When we look at history, American Indians are often the canary in the mine. When their health goes, it’s a sign of what’s in store for other populations. This is one of the many reasons behind the work of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Nutrition for the Elderly program. Here, with the support of First Nations, this community is not only protecting that canary by improving Native health but taking active steps to promote food sovereignty.
A food desert
The canary metaphor comes from Petra Harmon One Hawk, director of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Nutrition for the Elderly/Caregiver Support Program, who learned it from her family. For Petra, the call to invest in the nutrition of Standing Rock is both professional and personal. In her role, her goal is to centralize and enhance services for seniors through this comprehensive program to connect the elders with elder abuse prevention programs, nursing facilities, senior center programs, and nutrition services. She is also the Title VI Director for the tribe, which means she leads programs to better meet the needs of older Indians. It is in this capacity where her roots growing up on the reservation, her medical school education, and her master’s degree in Indian Health intersect.
“I was trained to treat patients who have a high rate of diabetes. I learned that all my role was as a future physician was to prescribe them medication and tell them that as long they eat right and exercise, they would be able to manage it,” she explains. “But when I moved home to Standing Rock, I realized how unrealistic that is.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is located on 2.5 million acres with three communities on the North Dakota side and five on the South Dakota side. Years ago, to control flooding by the Missouri River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building damns, which ultimately created backflow and drowned out Native lands. The Dakota/Lakota People were relocated to higher ground, far above the wildlife, rich soil, and fruit-bearing trees that were washed away. In this new setting, the Dakota/Lakota braved cold weather and barren resources, along with the social trauma of the era that was pervasive throughout Native communities.
Petra explains that returning home after years of schooling was her first realization that Standing Rock was a food desert. She saw the health disparities caused by lack of access to healthy foods and specifically Native foods, which is a requirement of the Older Indians Act.
While Standing Rock had the history and knowledge of how to grow and sustain Native foods, its infrastructure was lost. She says, fighting diabetes was not as easy as eating right and exercising. Access to healthy foods was limited, along with the awareness of the importance of good nutrition in improving health outcomes. Part of Petra’s job has been to rebuild those systems and revive those traditional foods, which calls for not only building that infrastructure but reinvigorating gardening and community as a way of life.
Returning to traditions
This is where Petra is serving the elders in the Standing Rock community and also tapping into their knowledge. “They have a collective memory of being self-sufficient,” she explains. “We’ve lost our gardening skills, our cooking skills, and even our taste buds for healthy food. We are now fighting against a system of convenience.”
Older tribal members are helping Petra’s team take on the battle, and one of their weapons is the implementation of the Elder Community Gardens. These gardens are building on a foundation that started in the Cannon Ball community through the Sioux County North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Office. The Indian Health Service Nutrition Coalition and NDSU Sioux County Extension both have community gardens located at Cannon Ball and Fort Yates. The bounty is shared with schools, the communities, elders, and the Nutrition for the Elderly Program.
While there are other gardens throughout Standing Rock, the Elders Community Gardens Project aims to help elders who want a garden of their own. (They can even create raised-box gardens, which are table height so elders can sit while gardening.) The gardens were created as a direct project of the Nutrition for the Elderly Program both to provide food for the elderly in line with Title VI regulations and to engage the elderly in meaningful work. They also build on other progress at Standing Rock, including the success in returning bison meat to the food packages as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or FDPIR. Coordination, planning, and implementation of the gardens have been made possible in part through grant funding from First Nations Development Institute.
Pete Red Tomahawk grew up with Petra’s mother and works part-time for the Nutrition for the Elderly Program. He is an enrolled member of Standing Rock and one of the 400 elders in the community. From his perspective, he explains that Elder Community Gardens are not a new approach.
“We’ve always had gardens,” he says. Every family had their own garden. Food was shared, and root cellars were built to preserve and store vegetables. The soil was fertile and getting enough food – and the right kinds of – was not a concern, he says. As a result, folks had very healthy lifestyles, and issues like diabetes, cancer, and health problems were not prevalent.
This knowledge was engrained in Pete’s generation, but it has diminished through the years. The Elder Community Gardens are bringing it back.
“These are things we learned when we were children in the 1950s,” he says. “Today, we find ourselves as grandparents, trying to teach our younger ones, who I hope will teach their own children.”
Advancing food sovereignty
The Elder Community Gardens have become a key aspect of the infrastructure at Standing Rock, and have laid the groundwork for more outreach, cooking classes, and community involvement. Based on their success, Petra and her team were invited to take part in the Food Sovereignty Summit, co-hosted by First Nations and the nearby Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. There they joined leaders from throughout Indian Country to discuss the disconnect that has occurred between food and Native cultures and beliefs, the holistic role of food, and the need to reconnect with the land.
“As Indians, our food systems are dictated by the Farm Bill and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result, our health disparities are catastrophic,” Petra says. “But by working in regard to food sovereignty, we can take back that control.”
It’s control Pete says that had been part of the Native culture. “When we look at what we learned from our parents and grandparents, tribes survived by gardening. As tribes, we know what’s growing and how we can live off the land, “ he says. He credits First Nations for highlighting that knowledge and showcasing it in new ways.
“We’re just starting out, and tribes like Oneida Nation are way ahead,” he says. “But still, we are all advancing, and First Nations is providing the training to tie programs and communities together.”
It is a movement they plan to advance. Beyond the gardens, Standing Rock is looking at more avenues for outreach, nutrition classes, and partnerships for extension programs at institutions like NDSU. Investments are being made in canning practices, irrigation, soil analysis, food storage, and creating an orchard. Youth are being introduced to healthy foods in an effort to reset those lost taste buds. “Our dream is to share this knowledge, so information does not go away as the elderly age,” he says. “We’re looking at that next generation and passing on that way of life. In a metaphorical sense, we are planting that seed.”
In a world that remains vulnerable to legislation, climate change, bias, and upheaval, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is making strides for their elders and for their youth that they hope will offset their risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart issues. They are restoring the role of gardening for nutrition and sustainability. And they are taking to heart that canary in the mine, recognizing that the health and future of all Indians depend on taking back control.
By Amy Jakober