 were left.
The devastating effects of wiping out the food culture of the Lakota Sioux nation and forcing them into sedentary lifestyles are still evident in Pine Ridge today.
The reservation is a food desert, with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables. There is just one grocery store in town; most people are dependent on commodity foods.
"Historically, commodity foods created a fracture within native communities who were keen on handouts," Nick Todd, a Lakota tribe member, says. "It caused division and fostered a loss of skills."
Today, the gas stations are the major hubs for locals, stuffed to the brim with junk food and sugary drinks. Diabetes on the reservation is 800% higher than the national average. Once part of a nomadic culture who lived off the ebb and flow of the land, residents are now at least six times more likely to be on food stamps than those across the country.
"We are being decimated by cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes," Katso says. "My question to all of my people: Why aren't you investing in producing your own food—whether it be buffalo, elk, beef, or organic crops and medicine? Let's create our own economy. Why aren't we trading with other tribes who produce their own food and re-establishing those ancient ways of commerce to ensure that we take care of ourselves through the winter? Now that's sovereignty."
Creating A Food Forest Demonstration Site
Katso has come to Pine Ridge Reservation as the head cook for the Indigenous Wisdom and Permaculture Skills Convergence, where she hopes to learn more about ecological, low-cost cooking technologies like solar dehydrators and rocket stoves.
The convergence is a six-day permaculture gathering of roughly one hundred people from across the nation on a 76-acre private property on Pine Ridge Reservation. Permaculture is a holistic design concept concentered around regenerative agriculture and natural building, using materials from the land and being as off-the-grid as possible. The tasks for the week include planting a food forest, cooking with solar ovens, constructing a rocket stove out of clay and recycled materials, building compost toilets, creating an aquaponics pond, building a greywater shower system, installing mushroom logs, and putting up the finishing touches to a greenhouse and root cellar.
The next step is to raise money and bring in volunteers to build a language and permaculture center for the community. The ultimate objective is to create a food forest on the property and transition the existing organic garden into a no-till garden.
But it's a work in progress. Harsh conditions on the property have killed hundreds of trees in the years past. Of 20 species of trees that have been planted over the years, only the honey locust survived. To assist the trees in surviving, permaculture designer Koreen Brennan has installed water-harvesting swales and inoculated the trees with fungi to aid them in the uptake of soil mineral nutrients.
Yet for short-term food security, it is the greenhouse and root cellar that will save lives.
"The root cellar is really a matter of life and death." Bryan Deans, the convergence's host, says, noting that it only cost $300 to build. "I've already got three people who've asked me for it."
For Cristinia Eala, a Lakota elder and founder of Tiyospaye Winyan Maka, a non-profit dedicated to alternative energy, housing, and food sourcing for indigenous people, the root cellar and greenhouse are structures she wishes all households on the reservation had. Because they maintain a stable temperature year-round, they can not only store food, but also act as a necessary shelter in regions where access to propane and electricity is unreliable and where tornadoes have a history of rolling through.
"We've had elders freeze to death in the harsh winters. People will start tearing off anything that is wooden in their house and burning it to stay warm," says Eala, who was born on Rosebud Reservation just an hour east of Pine Ridge. "This is the reality that these people live with."
Eala is here at the permaculture convergence to learn about the appropriate technologies she can take back to her community, especially disenfranchised Lakota women and children who are victims of abuse. A 2006 report put 37.5 percent of Native women as victims of domestic violence, one of the highest rates compared with other ethnicities.
"The greenhouse lets us grow food all-year round. Every community on this reservation needs one. I wish we could build one near the elderly center. It can double as a tornado shelter," she says.
Yet providing food security for the community requires far more than just installing greenhouse structures and planting trees. There's a political battle, as well.
"At the present, there's a legal type of colonization through non-profits and other well-intentioned efforts that would subject residents to housing codes that a lot of us in the States are familiar with," Todd, whose family owns land in Pine Ridge Reservation says. "It will potentially become a really big burden to people trying to scale down."
The struggles of the Lakota Sioux nation are systematic, he notes, and go back to the 19th century, when the tribe was forced into a sedentary lifestyle and given commodity goods.
"The sodium that's in the canned goods is unbelievable," Eala says. "That's why we have the high kidney disease rates and that's why we have high heart disease rates. We have such obesity on the reservation. We've been living under these conditions since they rounded us up and put us into these prisoner of war camps. When they said they'd feed us, they gave us the rotten cattle and flour infested with worms. But we made do with everything that they gave us. They put us on the poorest land and then they discovered gold and uranium and the next thing you know we're on the move again."
Creating A Sustainable Local Movement
While the convergence is geared toward improving the Pine Ridge community, there's a large elephant in the room: convergence attendees are mostly white, mainly folks in their 20s to 30s. The term permaculture itself was coined in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two white men who were greatly inspired by indigenous agricultural and building techniques.
"I must confess, before I came here I wasn't really sure what this permaculture was. It seemed like white people just coming in and gardening with the ways from indigenous people from all of the world," Eala says. "But then I see these people here and realize that everyone is really warm-hearted and true. "
For San Francisco resident Megan Szrom, one of the main organizers of the convergence, this was a dynamic she was especially conscientious about during the planning process.
"There's a lot of people in Pine Ridge that are artists and visionary but they don't have access to resources because of the way the system is set up," she says. "I feel like as a person of privilege because of the color of my skin and also my influence living in one of the biggest city of the world, I can use the network I have to try to locate funding and resources to people who could use it."
With that in mind, all Pine Ridge residents were allowed at the convergence for free. Szrom also set up a community fund, which allowed local gardeners and food advocates to attend the convergence on a stipend.
Returning To Indigenous Practices
For the Lakota people, growing food is nothing new. It was always an integral part of their traditional culture.
"We were nomadic people. We followed the buffalo. Throughout the summer, we followed the buffalo and we planted near the streams the Three Sisters," Pine Ridge resident Eric Cross says, referencing three main Lakota agricultural crops: corn, bean, and squash. "When we came back, we knew exactly where they were. We weren't stupid people. We're ignorant, but we're not stupid. Just like everybody else."
Cross was taught to garden by his grandfather, who told him that corn should be planted from east to west alongside squash and beans. The beans would provide the nitrogen to the soil, the corn stalks would collect water, and the squash growing alongside the ground blocked the weeds.
Animals like prairie dogs and buffalo also assisted people in finding water. Prairie dogs would dig tunnels that channeled rainwater into the water table. Buffalo provided a similar function, by creating a depression in the ground and allowing water to collect.
To access water, people simply followed the animals.
"Permaculture is a white people word," Katso says. "We already lived that life, we just have to practice it. "
"We're not simply operating on these principles because we've been colonized," Deans adds. "We're now re-learning it."
Deans himself is quite optimistic. He believes the Dakota Access Pipeline protests—which he says were the largest national tribal gathering in at least a century—created a momentum among the indigenous that will just continue to grow.
"The Dakota Access Pipeline protest was a big thing. It caused an awareness that happened. What was established was a unity of thought among our community," he says. "We are not going to stand for this anymore. "
Eala concurs, emphasizing that solution-centric gatherings like the permaculture convergence give her hope for the future.
"This is it," she says. "Now the people are coming together. I saw that at Standing Rock and I cried. It's happening. That's what I work towards. We're all sacred. We are all indigenous. We all have a part. This is it."