Lack of access to affordable, nutritious foods and high rates of nutrition-related disease affect many Native American families and communities. This reminded me of the planting season and that many Native Elders remember a time when everyone had their own garden. They prepped the land, did the planting, burned or pulled the weeds, carried water, and harvested the food. They raised healthy gardens without the use of chemicals to fertilize or ward off insects. Vince Two Eagles, a writer for the Native Sun newspaper, shared how they used to pick bugs off the potato plants by hand. I remember those days too, pulling weeds and working early in the morning with my mom before the sun was too hot.
On the reservations, gardens provide fresh produce. They reduce the dependence on government food commodities and give Elders an opportunity to share gardening knowledge and traditions with youth and other relatives. A return to traditional foods is also providing better nutrition for Elders and their families. Native Americans used to get all of their sustenance from game and wild foods such as tinpsula (edible wild turnips), choke cherries, buffalo berries, wild currants, gooseberries, wild turnips, and more. On the Standing Rock Reservation, these traditional foods grow abundantly and provide a sustainable source of variety in the diet. Modern day raw foodists believe that wild edible foods are the most vital of all foods and can’t learn enough about them.
It has only been only a few generations since many Native people moved away from the “old way” of life. Ancient artifacts show that, before Europeans settled North America, Native people fished off the coast of New England as long ago as 3000 B.C. Some American Indian tribes were gatherers, eating the fruits and vegetables native to their regions. Other tribes practiced agriculture and used farming methods that let them grow crops on the same soil for many years. By the time the first non-Native settlers arrived, American Indians knew how to grow almost 100 different kinds of crops. In addition to gathering and farming, most American Indians hunted for meat. When American Indians abandoned these traditional foods and began consuming processed store-bought foods, their health deteriorated rapidly. (Weston Price, Food in Every Country, Politics, Economics and Nutrition, 2010).
Aubrey Skye, a program partner from Standing Rock, also talks about how much the Native American diet has changed and about growing organic foods before they were called “organic.” He says, “As far back as the 1950s, we began to see the onset of type II diabetes among Natives. It was all due to the change in our diet.” In 2005, the Center for Disease Control reported that two counties on the Standing Rock had the highest diagnosed rate of diabetes among adults 20 and older. Diabetes among Native Veterans is high as well. Last year Aubrey teamed up with our organization to till gardens and provide seeds for over 130 Standing Rock families. He feels the project created more “awareness of the benefits to having fresh produce on a rural reservation that really doesn’t have access to this type of food” as well as “awareness about the health benefits of the traditional foods that our people have depended on for generations.” Aubrey talks about gardening and traditional foods and the role Elders play in both through his support of the Native Gardens Project.