'We called it taking care of ourselves'RegeNErate Native Conference focuses on food sovereignty
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk Lorelei DeCora moved to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in 1973. Back then, life was different on the reservation. The Lakota people lived on isolated plots of land throughout the sprawling reservation. They didn’t have running water or electricity and depended on each other and on their connection to the land, plants and animals. People knew where their food came from back then, DeCora said. They killed their own meat and prepared it for meals. They used outdoor meat racks to prepare meat and grew their own crops in large gardens. And they stored their surplus food in underground dugouts. “There wasn’t any hunger in 1973,” said DeCora, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Then the federal government forced the people to leave their own lands and put them in clustered homes, where they didn’t have space to grow gardens or to prepare and store their own meat and vegetables. “That’s where the hunger began to develop,” she said. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
Today, DeCora has returned to the Winnebago Reservation and is part of a community effort to reconnect the Winnebago people to the land and the food they eat. That effort includes giving individual tribal members raised garden members where they can grow vegetables and constructing an outdoors farmers market where producers can sell their vegetables and other products. And the Winnebago people want to reclaim their tribal lands and return their people to the fields, to grow the crops – the corn, the bean and the squash – that their people grew long before being forced off their lands. “We want to renew the planting history that our Ho-Chunk people have had for thousands of years,” she said. On Tuesday, the tribe and an agricultural collective known as RegeNErate Nebraska hosted a conference at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa, that gathered Native and non-Native farmers, ranchers and agricultural advocates together to discuss regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is really just a fancy way of saying agriculture that is focused on practices that preserve natural resources, such as soil, water and plants.
Among the speakers at the conference were Ernest Weston Jr. with the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin of the Main Street Project, Zach Ducheneaux with the Intertribal Ag Council and Sacred Seed founder Taylor Keen. Those speakers discussed a variety of agricultural practices and initiatives they’ve undertaken to restore Native agricultural practices and encourage Native people to become farmers and ranchers. The Wo-Xete-Hire Singers and Dancers from the Winnebago Public Schools performed Native American powwow songs and dances before the conference began Tuesday. Frank White, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe, said his people have struggled with obesity and diabetes in recent years, largely as a result of the food commodities they are given by the federal government and because they lack access to affordable, healthy foods. He said a few years ago, the tribal council decided to work to reconnect their people to the land and the plants. “When we take care of ourselves by going out there and planting something, harvesting it, preparing it, cooking it and eating it, then it’s only going to help us,” he said. “We may not see results this generation, but the next generation will see it.”
Anthony Rogers-Wright of RegeNErate Nebraska said Native Americans need to get involved in helping rewrite the federal farm bill, legislation that is currently being considered by Congress. “Native Americans right now are actually leading the fight for more sovereignty over food and food production,” he said. He directed people to the Intertribal Agriculture Council, which is working with federal lawmakers to incorporate Native interests into the next farm bill. Zach Ducheneaux of the Intertribal Agriculture Council said he would like to see a Native coalition formed to help draft legislation that can benefit tribal producers to be incorporated into the farm bill. He said he would like to see enough Native farmers to start farming operations so that tribes won’t need to import food and accept federal commodities. “I want to see food trucks leaving the reservation instead of bringing goddamn commodities on our reservation,” said Ducheneaux, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “We can do that. Pardon my language, but I’m passionate about this and I don’t have any better way to express it because they took my language from me, too.”
He said the Federally-Recognized Tribes Extension Program, which funds extension programs on reservations, has succeeded in teaching Native Americans how to get involved in agriculture. He said the Intertribal Agriculture Council is working to get additional funding for the program. He said the council also supports a study on the financial tools available to Indian farmers, since Indian farmers typically spend 5 to 9 percent more to establish farm operations. He said he would like to see that study focus on credit rates offered to Native farmers compared to rates offered to non-Native farmers. He said Native Americans have ancient agricultural knowledge they can draw upon as they seek to establish agricultural operations. “You can get back to some of your traditional agricultural knowledge,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of putting our food circle back together.” Ernest Weston Jr. with the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation near Kyle, South Dakota, spoke about his organization’s efforts to establish a 34-acre regenerative community. He said Thunder Valley has built 21 homes, an apartment complex, a school and retail space. The organization also plans to establish a grocery store on the reservation and build a 2.5-acre demonstration farm that includes a large chicken house, or “poultry palace.” He said the chicken house incorporates regenerative practices, such as the planting of perennial plants and crops, such as hazelnut bushes and buffalo berries, that are fertilized by excrement from the chickens. The hazelnuts also provide an extra revenue source for Thunder Valley.
He said the chicken house is designed to be largely self-sustaining and produces nearly 180 dozen eggs a week. Thunder Valley is working with the USDA to become a certified egg dealer and hopes to begin selling its eggs in convenience stores on the reservation. He said 98 percent of the food grown on the reservation is used for livestock and 95 percent of the tribe’s 2.7 million acres of farmland is farmed by non-Natives. He said the Oglala Sioux Tribe is working to educate its youth about agriculture through its tribal college, Oglala Lakota College. And Thunder Valley also hopes to train nine Native farmers who can start similar regenerative agricultural operations as the chicken coop. “We always had food sovereignty,” he said. “We just didn’t call it that. We called it taking care of ourselves.” Reginaldo Haslett Marroquin of the Main Street Project talked about his organization’s efforts to establish regenerative poultry operations in Minnesota and to train indigenous organizations and tribes in regenerative agricultural practices. The organization helped Thunder Valley establish its chicken house. “It’s not about chickens,” he said. “It’s about sovereignty, and sovereignty doesn’t just happen. It needs to be designed and planned out.” He said the Main Street Project bought a 100-acre farm that it plans to use as a training center for future farmers. He said a 1.5-acre poultry production unit can produce 4,500 birds a year that can generate $58,000 a year in gross market value. Those birds can produce 175 dozen eggs a day and $185,237 per year in gross farm-gate value.
He said a typical chicken house will cost about $100,000 to $110,000. He said the Main Street Project hopes to help tribes re-establish their traditional farming practices. “All we have to do is start bringing that ancient knowledge, putting it into economically sound designs and taking back what belongs to us,” he said. Taylor Keen, a business instructor at Creighton University and founder of Sacred Seed, talked about his efforts to revive the sacred corn of the Omaha people. He said those efforts began after a friend asked him 12 years ago what he was doing to protect his people’s corn from large food and seed corporations like Monsanto. He said the question sparked his desire to find the original pumpkin seeds of the Omaha people and plant those seeds. His quest led him across Nebraska, to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and to the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron. He said he found a couple packets of Omaha pumpkin seeds at the museum, which had once served as a trading post frequented by tribal people.
In visiting the museum, Keen discovered a book written by the former proprietor of the trading post, a man named Oscar Will, who documented the planting practices of the Native people with whom he traded. His research was so detailed that it described the angle of declination of planting so crops could get the maximum amount of sun and how the women would dry the corn. “The Omahas, we didn’t rotate a field except every 10 years so that goes against modern ag practices quite a bit,” Keen said. He said he began planting traditional Cherokee white flour corn in his garden. Keen is a citizen of both the Omaha Tribe and Cherokee Nation. He said he began singing to the corn as it grew in his backyard, abiding by the Omaha people’s customs. “I don’t have children but I love my corn. That’s for sure,” he said. Keen said he was surprised to see the corn, which he expected to grow into white corn, grow into a variety of colors, including white, red, purple, orange and black. He said he expects the corn, native to Oklahoma, is adapting to the moisture-rich summers in Nebraska. He said he has also grown Cherokee beans in his garden. “As a Cherokee as well, to grow these beautiful beans that sustained us on the Trail of Tears is more than moving,” he said.
Later, he began growing Omaha pumpkin squash. During the first two years, he replanted every seed his plants produced in order to grow his garden. Now, in the fourth year of his efforts, he has enough produce to share with others. He said he’s struggled to protect his garden – especially the red corn – from raccoons. But after a particularly devastating attack by squirrels, he realized that the raccoons avoided corn stalks that had been planted by the squash, and he believes it’s because the squash have tiny spikes on them that may be deterring the raccoons. So the next year he planted the corn near the squash. His efforts taught him much about his people’s traditional planting practices, such as that women were typically the ones who planted the corn. And it has taught him that the traditional plants of his people – thought long lost by some – can be found and revived. “For me, it’s hope,” he said. “These things that were once sacred to us and lost can come back to us.”