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Sicangu Elders on Food as the Foundation of Community || The State of Food Sovereignty

Updated: Jun 25

The following has been excerpted from "The State of Food Sovereignty: Stories of Food and Community from the Sicangu Lakota Oyate," a report compiled by the Food Sovereignty Initiative of the Sicangu Community Development Corporation in the fall of 2019. The report explores the past, present, and future food system of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe through the lens of the Lakota values of generosity (wacantaognaka), courage (woohitika), respect (wowacintanka), and wisdom (woksape). The section below details the childhood food experiences of nine Sicangu Elders, as relayed in interviews with SFSI interns in August 2019.


Gardening and canning vegetables in the summer, foraging wild berries and timpsila to dry for the winter, raising chickens for eggs and meat, hunting deer, rabbit, and various wild birds, and drying bapa meat to last until the weather became warm again were activities familiar to many of our Sicangu Elders in their childhood. Many of the Elders interviewed on their experiences around food told stories of self-sufficient or nearly self-sufficient childhoods, when their families gardened, hunted, and foraged in order to survive the harsh Rosebud winters. While essential to securing enough sustenance to last during the coldest months of the year, these activities also played a vital role in bonding families and communities together. Modern convenience foods have made life easier for the Sicangu in many regards, but have also made it more difficult to keep traditional practices alive.


Lynette Murray, who originally hails from Pine Ridge but has called Parmelee home for decades, felt that learning how to produce their own food bonded her and her siblings together. During her childhood, her family grew everything they ate and canned foods for the winter. The only thing they bought was meat on occasion, if they didn’t have any meat from hunting. In her words, “We ate a lot of wild birds, wild fruit, and out of our gardens. I was kind of spoiled. It’s hard to live in a time where you have to pay a lot of money for that kind of stuff and have to travel long ways for it.”


The experience of working together to ensure their survival during the winter was a family bonding experience, one that she continued with her own kids after moving to Rosebud. Every autumn when her father was still alive, Lynette would travel to Pine Ridge to help him harvest. For Lynette, as for many of the Elders interviewed, growing, preparing, and eating food was a family experience: “I mean, we didn't have much, but we learned how to do all these things together and that, you know, that was really the most important part of us growing up. We're still pretty close... but also my parents are gone. The loss of older generations who possessed and practiced more traditional food harvesting and preservation has led to a decline in traditional food practices accompanied by a decline in community.


SFSI summer interns foraging for wild grapes, berries, and herbs, August 2019.


Not only was food a shared experience for siblings, but community members and Elders also played a role in passing on the wisdom needed to grow, cook, and preserve food. These practices exemplified the Lakota value of wacantognaka, or generosity; individuals and communities cared for each other through selflessly sharing food and food knowledge. When Lynette first moved to Parmelee in the 1970’s, “The older people, the elders. They always took me under their wing. I mean, they were really good to me. And we'd visit a lot about a lot of things...We were trying to build a community garden down by the creek and so that the kids could learn how to take care of it and everything and they could have their own store or, you know, sell their stuff and everything.” Ronnie Cut, of Rosebud, recalls that when his mother moved their family to Parmelee in the 1970’s from where they had lived northwest of Wanblee, nearly every home in the community had a garden. In his words, “Our mom Angie used to make us make her garden for her because every family had one, and I don’t see that today.”


Learning about food and generosity from grandmothers was a common experience among the Elders surveyed. Tina Martinez, of the Spotted Calf and Spotted War Bonnet Tiospayes who grew up in St. Francis and Spring Creek, recalls visiting her grandma Nida in Spring Creek, helping her prepare food for winter and for visitors. She learned food preservation techniques along the way; when berries were ripe, Tina and her fellow young relatives helped her grandmother pick berries and chokecherries by climbing trees and shaking them until the berries fell onto a sheet on the ground where they were collected before being poured into a 5 gallon bucket. They “... learned how to preserve them…” by drying berries outside.


Her grandmother’s backyard, in addition to serving as a space to dry berries, also served as butchering grounds for the cow her uncles would bring home each year, as well as home grown chickens. Chicken and beef supplemented the bapa, deer meat provided by Tina’s uncles, that her grandmother sliced into thin strips and dried. When Tina was raising her own kids in Joplin, Missouri, grandparents living in the neighborhood shared their knowledge of cooking and gardening. The knowledge and wisdom, or woksape, possessed by Elders regarding producing, preparing, and preserving food was generously shared between generations, promoting both health and community.


After returning to Rosebud in the year 2000, Tina continued to practice the skills she learned from her grandparents and Elders and carried on the tradition of sharing food and knowledge between generations within the community. She plants a garden each year, and “...if I ever over abundantly plant a garden, I still have the community elders come over and pick what they want so I have a lot of people, even yesterday and throughout the weekend, I had people backup into my garden area and select whatever was ripe for them to take. And throughout the winter time people know to call me for chokecherries, plums, tomatoes, green beans and squash that I’ve already put in the freezer. So at this point, its early September, I already have all of my harvested gardening in my freezer and canned. So I am ready for winter and that’s some of the things that our grandparents recommend that we do and I saw it happen; that she was preparing for all of us to have a meal ready on a continuous basis.”


Taking care of community members through food is something Tina credits learning from her grandmother: “My grandmother was very hardworking, very involved with the community, and helping feed families. If somebody didn’t have something she was ready to be there for them. So I’ve kinda picked up on some of those things that matter to her and started believing that I could do the same thing…. I saw my relatives struggling and I felt like I could help in feeding them so I’ve always been able to go out and pick berries, pick Ceyaka (wild mint) and pick all of the medicines that I knew would help the people.”


SFSI interns & staff with their harvest of wild greens, currants, chokecherries, sumac, plums, and grapes at Ghost Hawk Park, August 2019.


In addition to wild harvests and home butchering, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), generally known as the commodity food program, commodities, or “commods,” also played a role in the diets of some Sicangu Elders in their youth. FDPIR is a current-day legacy of the destruction of Native foodways. Handing out commodities to tribes is a centuries old practice, and at times was used to procure tribal support, such as during the Civil War. The current form of the program dates back to the 1800’s. In the latter half of that century, the U.S. Congress moved tribes onto reservations and instituted food rationing, as the U.S. government had previously destroyed native food systems. These commodity foods were foreign to the diets of Natives, and frequently included spoiled food. Commodities are a primary source of food for many Natives to this day. While Congress expanded tribal control over FDPIR programs in the 2018 Farm Bill to allow for more culturally appropriate foods, the program, according to those individuals interviewed for this report, has historically lacked nutritious, culturally relevant foods.


For Sicangu Elders, flour, lard, and canned meat were all common commodity provisions, as well as baking powder, salt, and butter; for many, bread made frequent appearances on the dinner plate. But while commodity foods once served as a supplement to home-grown and wild-harvested foods, over time they, along with fast food and processed foods, have overtaken traditional and healthy whole foods as the dietary staples of the Sicangu. When our Elders were growing up, nearly every family had a garden. Nowadays, our Elders tell us, gardens are not nearly as common as they once were. Over the last half century, fewer and fewer children have grown up gardening and much of that knowledge has since been lost. Instead, reliance on grocery stores, restaurants, and fast food has become commonplace to the detriment of the community’s health.


The boarding school system that separated Native children from their families was a major factor that contributed to the loss of traditional woksape of gardening, hunting, and foraging for indigenous foods. Of the Elders interviewed for this project, most recall learning to grow, harvest, and process food from their parents or grandparents. Families prepared food for harsher seasons as well as cooked and ate together on a daily basis. Food was a central tenant that bound both families and communities together. But according to Lynette Murray, that connection was harmed by forced attendance at boarding schools: “It's just the way that, you know, boarding school life, the government oppression, you know, the way that they did things to really destroy our, our culture, our way of life, and in a lot of ways they did."


Severing children from these traditional pathways of knowledge created a generation of Sicangu who no longer possessed traditional wisdom around food. This gap in awareness proved to be detrimental not only to their health, but severed intergenerational relationships to the detriment of the community. And this loss of traditional knowledge around food did not only affect a single generation; the inability of survivors of the boarding school system to pass on food knowledge to their children continues to affect Sicangu diets and community to this day. As Lynette phrased it, “... a lot of things have changed. But it all stems from not being taught at an early age because the connection was broken with a lot of families… with the kids taken away and sent to school.”


Tribal members from multiple generations gathered over a meal in Parmelee to discuss

the food system of the Sicangu Lakota at a roundtable hosted by the SFSI and organized by SFSI intern Foster Cournoyer-Hogan in September 2019.


Instilling healthy habits in children from a young age can have a positive affect not only on their own health but the health of their children, grandchildren, and community as a whole. Tina Martinez believes that her own adherence to the food and cooking practices she learned as a child in her adulthood have helped her family remain healthy despite generational differences in age. According to Tina, “In the time our grandparents left this world, we evolved into a whole new way of cooking. A whole new way of eating and in that process we learned how to rely on fast food, the easier the food was made for consumption, I think we relied on that as young families and I didn’t do that; I made a conscious choice to grow a garden from when I first got married. I have a garden every single year. I grew all kinds of squash and I preserved it…. And I have never used processed food or used my microwave for anything to cook our meals with. It’s always been a wholesome thinking in the foods that go into our bodies and into my children’s lives so that we can maintain a good healthy food system. So my daughters and my son also have developed that themselves too. They enjoy cooking for their kids and I noticed that they don’t buy all the frozen foods and all the frozen pizzas and chips and pop. I noticed that they don’t do a lot of that. And I’m really thankful for that.”


Traditional food practices not only promote individual and community health, both physically and otherwise, but are a way to maintain connections to grandparents and ancestors and promote a continuous community throughout the generations.


As Tina puts it, “Our grandparents had a way of life that, ya know, we could carry on for them. So I encourage everyone to do that, I encourage them to grow a garden. I have chickens, I have ducks, you know, go back to the old ways of living and maintaining a good life.” Not only do traditional foods and practices promote community and Lakota identity and values, but harvesting of traditional foods, be it plants or animals, promotes tribal food sovereignty. These practices also provide a path to preventing many of the diet-related illnesses that currently plague the Sicangu.


Homemade foods, made without artificial preservatives and added sugars, ensured that our Elders grew up healthier than many children today. By contributing to the effort to grow, hunt, and preserve those foods, they were also more intimately involved with the origins of their food and possessed a greater awareness of where food comes from. As Marilyn Hogan put it, “Mom used to dress the chickens all cut up and everything so we had to chase chickens and catch chickens...Dad did hunt grouse and pheasants...Mom made a lot of our vegetables, she canned so we had canned vegetables…. Most of the stuff we grew and raised. Everything was nice and fresh. Mom did a lot of baking so we had homemade bread, biscuits, homemade pancakes from scratch. Everything was from scratch, because they didn’t have this pre-processed ready to use products. So that’s why everyone was healthier then; no artificial sweeteners it was either honey or regular sugar.” Healthy eating habits, including the foods themselves and the environment in which they’re consumed, promote both individual and community health on multiple levels, and are vital in promoting the health and longevity of the Sicangu Oyate.


The seventh generation of Sicangu to live on the Rosebud Reservation are already here; Sherry Red Owl, a retired educator, counts her grandchildren as the seventh generation of their family tree since the Sicangu were relegated to the reservation. The Sicangu have survived thus far through numerous challenges to not only our sovereignty, but our very existence as a cultural group. Throughout that time, however, there have been unprecedented changes to the way of life on the reservation. In Sherry’s words to the current generation, “We need you. We need you to plan for our future, plan for our families. Plan for the sovereignty of the tribe. We want to make sure that Seven Generations from now we still have a tribe, and we still are a cultural group.” Involving our Sicangu youth in the next steps towards both food, and ultimately tribal sovereignty, is vital in promoting a modern Lakota food system that upholds Lakota identity and values.


Excerpted from "The State of Food Sovereignty: Stories of Food and Community from the Sicangu Lakota Oyate," available to read in its entirety here. For daily updates and informational posts from the Sicangu Community Development Corporation, check out our Facebook page!

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