Tom Kanatakeniate Cook (Akwesasne Mohawk). For as long as he can remember, Tom Cook has toiled in the garden and helped others learn how to grow their own healthy, organic food. Tom was raised on a working dairy farm on the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation in New York and for decades, an abundance of crops have grown from his hands. Today, hundreds of gardens grow from his expertise.
Tom first ventured to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the early-1970s. Home of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation, Pine Ridge is where he met and married his wife, Loretta Afraid of Bear (Oglala Lakota). Building years of expertise including as an Ironworker, Indian Studies Instructor, journalist, social worker and Administrative Assistant to the Tribal President, Tom joined the Running Strong for American Indian Youth® field staff on Pine Ridge in 1994. During all that time, Tom could be found in the garden.
In fact, Tom’s roots with Running Strong go back even further, through the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Project (SBAG), which he co-founded with his wife, Loretta, on Pine Ridge in 1983, as a means to cultivate the land to grown healthy, organic food for an American Indian population plagued by food insecurity. A rural reservation that is the size of Connecticut, Pine Ridge continues to experience some of the highest poverty rates in the United States.
As Director of SBAG, Tom employed local residents to help tribal members plant up to 400 community and family gardens yearly throughout the 3,468 square mile reservation. SBAG is responsible for tilling garden plots for families to plant crops, delivering seedlings grown in a hoop house early in the spring so they would be ready for planting following the last frost of the season, distributing seeds and installing more than nine miles of irrigation systems. Tom also experimented with growing methods, organic means of pest control and wildlife management, drip line irrigation and composting techniques. His passion for life forces brought into the garden by Biodynamic methods has guided his approach to full-spectrum nutrition.
More than just a gardening program, SBAG is a social movement, teaching cultural values of self-sufficiency within the cross-generations of the Tiospayes (extended families) which form the basis of social interaction on the reservation. After decades of dependency fostered by Government Commodity foods, the act of growing one’s own food and feeding ones family and neighbors is an act of food sovereignty and independence.
“We have so many social problems and they are all derived from dependency – inertia caused by dependency,” says Cook from his days at Pine Ridge. “With the revival of interest in gardening on the reservation, I’m seeing a surge of interest in self-reliance.”
After over 40 years on Pine Ridge, Tom and Loretta have returned home to Akwesasne, where they reside in close proximity to generations of Mohawk relatives and continue agricultural development by creating a growers cooperative among former dairy farm families with extensive farm lands and much background experience.