Sugar beets. Photo: Preston Keres / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tim Giago: Learning life's lessons on a sugar beet farm

Notes from Indian Country
Learning life’s lessons on a sugar beet farm

I found out the meaning of “stoop labor” in the summer of 1949.

My dad had gravitated to Colorado that year in search of a job. He found one on a sugar beet farm near Windsor, Colorado, owned by a farmer named Mr. Sweet. Now all he needed was a bunch of warm bodies to help him bring in the sugar beet crop.

My mom was living in a small cabin on her sister Mary’s house on Philadelphia Street. After my dad contacted her she talked my brother Tony, Cousin Sonny, my sisters Lillian and Shirley and me to make the trip to Colorado for a new adventure and perhaps the possibility of making a few bucks. As we were about to load into a car to take us to the bus station my small Cousin Buzzy stood by the car crying because he wanted to come with us. As he cried he said, “I haven’t even been as far as Pine Ridge.” We should have brought him along so he also could learn the meaning of stoop labor.

The adventure was on. We got on the bus and headed for Windsor. After a few hours we pulled into the bus depot in Fort Collins. A man in a truck approached us and spoke to us in Spanish and my Cousin Sonny said quickly, “I’m sorry but we don’t speak English.” Of course we all got a laugh out of that.

Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

We soon found ourselves at a small cabin with no running water, flanked by a wooden outhouse, near the big ranch house on Mr. Sweet’s farm. Mr. Sweet brought us some short handled hoes, handed us a couple of files, and said, “Sharpen them up.” And bright and early the next day we found ourselves looking down the long, long rows of sugar beets.

My dad taught us how to chop between the beets, thin them out so that only one beet remained and continue down the rows that never seemed to end. The hoe handles were short so we had to stoop over all afternoon in order to weed and thin the sugar beets. It didn’t take long for the Colorado sun beating down on us to know that we were in for a long, hard summer.

Through it all my Cousin Sonny kept us entertained by singing some of the latest songs. His favorite turned out to be, “Let the raindrops fall, la la la la.” And before long we were all trying to sing along with him. My sisters Lillian and Shirley worked side by side with us and matched us hoe chop by hoe chop. Shirley was 12 and Lillian was 17. I was 15. We usually worked from sun up to sun down, six days a week.

When my dad got his first pay check he gave a few bucks to Tony and Sonny. Bad mistake.

When we got up the next morning they were gone. They made it out to Highway 25 and hitched a ride back to Rapid City so that left my dad, me and my two sisters to finish the job on Mr. Sweet’s sugar beet field. We spent the rest of the summer working the beet fields and when fall came we picked cherries in a huge orchard. My dad earned enough to buy and old car so we loaded up and returned to Rapid City.

We saw other Lakota families working in the beet fields that summer. But mostly we saw Mexican immigrants doing the “stoop labor” that most Americans did not want to do.


Tim Giago is the Publisher of Native Sun News Today. He is a former Nieman Fellow with the Class of 1991 and the recipient of many journalism awards including the H. L. Mencken Award. He can be reached at najournalist1@gmail.com

Note: Content copyright © Tim Giago

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