Cheyenne River Reservation

Snapshots & musings from South Dakota: June-early July 2016

If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.
— Robin Wall Kimmerer, from "Braiding Sweetgrass"

I'm currently reading Kimmerer's work, "Braiding Sweetgrass," and I'm finding that her words are so timely and so needed. The upswing in chaos, violence, and hate that we've seen in recent weeks will not disappear because of one small garden on a remote part of an isolated reservation. But, I'm not willing to accept that hatred and violence should be the basis of the headlines or that small acts of peace should go unnoticed.

Fortunately, the La Plant garden allows me to embrace the place and space and adds a richness to my life, as I hope it does for the kids of La Plant. Sorry if this sounds too white person-myopic - it's not meant to at all. As I've written about in the past, I cannot even begin to know what it is to be Native, or African American, Muslim or any other ethnicity, religious sect, or population who must exist and endure with the ever-present threat or possibility of violence to their physical person or their children.

One garden does not erase the enormous injustices and brutalities in this world. But, we can use the concept of a garden as a way to treat one another as, well, equals and return to civility and humility. Through the garden, we learn to respect the interactions between the things we can't control - namely, Mother Nature - and the fruits of our nurturing to enjoy the food that we grow and eat. We can listen to the sounds of buzzing bees, children laughing, and the rush of water hitting the soil and seeds. By observing, listening, and absorbing, we have the capacity to become more centered, more focused on obstacles and on differences of opinions, more open to speaking to one another, and try to deeply understand our purpose to live as better people.

This time, I'll let a few photos speak for the past month and a half on the Reservation, filled with blooming potatoes, kid-run garden tours, turnip foraging, the beginning of sweet carrots and sugar snap peas, and, yeah, I'll go there: hope.

Captions: (1) the first flush of arugula (2) a cucumber seedling emerges (3) the greenhouse, June 12, 2016 (4) early morning light in mid-summer greenhouse, July 9, 2016 (5) the first tomato flowers, June 16, 2016 (6) radishes! (7) young garlic check (8) first big greens harvest, June 19, 2016 (9) added art to the greenhouse (10) Winter’s first harvest, June 21, 2016 (11) finally found: a prairie turnip (12+13) foraging with Lakota elder, Ford Hill (14+15) potatoes, pre- and post-bloom (16) the open Plains (17) my garden assistant, sowing climbing bean seeds in our newly opened field! (18) the jalapeños make an appearance, July 1, 2016 (19) the first summer squash emerges, July 4, 2016 (20) carrot check, July 4, 2016 (21) the green garden, July 5, 2016 (22) prickly pear cactus, hiding among the prairie grasses (23) climbing sugar snap pea tendrils, climbing (24) wildflowers at the Missouri River (25) a welcoming squash blossom, July 8, 2016 (26) Sergio, my kid garden assistant and resident tour guide, doing his thing with confidence…and an iron fist!

Snapshots & musings from South Dakota, late Spring 2016

Living and working on the Reservation is filled with amazingly high highs and devastatingly low lows. Sometimes, these moments can happen in the same week, same day, or same hour. Trauma is everywhere and, if given enough time to reflect, wallow, or just process the colossally complex nature of it all, I might have quit my job by now.

Yet, the garden, or the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! Project, is my place, my refuge. It keeps me sane. It reminds me that I am doing something meaningful, even though, at times, it stills feels like I'm not doing enough. As hokey as that sounds, the garden is incredibly therapeutic. Endless research backs up the theory on the healing powers of growing food and being around living, green things. (Non-scientific study: I dare you to go to your local nursery and farm stand and not feel a little happier!)

Tomatoes & pepper transplants find a cheerful home in the greenhouse for the 2016 growing season (A.Gross, May 2016)

Tomatoes & pepper transplants find a cheerful home in the greenhouse for the 2016 growing season (A.Gross, May 2016)

This is my third season on the Reservation, and I see and feel the garden having an impact. Practically speaking, I'm thrilled that we now finally have electricity and heat in the greenhouse, and I'll be preparing for winter production in the late summer. The beets, arugula, radishes, potatoes, and snap peas were all germinating as of this week.

More than anything, I love that the kids are also super into the whole thing. I often tell volunteers that the garden has a weird, magical forcefield around it. Somehow, once inside the garden fence, kids become calm. I can't exactly put my hands on this energy, but the garden gives off a nurturing vibe. It's a space that encourages children to be inquisitive and present. They ask amazing questions. They are curious as to what's growing. They begin to give their own mini tours of the space with a sense of confidence that makes my heart swell. They taste chives. They check on the garlic and ask when it's ready to harvest. They bring their own packets of flowers to Garden Class to start their own seedling trays. They respect the bumble bees buzzing and tell me, unprompted, that these bees are doing good work.

A bit of solitude in the garden, one bed of cilantro at a time. (A.Gross, May 2016)

A bit of solitude in the garden, one bed of cilantro at a time. (A.Gross, May 2016)

But, just as I praise these successes, I recognize that it's dangerous, self-aggrandizing and even a bit delusional if we - specifically, I - begin to equate a good lettuce harvest or one week of increased participation in a garden class with "saving" people. The statistics about what it means to be native youth are alarming and apparent everyday. Rates of youth suicide are still at crisis levels. Kids are hungry for physical nourishment of nutritious food, and they also crave the emotional support and positive attention and reinforcement of adults.

For the majority of people who will read this post, they'll never, ever know the realities of what it means to be or identify as an indigenous person. I'm included in this category, even as immersed as I am in the day-to-day for almost half a year on the Reservation. But, the first step is recognizing and delving into these complexities and finding solutions that occur at an appropriate pace to make life better, specifically for children.

Kids sow their own seeds! A bit of experimentation with passionflower seeds at Garden Class. (A.Gross, May 2016)

Kids sow their own seeds! A bit of experimentation with passionflower seeds at Garden Class. (A.Gross, May 2016)

Sowing seeds at Garden Class, with kids helping kids. (A. Gross, May 2016)

Sowing seeds at Garden Class, with kids helping kids. (A. Gross, May 2016)

I'm a fiercely and stubbornly realistic person. That's why I've connected with farming and gardening so well. You learn early on that the fruits of the profession are only a small product of your work. Mother Nature has the ultimate say on the success or failure of a harvest. She forces you to cede control, which is, at first, completely terrifying but, eventually, incredibly freeing. She also teaches you to play the long game if you seek change rooted in sustainability and resilience and, recognizing, too, that the long game may outlive you and me.

While a realist to my core, I'm also an optimist and the two can and should coexist. We do not have to accept the hand that we've been dealt and we can change our paths. I also acknowledge and accept that my perspective is from a place not granted to many individuals. The catalyst I've chosen to combat the injustices faced by native youth is through food because it is tangible. I'm not expecting to solve all of society's ills against native people, to save all of the children of La Plant or the Reservation, or even to be able to feed the entire town. But, I can write, with absolute confidence, that the garden is a place, albeit temporary, where children can feel safe, be curious, be silly, and, while they might not be able to articulate it yet, be optimistic about their lives and their futures.  

Big cloud country: Huge clouds over the South Dakota Plains. (A.Gross, May 2016)

Big cloud country: Huge clouds over the South Dakota Plains. (A.Gross, May 2016)

We've got power! The greenhouse is now electrified, which means lights, heat, and ventilation for a longer growing season! (A. Gross, May 2016)

We've got power! The greenhouse is now electrified, which means lights, heat, and ventilation for a longer growing season! (A. Gross, May 2016)

Rooted: Dandelions foraged from the garden space. Wild health food from root to flower. (A.Gross, May 2016)

Rooted: Dandelions foraged from the garden space. Wild health food from root to flower. (A.Gross, May 2016)

Sights of South Dakota: late August-early September 2015

I've been home for less than 24 hours, and I'm already reflecting on this summer on the Reservation. (Shocking.) I've done this extended trip twice now, and while I'm somewhat seasoned to the routine, no stay is the same nor should it be expected to remain the same.

From a growing perspective, the garden produced beautifully and continues to do so under the watchful and attentive eyes of six individuals in town. Perhaps my proudest moment was the kids' first pay-what-you-can farm stand. They wanted to sell vegetables to raise money  for a new piece of playground equipment, which they would like to vote on collectively. How cool is that?! My heart swelled as I watched adults in town, some whom I have not seen all summer, pull in with their cars, look around, support the kids' efforts, and ask when we were going to do this again. What really sunk in: People crave vegetables and good food. Now, it's accessible in La Plant. 

And, the kids really did help. I had a steady stream of them take informal shifts, ask to hold up road signs to drum up more business (some even made kites with the word "farm stand" on them), keep me company at the stand, and ask questions about vegetables, how I learned to grow food, school, and if I miss La Plant and them when I'm not there.  (The answer to the last question, while largely choking back tears: "Of course I do, goofball!)

I think this event really solidified that food is a magnificent, wonderful, unifying force. And, it's changing things, albeit slowly, on the Reservation.

This was not an easy summer. I dealt with many issues well beyond my scope of training and ones that I could not have anticipated, particularly youth suicide and navigating the mental health resources available to people in the area. Life on the Reservation can be unpredictable, tragic, heart-breaking, incredibly frustrating, nonsensical, and indescribable to family and friends who haven't been there. But, I truly take the ambassador aspect of my job to heart, and every trip to La Plant underscores the ongoing need to tell the stories of the people there, namely the children whom I have grown to love. I'm grateful for the challenges, new allies and support systems forged, the amazing successes (including the farm stand and the kids' participation in the Unity Concert in the Black Hills!), and the enormous learning curve of this summer. 

Now, here are some sights of late summer in South Dakota (including a trip to the Badlands!).

Sights from South Dakota: Growing a garden, learning to say "see you soon"

Working for Simply Smiles is definitely weird...and wonderful. Weird? I've done lots of things for my job that I didn't quite anticipate. The most recent example: Getting my CDL license so that I could drive a red school bus across country with my brother to get to the Cheyenne River Reservation. And, of course, wonderful. I'm fortunate that I can implement what I've learned in graduate school and in my past farming career in practical, meaningful ways. I also get to meet incredible people and have many unique experiences along the way. Not a bad job.

And, the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! project has been transformative for both me and, I hope, for residents of La Plant. It makes my heart swell when a child willingly goes into the garden space and wants to help, asks questions, or runs to me as soon as they arrive at camp and are excited about what we're planting that day. Or, when I have a group of adults who offer to take care of the garden, actively participate in its growth, or ask how they can grow things at their houses. Pretty wonderful, right?

In the span of one year, the garden has done just that - grow. Volunteer groups have helped to build new raised beds - 21, to be exact! - and these beds have greatly increased our growing space. Our compost system is thriving (fellow compost nerds, rejoice!), our native species project has physically taken root, and we're getting ready to enclose the high tunnel within the coming month to extend the growing season. There's buzz about the project among more residents in town and even throughout the entire Reservation. It has rumblings and makings of a food movement.

All this change, growth, and planning...and I won't physically be implementing much during the month of June.

Because Simply Smiles is becoming more ambitious in its programming and our holistic approach is attracting a wider audience of potential supporters and ambassadors of our mission, things - and people - need to shift. Rather than staying on the Rez for five straight months, the staff is taking office rotations, and mine starts this month. As a naturally anxious person/a (slight) control freak, not being present is a problem for me. But, the job requirements aside, my gut tells me this is a healthy break. I hope it is one that reveals and recognizes the roles and interdependence of communication, learning to cede control, trust, and, of course, the truly magical nature of growing, living things and beings.

I'm trying a new mantra: Things will be ok. Things will grow. 

Just when it set in this past Saturday morning that this - being in La Plant - was over, albeit for a little over a month, our friend and La Plant resident Ford Hill shook my hand.

"Goodbye, Ford," I said. "See you in July." 

"You know, in Lakota, there's no word for 'goodbye'," he said. "We say, 'see you soon.' Saying 'goodbye' is too lonesome and final."

So, with that, see you soon, La Plant. For now, I'll enjoy these recent memories and look forward to lots of delicious food and blooming flowers in the near future.

(All photos taken by A.Gross, April-May 2015, Cheyenne River Reservation/La Plant, S.D.)