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Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children, families, and communities. The organization partners with populations in need to create physical and emotional environments where suffering is alleviated and from which local leaders can emerge.

Simply Smiles blog

Follow our blog and read insights from Simply Smiles staff, volunteers and other individuals whose lives are affected by our work!

Alex's reflections: Watching a garden grow

Timothy Nurnberger

Gumbo soils of South Dakota. (La Plant, April 2014, A.Gross) Every week, the food and garden projects grow in La Plant. When we arrived on the Reservation at the end of April, we were welcomed by a dismal scene: dilapidated, shredded greenhouse tents, lots of debris scattered around the garden, cold temperatures and, of course, tons of muddy, gumbo soil. Yet, as June begins, the garden project is quite a different picture. It's one of progress, one of hope and one soon to be filled with delicious, nourishing food.

I entered the food projects with my own ambitious exceptions, primarily based on my own production and growing experience on the East Coast. Spoiler alert: South Dakota is not Connecticut. I knew about the poor soil quality, the rampant food insecurity and the general state of the Reservation economy, so my plan seemed logical:

  • Start a garden.
  • Begin selling at the area farmers' market.
  • Make it self-sufficient and community-run.
  • Do it all sustainably, organically and holistically.
  • Promote food sovereignty.

While these are tangible goals, all actions must be intentional, made with a keen knowledge of the history of the region, and an awareness of the person or group of individuals implementing these plans. If I want to work toward food sovereignty, or freedom, resilience and longevity of La Plant's food system, growing a garden in the middle of the northern Great Plains is a weird, ambitious project, primarily because of the history of the land.

Among the Lakota and many other native cultures, the concept of  “ownership” does not exist in their language. Land and all of the elements are shared and collective resources, reflecting a reverence for life and Mother Earth. While territorial disputes existed before the influence of white settlers to the region, both the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, of 1887, divided the Great Sioux Nation into smaller, individual reservations and also implemented the allotment process, which broke up communal land into smaller, family holdings.

Today, if you were to take an aerial shot of the Reservation based on political ownerships or leases of the tribal land, it would look like a piece of Swiss cheese. Reservations are considered sovereign, independent territory - technically their own nations. However, a number of U.S. government treaties promoted displacement, land ownership by non-Indians and created the patchwork-like nature of tribal lands. In reference to poverty, unemployment and land ownership on reservations in South Dakota, Nicholas Kristof writes:

…Reservations are often structured in ways that discourage private investment. Tribal lands often aren’t deeded to individuals but are common property, and tribal law means that outside investors can’t rely on uniform commercial codes and may have no reliable recourse if they are cheated.

Further, the arid lands on the Reservation just can’t support many people using traditional, Euro-American agricultural methods, coupled with a fledgling economy. Rural areas throughout the Great Plains states, including those with overwhelmingly white populations, are losing inhabitants and remain among the poorest in the country.

You can see how implementing any sort of project can be made all the more difficult because of this bioregional history. I can devote another post - and maybe a book - by further exploring my involvement as a white person in the food and garden growing projects on the Reservation, but I'll save that for another time. Rather, I wholeheartedly believe the garden is just the catalyst needed to rebuild the local economy, build communal pride, and cultivate self-worth among residents of La Plant. As we finish the high tunnel project, utilize the new compost system (all made out of reclaimed wood, including pieces from the old powwow grounds), build a ginormous billboard/windbreak for the garden (yes, a billboard - jealous??), complete the fence line, construct raised beds, and, of course, plant and reap the harvest, I can feel that change is tangible.

My original plan needs to shift, but not dramatically. Why? Because kids want to be on the compost team (yes, that's a thing they created), women want to know how certain vegetables feed their bodies, and people are even willing to tend to the garden. The plants and community are taking root, and I'm excited and humbled to both witness and be a part of this living, thriving collaboration.

The kids help me empty food scraps into the beautiful new compost bin, all made out of reclaimed wood! (La Plant, May 2014, Joshua Dufresne)