Much of the media around Pine Ridge focuses on the poverty, suicide, alcoholism and poor life expectancy. While Pine Ridge is known for these things, it is also famous for culture, activism, resiliency, and the strength with which people work against all odds to remedy these challenges. One of the organizations that has been working for decades to help Lakota people become more self sufficient, and have greater access to fresh food, is the Slim Buttes Agricultural Project. We had the opportunity to sit down with Program Manager Milo Yellow Hair in Pine Ridge in early August, and with founder and continuing director Tom Kanatakeniate Cook in Akwesasne in December to hear about one of the oldest Native community gardening projects in the country.
Like the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation written about in the post prior to this one, Pine Ridge was also once part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which was ensured to Sioux people through the Treaty of Ft Laramie in 1868. Two decades later (1889) the Great Sioux Reservations was broken by an act of Congress into five separate reservations, with the intention of making the “surplus” land in between them available for white settlers. Pine Ridge was established in the southwest corner of South Dakota, on the border with Nebraska. Tom Cook, the founder and continuing director of Slim Buttes Agricultural Project, was told by his wife’s Uncle Rex Long Visitor that the militarization of the region that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 was due directly to hunger on the newly established reservation. As a condition of the treaties signed between the federal government and the Great Sioux Nation, the federal government was obligated to bring beef rations to the reservations to make up for the tribe’s inability to provide for themselves on a reduced land base devoid of buffalo. But the federal government did not make good on the amount of food they were supposed to deliver to the reservations, in part because of lack of supply, and in part according to Tom, on the tenuous theory that reductions would force Lakotas into manual labor to support themselves. The beef issue at Pine Ridge was reduced from 8,125,000 pounds in 1886 to 4,000,000 in 1889. In April 1890, the Indian agent in charge, H.D. Gallagher informed the War Department (who handled Indian affairs) that the monthly beef issue was less than half of what it should be (it was only 205,000 pounds, whereas the treaty called for 470,400 pounds a month). He was informed that it was better to issue half rations all the time than to issue ¾ or full rations for two months and none for the rest of the year. The Lakota tried planting crops. In the summer of 1889, the Indians were all called into the agency, and kept there for a month by the Sioux Commission. While they were gone, cattle broke down their fences and destroyed their crops. In the summer of 1890, drought destroyed all of crops. As a result of all of these factors, according to the 14th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, “the evidence compels the conclusion that, among Pine Ridge Indians at least, hunger has been an important element in the causes of discontent and insubordination…the Sioux of Pine Ridge were becoming restless from hunger.” South of Pine Ridge, in Nebraska, are enormous ranches like the Isham ranch of 36,000 acres bordering the Slim Buttes community. Lakota families became desperate, and some headed south of the reservation border to hunt the ranchers’ cattle. Ranchers complained, and the commissioners and state senators petitioned President Harrison to bring in the military to protect them against “Indian depredations.” In December 29 of 1890, Big Foot and 300 men, women and children of his band of Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Sioux were on their way to Pine Ridge Agency when they were massacred by the 7th Cavalry. The massacre was prompted by fear of the spreading Ghost Dance religion and tensions surrounding the end of the “Indian Wars” and hunger for Indian land, but according to some families, hungry Indians deprived of their rations directly contributed to the excuses for violence.
Dispossession of Pine Ridge lands accelerated after the 1903 Supreme Court ruling that Indians are wards of the government and the ward can exercise arbitrary powers on their behalf. It was the legal basis in 1909 when, against the unanimous Pine Ridge rejection of the bill opening the entire southeast quarter of Pine Ridge reservation to white settlement, the dispossession happened anyway. Additional land was lost when in 1942 the Badlands Bombing Range took 341,7225 acres from 125 Lakota families, and communally held Oglala Sioux Tribe land. When the government was done using the land for target practice, 2/3 of the land was returned to the OST, and the remaining third, despite Lakota protest, was added to the Badlands National Monument. The Army Corp of Engineers has been working for decades to clean up several tons of munitions and unexploded ordinances, and hopes to complete the project soon.
Lakota land and water at Pine Ridge have also been affected by uranium mining, which residents blame for rates of cancers, reproductive conditions including miscarriages, and diabetes. Pine Ridge lies southeast of the Black Hills, directly downstream from sites of open-pit uranium mining, milling, and gigantic piles of tailings. Studies have traced gross alpha-radiation in groundwater and surface water from northwestern Red Shirt village to Porcupine in the center of the reservation. Since the late 1970’s community organizations like Women of All Red Nations (WARN) have suspected links between Lakota health issues and the region’s history of uranium mining citing the high rates of miscarriage and reproductive cancers among Lakota women as evidence of the adverse effects of uranium contamination. Uranium mining is still taking place, now as in situ mining in Crow Butte, which involves drilling 600 feet into the ground, through aquifers that feed into local rivers, in order to inject a lixiviant solution of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide to dissolve uranium and bring it to the surface. In 2003 the company reported that an injector well had a cracked pvc pipe coupling, and leaked a gallon a minute of lixiviant into the Brule aquifer for two years. Tom thinks the 2.8 million gallons went with the flow and ruined his well in the river alluvium forty miles downstream. When tests showed uranium more than than three times the federal maximum contaminant level in his well, he capped it in favor of the tribe’s water line; and intervened with others of Pine Ridge against the company’s license renewal application at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2008 his family, the American Horse and other Tiospayes (families) including Debra White Plume of the Owe Aku organization in Wounded Knee District, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, successfully petitioned for standing and admissible contentions before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. After seven years of litigation, however, the process is still ongoing, but had the issues not been real and material to the license application, Tom says, the Lakotas would have been dismissed from the proceedings long ago. Activists like Debra White Plume of Owe Aku are working to halt the expansion of uranium mining in the region. Along with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and several non-Native ranchers, she gained standing and contentions before the NRC against Powertech, a transnational company applying to mine uranium on the south edge of the Black Hills. When the consolidated petitioners began their effort, Powertech’s value on the Toronto Stock Exchange was $4.75 a share; by October 2014, it was $.03. See the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance website for updates as the case progresses. Deborah White Plume and fellow Lakota activists have also been fighting the coming of the Keystone pipeline, and link on the Oglala Sioux tribe homepage proclaims the tribe’s resistance to the pipeline.
Community activists like the former tribal president Theresa Two Bulls, Loretta Afraid Of Bear Cook and Milo Yellow Hair have also been fighting for the return of the Black Hills, which were titled to the Great Sioux Nation in the Ft Laramie Treaty of 1868, but then taken through an act of congress in 1877 after gold was discovered there. In United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians(1980), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally taken, finding that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history,”and that the Great Sioux Nation was owed $105 million for the Black Hills plus an additional $44 million for the lands outside of the Black Hills. All nine tribes of Lakota people have refused the award payment, and want the Black Hills federally held treaty lands – 1.3 million acres – returned to tribal ownership and control. The Paha Sapa Alliance is in its 5th year of an 8-year strategy gaining input from all sectors of Lakota reservation society, to come up with a management plan that all agree on.
Slim Buttes Agricultural Project (SBAg) founder Tom Kanatakeniate Cook is Mohawk, originally from Akwesasne (on the NY/Canadian border). Even as a kid he loved gardening, and remembers weeding his grandmother’s garden during family gatherings. He first found himself in Pine Ridge as part of the White Roots of Peace, a traveling delegation of Haudenosaunee people who gave cultural presentations at universities and in Native communities around the country. Tom and Milo were both present for the takeover of Wounded Knee (the site of the massacre described above) by the American Indian Movement in 1973. Tom was arrested by Dick Wilson’s tribal police for being a non-Oglala in Pine Ridge, and subsequently dropped off in the Badlands in a blizzard in the middle of the night. As he stumbled on frozen feet through the snow wearing only a thin jacket, he vowed to get Wilson back by bringing something positive to the community. Tom then married Loretta Afraid of Bear and moved to Pine Ridge, where, he says, he “got fenced in.” He helped to get her uncle, Joe American Horse, elected as tribal president in 1982, defeating Dick Wilson for the position. One of Joe’s goals was to help Pine Ridge residents move from cluster housing, which had become a hot bed of social problems, back to resettle on their own allotments, and promote homesteading.
After settling Lakota people onto reservations in the 19th century and afterwards allotting collectively held land into individual and family owned parcels, the federal government furnished horses, wagons, and farm implements. The BIA had assistant farmers in each of the 8 districts (which would later become 9 districts) of Pine Ridge. According to stories conveyed to Tom by elders, there were 70 horses hooked up to 35 plows that would till up fields for grains, and smaller operations to till up chapter gardens in the outlying communities of Pine Ridge in the 1920’s and 30’s. Loretta’s grandmother was the chief gardener in Slim Butte, where they had a full acre garden, root cellars, chicken and cattle. This ended with the New Deal in the 1930’s, which then offered land use associations for the communities. Loretta’s grandfather and his cousins combined their mile square allotments to create an 8,000 acre range unit. They had 2,000 cattle on the property until 1952, when Public Law 280 went into effect, which withdrew Indian program support. According to Tom, the director of land operations at the BIA, a Mrs. Sauser, collapsed the Slim Buttes Land Use Association by assigning taxes to it, and a deadline under which they needed to be paid that the residents could not meet. The Matador Cattle Company came in with semi trucks and took all of the cattle to Omaha to the market, and the land use association was never compensated. The woman at the BIA who had facilitated the collapse of the association then gave her three sons, Philip, Ray and Harold Sauser, leases to all of the western ranges of Pine Ridge. They became wealthy cattle barons. Harold passed away a few years ago, and his son-in-law told Tom that at the time of his death he was worth $18 million, and his wife was worth $5 million. Tom leaned back in his chair; “So that is the wealth transfer from the community men in the 1950’s to three outsiders, resulting in the collapse of the homestead economy in the Slim Buttes and Red Shirt table communities, among others.” From then on, says Tom, relocation became the avenue of economic development for Lakotas.
While some point to farming as antithetical to the traditional Lakota way of life, others see farming and gardening as the best option for community self sufficiency. According to SBAg Program Manager Milo Yellow Hair, “I get a lot of flack about trying to turn Lakotas from nomads into farmers, but it’s not so much that we’re going to be farmers it’s just that we try to avoid the situation where we are subject to somebody else’s food sources. We need to feed ourselves. Even if we start out with just one plant and over the course of time, as we have seen, people start adding their own fruits and vegetables and root products and it’s a beautiful way to go… I find myself doing more and more and more of that, which allows me to become more sovereign and to create less of need and dependency on the existing society for these kinds of things.”
From 1982-1984 Tom worked as the administrative assistant to tribal president Joe American Horse. In 1984 Regan budget cuts eliminated Tom’s position, so Joe employed him to start a community based gardening program, and the Slim Buttes Agricultural Project was born. Tom wrote a funding proposal, and received $500 from Plenty International in Tennessee. In 1985, Tom hired a local leaser to plow and disc 6 gardens in Slim Buttes. Tom bought seeds, and the gardens were productive that year. The second year, Tom got $8,000 from Daniel Bomberry at the Native American Tribal Sovereignty Program (now called the Seventh Generation Fund), with which he bought a tractor and plow, and doubled the number of gardens. Tom began to see community develop around gardens, which sparked conversations about earlier days, food production & preservation, and preparation for coming conditions.
Running Strong for American Indian Youth is a nonprofit organization founded under Christian Relief Services in 1986. After Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) became the Olympic champion for the 10K (in Tokyo in 1964), he made it his priority to give back to his community and create a better future for American Indian youth. He joined forces with Eugene Krizek and together they created Running Strong, aiming to bring basic resources and a sense of hope to some of the most impoverished American Indian communities in the nation. Running Strong became coming to Pine Ridge in 1986, at the invitation of then tribal president Joe American Horse. In the summer of 1988, they came to Pine Ridge with a regiment of British soldiers to set up 13 windmills on wells made by Running Strong. It was at this time that Tom met Running Strong’s president, Gene Krizek, who for two years had shipped semi trucks carrying 400 50lb boxes of seeds. Tom, who had helped establish 120 gardens by that time, suggested that instead of spending $12,000 to truck these seeds to Pine Ridge, that Running Strong give the money to the SBAg to continue the gardening project. Starting in 1989, Running Strong began to do just that, and has supported the organization ever since.
The most productive year for SBAg was 2004, when strengthened by a $40,000 infrastructure grant from the Oneida Nation NY, they helped establish 535 family gardens. Families apply to SBAg for garden support on their property. According to Tom, on average there are 6.2 people per household in their program (ranging from 2-17 people per house). He points out that 200 gardens in the community directly impacts 1200 people, but this produce is then also shared with neighbors and extended family.
One of the goals of the SBAg is to help families improve the soil on their land. In the Sand Hills, the soil is very sandy. Otherwise, the soil is full of clay which turns to “gumbo” when it rains. In 1997, Tom received an EPA Environmental Justice/ Pollution Prevention in Agriculture grant for $30,000 which allowed him to deliver manure to gardens rather than families using chemical fertilizers. SBAg has also more recently been promoting biodynamics as a means of promoting soil and plant health. Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition first articulated in 1924, based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Rudolph Steiner. Biodynamic farmers also use the Maria Thun calendar to determine the optimum zodiac and moon phases for planting root, flower, leaf, and fruit crops. Tom and Milo developed an indigenous version of biodynamics, combining Lakota sweat lodge ritual and indigenous perspective that the particles of ingredients in soil and plants are alive and sentient. In 2012, their field sprays, compost piles, and deliveries were made possible by a $20,000 grant from the Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota. Milo has found that by utilizing biodynamic methods and channeling energy into his garden, he has been able to increase the amount of produce without having to increase the number of plants he’s putting in his garden.
The growing season in South Dakota is challenging—it can be as many as 120 days, but SBAg tries to focus on crops that can produce in 90 days. The last frost of the year is usually in early-mid May, and the first frost of the season is usually mid-September. In 2013, they received 20 inches of snow in October, and it didn’t stop snowing until May 8th. SBAg starts each season in the greenhouse, raising 19,000 seedlings that will be distributed to gardeners, with some kept on site to be grown in the hoop house and the base garden. While the seeds (most of which are provided by Plenty International) are sprouting in the greenhouse, in order to get everyone excited about the prospect of the next planting season, Tom and Milo host an 8 week hour-long radio show every Monday in April and May in which they talk about gardening techniques and work. As Milo told us, “We have to not be afraid to get our hands dirty, we should not be afraid to work, and we should not be afraid to pray. And once we do all of these types of things, then you have a very good chance of having a successful crop.” He similarly encourages the residents of Pine Ridge.
During the 2014 growing season, SBAg tilled 220 gardens (down from past years due to two broken tractors). According to Milo, the organization is encouraging some people not to get their gardens tilled every year, but rather to turn it gently with a potato fork to prevent disturbing life in the soil. According to Milo, most of the gardens they help establish are about 10×20 feet, (or sometimes 20×40 feet for the more ambitious). SBAg encourages newer gardeners to start small, with a salsa garden (tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onions and lettuce). Salsa is popular because it can dress up eggs, hamburgers, Indian tacos, and any number of other dishes. Most gardeners are then handed a flat of 32 plants for their new gardens. SBAg serves 7 of the 9 districts on the reservation, which can still take the tractors out 110 miles. Milo told us that for some, the site of SBAg tractors on the road has become a sign that spring is here, like the returning of ducks.
The program hires up to 42 guys a year, seasonal and part-time, and for several other community service projects. For example, when there was a paralyzing snow storm and state of emergency on Pine Ridge several winters ago, the Onondaga Nation Council in New York provided $10,000 through Running Strong to Tom and his crew to deliver firewood to people who were snowed in. Primary support has come from Running Strong for American Indian Youth, whose mission to help Lakotas with survival needs, according to Tom, has been efficient, effective, and resonant far beyond the dozens of charities that come and go on Pine Ridge. Tom has been involved with them for 25 years, retiring in 2014 after serving 20 years as a program director and field coordinator
In addition to installing gardens, another goal of the Slim Buttes Agricultural and Development Program (as it is also called) has been building homes for residents of Pine Ridge. In order to achieve this, an objective of the program was to get the tribe to adopt an industrial hemp ordinance, so that they could produce hempcrete—a strong and sustainable building material. With a $25,000 fellowship from Share Our Strength in 1995, Tom and Joe American Horse worked for three years to get the ordinance adopted in August, 1998. Milo was vice president of the tribe at the time and ran the council session that adopted the hemp ordinance. Senator Lloyd Casey of Colorado provided the biggest help with speaking, and brought his hemp attorney, Tom Ballanco, who had written the Colorado Hemp Production Act of 1995, and subsequently drafted the tribal ordinance. In the summer of 2000, two plots of high-fiber, very low THC hemp were planted: Alex White Plume planted a large field, and SBAg planted a 100×100 foot plot. According to Tom, in late August of that year, the Drug Enforcement Agency arrived in helicopters, with police units, a U-Haul truck and over a dozen infantry men with helmets, rifles, and weed whackers. They proceeded to cut down all of the hemp plants, despite the fact that the plant could not have gotten anyone high, stating that they did not differentiate between hemp and higher THC marijuana. But the hemp seeds had hardened, and upon being chopped down millions of them scattered over the plot, and proceeded to grow again the following year. The DEA had warned the Lakotas not to plant another crop, but realized the fault was theirs when they had to return the following year to chop it down again. After the hemp crops were cut down by the DEA, the inspector general forced the tribal council to rescind ordinances that contravened federal law, and the ordinance to grow hemp was one of them. Alex White Plume appealed the DEA court order forbidding the growing of hemp, after the Oglala Sioux Tribe exercised their sovereign right by drafting law to allow it, but in United States vs White Plume (2006), the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals sided against him. But in the a memo dated October 28 2014, the US Justice Department announced that it will generally not attempt to enforce federal marijuana laws on federally recognized tribes that choose to allow it, as long as they meet eight federal guidelines outlined in the 2013 Cole Memo, including that marijuana not be sold to minors and not be transported to areas that prohibit it.
SBAg built a hemp house as a demonstration project of what could come if they were allowed to grow industrial hemp.Five house materials can be made from hemp: the wall hempcrete blocks, fiber insulation, hempcrete wall panels, hemp fiber in the exterior stucco, and hemp shingles. With a $60,000 grant from Anita Roddick from Body Shop, they built the frame and made 2,000 hemp blocks with hemp from central Nebraska where it grows feral, escaped from farms. Hemp was produced for its cordage, cellulose, and oil until 1937 when President Roosevelt signed federal legislation banning cannabis use, production and sales. But he then signed an executive order in 1941 allowing for emergency hemp production for industrial uses during World War II. As soon as the war ended, the Roosevelt administration re-banned industrial hemp production. The hemp house sits at the SBAg demonstration site as a testament to what could be, especially if hemp production is allowed to begin again.
SBAg is remarkable for being the oldest gardening project on Pine Ridge, and one of the oldest indigenous community gardening projects that we visited this summer. Entering it’s 30th year of operation, it has operated the whole while without tribal or federal support except for one EPA grant in the 90’s. The strength of the project comes from the dedication of SBAg staff, and the need in the community. Milo expressed to us that he came to the project not just to help provide food and water to community members, but to strengthen the community through education. “I come to realize that food was being used as a weapon, and in order for us to be sovereign we have to always ask ourselves as indigenous people, if we are truly sovereign, how come we are not feeding ourselves? Why are we always dependent on somebody else to give us our food?” The SBAg works to provide people with the education and resources to feed themselves. Pine Ridge is a place known for its challenges: there’s more than 80% unemployment and 49% of residents live below the poverty line (per capita income is under $7,000). But this is also an area that has maintained its cultural and spiritual traditions against harsh odds. SBAg founder Tom Cook and his wife Loretta Afraid Of Bear Cook have sundanced in the Black Hills country for 27 years, and have led the ceremony for 17 years at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in the canyons of the south rim. “It gives us spiritual standing to engage the question that if the Black Hills are not for sale, then what are they for?” Tom says referring to his wife’s work on the Paha Sapa Unity Alliance board. Pine Ridge is also home to a thriving group of artists (like buffalo horn artist Kevin Pourier, up and coming ledger artists Quinton Maldonado, amazing quilters, and dozens of talented beadwork and quill artists. This creativity has also followed Pine Ridge residents to other cities, like Minneapolis where the Sioux Chef is reinvigorating traditional Lakota foods to revolutionize the contemporary food scene.