Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Program Helps Green Pine Ridge with Community and Family Gardens and First Foods workshops.

In 2023, the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development (SBAG) program on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (founded in 1985) distributed seedlings, tilled gardens, refurbished raised beds, built and distributed planter boxes, conducted workshops about food preservation and how to use food as “medicine” to prevent diabetes, and promoted healthy lifestyles and overall well-being through gardening and eating nutritious indigenous foods.

Last year, with grant funding from Running Strong, SBAG provided gardening assistance to 655 individuals, including 405 children and youth and 250 adults.

SBAG’s list of accomplishments for the past year include:

  • helping 85 families start a garden (46 tilled gardens and 39 container gardens);
  • growing 5,000 seedlings and distributing 4,225;
  • conducting food preservation workshops on drying corn, chokecherries (prunus virginiana – aka wild cherry, a native plant of North America used by Native tribes as an essential part of their diet, according to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), and amaranth (described by The Guardian as “an 8,000-year-old pseudocereal – not a grain, but a seed, like quinoa and buckwheat”); and,
  • harvesting 1,550 pounds of produce from SBAG gardens and greenhouse, distributing 980 pounds of that produce to community members, and 50 microgreen trays.

The food preservation workshops teach Pine Ridge residents “these traditional ways of preserving traditional foods [that] make it possible for people to have access to healthy nutritious foods year-round.”

SBAG field director Milo Yellow Hair told us about Wilma Standing Bear, the matriarch of a large extended family (a Tiospaye), who is a gardener, Lakota speaker, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and who led a workshop.

“She showed a younger generation how to clean, grind, shape, and dry chokecherries to make Wasna (a combination of dried, pounded bison, elk, or deer meat with dried chokecherry patties held together with tallow or fat, according to the Argus Leader), one of the sacred foods used at ceremonies,” said Milo.

“During the workshop, she told stories about the cultural importance of indigenous foods and how to incorporate these foods into our daily diet,” said Milo, adding, “She uses her knowledge of gardening and the Lakota way of life to reach out and assist her relatives.

“The Running Strong grant is part of a circle that helps us to help pillars of the community, like Wilma Standing Bear, who in turn help many others.

“The result is access to healthy foods and a continuation of Lakota knowledge and way of life that benefits and helps many.”

For 2024, SBAG executive director Tom Kanatakeniate Cook, in his proposal to Running Strong for the Pine Ridge Home Gardens Program, notes that SBAG is “one of the oldest community gardens in the country, this grassroots project is entering its 39th consecutive year of participating in the self-determination of people.

“Direct assistance toward full-force nutrition has been the objective of the program all the while without federal or tribal support,” Tom stated, who noted, “The project began 40 years ago from a Sun Dance vision “to help the people where they live.”

“The program’s social impact over decades has been to bolster public awareness of nutrition as both the cause and remedy for glaring health disparities among the people, manifested in 50 percent of the population over 40 now afflicted by diabetes.

“SBAG is widely known for its frontline advocacy, community education, direct action against the disconnection of people from their land, and its foundation on cultural norms, ceremonial usages, and Lakota language.”

This year, we hope to support SBAG again with their goals to hold a dozen 1-hour radio programs on the local KILI station serving the reservation, raise 5,000 greenhouse seedlings for distribution and organic seeds of 15 varieties for 120 gardens, tractor-till 35 open field gardens and 85 boxed, raised-bed gardens; and place 50 trays of microgreens for household year-round nutrition.

“Applications for gardening assistance swell in the spring months during the Wojub Oyanke (Talking of Things Growing) radio show,” says Tom. “Hosted by Milo, the weekly prime-time bilingual program delves into health, gardening methods, the life of the soil, and the importance of fresh foods in daily diets.”

Boxed, raised-bed gardens have become the focus of help to people by SBAG.   Their ease of maintenance and concentrated planting make them an effective gardening solution for many in the several districts of Pine Ridge where SBAG conducts outreach.  As such, SBAG intends to place more of these manageable garden models this spring and summer.

New this year!  “Tree growing and nurturing will be a welcomed effort in the 2024 growing season,” says Tom. “Wind mitigation using native trees and shrubs is a step that can be beneficial to new homeowners living in open areas.”

And regarding the challenges Pine Ridge residents face, among them extreme poverty and the general lack of availability of fresh produce on the reservation, which is known as a “food desert,” Tom points out, “the population remains vulnerable in so many ways and is in real need of help such as SBAG provides.

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