In Search of Wild Turnips

Exploring Native Foodways in La Plant, South Dakota

For months leading up to my extended stay on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) Reservation in South Dakota, I rifled through anthropological reviews, Northern Plains guide books, journal articles and primary accounts of traditional Lakota foods. My new professional role with the Connecticut-based not-for-profit Simply Smiles involved implementing sustainable food projects in the small Lakota town of La Plant. As a white female trained in East Coast organic, small-scale agriculture, what did I know about growing on the Great Plains? 

Before moving for a five-month stay on the Reservation in April 2014, my answer to that question was a curt “not much.”

But, learning how indigenous peoples in the northern Plains fed their tribes in the not-so-distant past was also my key to forging relationships and defining a sense of place through food in the present. I knew that there was a deeper concept of food on American Indian Reservations than the all-too-common image of frybread. 

I needed to first understand the historical diet of the native peoples of the region and the foods that sustained their livelihoods and culture. Whatever lasting efforts were to be made by my organization’s food and garden initiatives depended on this acute understanding of the Reservation foodshed. Naturally, my earnestness and curiosity in bioregional eating of the past led me to become captivated by the romantic, mystical notions of wild, sacred foods. 

“Our food plants were numerous, we gathered plants that grew wild for us, and which you cultivate now and call by such names as cauliflower, potatoes and turnips,” writes Oglala Lakota chief, author and philosopher Luther Standing Bear, in his 1931 work My Indian Boyhood. In many of his works, including Land of the Spotted Eagle, Standing Bear readily points out that “the Sioux [were] not farmers,” and relied on key medicinal plants, including cedar, sagebrush, sunflowers, chokecherries, wild onions, and wild plums, as well as game animals of elk, deer, prairie chickens, and buffalo for subsistence and, well, survival.

Among my chief infatuations: the wild turnip. 

Wild turnips, foraged in La Plant. (June 2014, A.Gross)

Wild turnips, foraged in La Plant. (June 2014, A.Gross)

Also known as a prairie potato, Indian breadroot or, by its Lakota name of “timpsila,” the wild turnip was one of the most important wild foods foraged by prairie cultures, according to University of Kansas ecology and evolutionary biology professor Kelly Kindscher. The wild turnip is a prominent symbol in Lakota Creation stories, and its harvest, the saving of its seeds and its role in seasonal subsistence marks the passage of time - the month of June is called “Timpsila Ttkahca Wi,” or “When the Moon of Timpsila is Ripe.”

Roland Roach, an elder in La Plant known for his quick wit and hearty laugh, got me hooked on finding the turnip. In one of our first conversations about wild foods, he recalled fond memories of foraging in his hometown of Cherry Creek for turnips, horseradish, wild onions, many varieties of mushrooms, and chokecherries. 

Now in his late 70s, Roland is still foraging, walking around his property searching for these wild edibles. But, like many other people in La Plant, Roland said finding wild turnips these days might be difficult because of shifts in climate.

“The past few years, they come out later than June, or not at all,” said Roland. “The cherries, too, they just don’t produce.”

After scores of conversations and failed foraging walks, I was discouraged that the elusive turnip would remain in hiding. But, in late June, after a long morning of working to construct a billboard windbreak for the garden, I didn't find them; rather, they found me. 

Wild edibles:  Wild onions dot the grasslands in La Plant in early June. (A.Gross, June 2014)

Wild edibles: Wild onions dot the grasslands in La Plant in early June. (A.Gross, June 2014)

I was gifted a bundle of turnips by La Plant resident Elliotte Little Bear and his granddaughter, Wambli (Lakota for “eagle”) after their successful foraging trip. With both hands, I received the bundle and held the roots, with their delicate lavender-colored flowers and tops still intact.

This story could easily stop here, seen as an obscure foraging victory by a food-obsessed individual. But, this moment was a pivotal one for me in my work in La Plant. I felt like I had been formally welcomed into the community. And, of course, discovering wild foods is only a piece of understanding the complex, rich and often tragic history of the Lakota people of the region. 

The image of the wild turnip was, and remains, part of my efforts to mentally shape, contextualize and articulate the place of the CRST Reservation for myself and others. I still cling to the quaint notion that food is the element that can both mend a broken community and allow it to thrive. Shortly after settling into La Plant in April 2014, I soon realized food is the lens through which I could begin to grasp life on the Reservation, make connections with people, begin to build trust, and actually nourish individuals.

The place of La Plant and the transformation of the Great Sioux Nation

The Place:  La Plant, South Dakota, in context. (Photo illustration by A. Gross, courtesy of Simply Smiles Inc.)

The Place: La Plant, South Dakota, in context. (Photo illustration by A. Gross, courtesy of Simply Smiles Inc.)

La Plant sits on the eastern end of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, a region roughly the size of Connecticut, within South Dakota. It is home to four of the seven bands, or tiyospayes, of Lakota: Minniconjou, Siha Sapa, Sans Arc, and Two Kettles. According to current tribal statistics, current enrollment is less than 16,000 members, with approximately 70% living on the Reservation. Like many of the 13 towns on the Reservation, La Plant is a community struggling with its identity. It’s a place that has lost its sense of community, exacerbated by incidents of familial infighting, staggering unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, high rates of diabetes, obesity and death due to other diet-related diseases, and, most troubling, suicide, especially among youth. It’s a town in which almost every positive action taken toward change or progress is received and perceived with negativity, violence, or aggression, rather than encouragement and excitement. 

All of these phenomena are symptomatic of a marginalized people trying to survive and cope with collective post-traumatic stress. In my early introductions to elders in the community, I sensed that some individuals lived under the constant weight of tragedy. The scars of history are still raw and can be seen in the weathered faces of elders living in La Plant: the dissolution of nomadic family units and kinship ties, the dismantling of the Great Sioux Nation, cultural assimilation tactics, and the “sell or starve” policies that would solidify the formation of a rigid reservation system. 

By the 1830s, the U.S. government formally began plans to “deal” with the Plains Indians, especially as white land seekers increasingly looked westward for ranching, mining and other economic opportunities. For the Lakota, the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 laid the groundwork for the concentration of native peoples into smaller territories and far removed from access to travel roads and highways, eventually establishing the modern-day reservation system. 

Hunger intensified, and, by the 1850s, the boundaries placed on native peoples in the now government-defined territories stifled the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Lakota. Violations to the Fort Laramie Treaty led to the Sioux (or, Lakota) War of 1876, including insufficient food rations such as moldy flour and spoiled beef. Stocks of buffalo, arguably the lifeblood of many native Plains cultures, rapidly depleted. They faced extermination in the 1870s, as upwards of 60 million were slaughtered for their hides and, often, valuable meat was left on the animals’ bodies by hunters to rot and decompose in the grasslands. The Smithsonian estimates that by the end of the 1800s, only 300 buffalo remained wild on the Plains - an astronomical loss within a single century.

The confinement to reservations and adapting to restricted freedoms greatly fractured the Lakota social structure, gender roles and their views on treatment of the land. Traditionally, Lakota women processed meat from buffalo and other game hunts, gathered wild foods, and, if suitable soil was available near waterways, they tended to small gardens. Yet, Euro-American styles of farming soon became men’s work and were viewed as a solution to idleness in the Great Plains territories.

Two buffalo bulls, part of the Tribe's 800-member herd, grazing on grass on the Cheyenne River Reservation (A. Gross, July 2014)

Two buffalo bulls, part of the Tribe's 800-member herd, grazing on grass on the Cheyenne River Reservation (A. Gross, July 2014)

Further, the Lakota worldview of the sacredness of the land and the gifts of the Creator was in direct contrast to the deep plowing and cultivation methods introduced to the region. The Lakota diet was simple and frugal, one filled with lean proteins and wild foods. The survival of the Lakota depended on what was seasonally available, what could be preserved and stored for the winter months to feed families and the tribe, and what could be sourced in harmony with nature. 

“Knowledge was inherent in all things,” famously notes Luther Standing Bear in his 1933 work, Land of the Spotted Eagle. “The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature learns, and that was to feel beauty.”

Cracked, gumbo soils of La Plant (A.Gross, May 2014)

Cracked, gumbo soils of La Plant (A.Gross, May 2014)

The introduction of cattle on the Plains may have replaced the buffalo hunt for men, but new farming practices did not take root to sufficiently feed and nourish the culture. The Lakota people were encouraged to implement these farming practices on semi-arid land unsuitable for domestic cultivation, often on ground comprised of heavy clay soil. This soil is still referred to as “gumbo” today for its thick, cake-like properties. Further, the sod-busting efforts of the late 1800s destroyed the water-retaining properties of native grasses, particularly buffalo grass, which has five-foot root systems that help aerate the soil and avoid compaction. 

Coupled with the loss of native grazers of the buffalo and their replacement of cattle, the CRST Reservation along with others on the northern Great Plains are still suffering from the impacts of soil and land infertility. Today, one of the only markers of the land’s tie to the past is the presence of a herd of 800 buffalo along the Missouri River, which is owned by the Tribe for ceremonial purposes only.

Wounded Knee

In response to insufficient food stuffs, starvation, and the further dissolution of tribal lands through the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887, the Lakota were looking for some semblance of stability and hope. Born out of despair, the practice of the Ghost Dance was revived and served as a religious movement that sought to bring clarity to native peoples disturbed by Westward Expansion. U.S. forces saw the practice of the Ghost Dance and its revival in December 1890 as a direct threat to cultural assimilation tactics already well underway.

The brutal response by the U.S. government at Wounded Knee effectively ended Lakota resistance and created a culture of survivors. The attack resulted in the mass slaughter of hundreds of innocent Lakota men, women and children, including Lakota chief Spotted Elk. Twenty Medals of Honor were later awarded to soldiers for their actions at Wounded Knee, one of the highest numbers of medals given at a single U.S. military action. 

In now what is referred to as the Massacre at Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890 marked the last military confrontation between Plains Indians and the army of the U.S. federal government. Yet, the destructive policies and military actions set forth by the U.S. government laid the groundwork for a cultural genocide and perpetuating a cycle of dependence on federal government assistance, including, but not limited to, food rations and aid.

Cultural genocide and the future of food in La Plant

I didn’t truly understand the depth of the term “cultural genocide” until I started speaking with people in La Plant about food and began teaching gardening classes. Elders in the community remember fond days of family garden plots near creeks and dams, two or more cows for milking, hunting wild game, foraging for wild plants, and cooking over outdoor fires. During one of the first gardening classes held at the community center, I heard these stories. But, when it was my time to ask participants what they wanted to learn in the upcoming programs and grow in the garden, many of the elders asked about sage - not just wanting to grow it, but the ceremonial uses of the herb and where to find it. 

A glimpse into the past:  Tipis in La Plant, at sunset (A. Gross, July 2014)

A glimpse into the past: Tipis in La Plant, at sunset (A. Gross, July 2014)

Let me stress this scenario: The people sitting at the folding tables, many who have grown up on the Reservation their entire lives, were asking me, a relative stranger, about the sacred properties of an herb that is rooted in their cultural practices.

Answering the sage question was not as simple as consulting a guide book or spending a few days contacting one of the few remaining medicine people on the Reservation. This question underscored the tragic loss of both identity and essential cultural knowledge that was engendered by forced assimilation policies.

Whatever food and garden project that was to be shaped at the Sam D. Horse Community Center by the community members of La Plant and Simply Smiles needed to respond to these systemic ills of history - not least of all was reviving a knowledge base of traditional foods and building up individual, communal and cultural self-worth and pride. 

The Reservation diet

The unfortunate reality is that most native cultures in the United States will never return to their seasonal hunting and foraging practices, especially with the popularity and convenience of the ubiquitous processed American diet. A January 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service found that American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) families are “much more likely than other households to be food insecure,” and 23% of AI/AN households are deemed food insecure, versus 15% of all U.S. households. 

La Plant resident Ford Hill recalls his childhood, when his family had a garden. (A.Gross, July 2014)

La Plant resident Ford Hill recalls his childhood, when his family had a garden. (A.Gross, July 2014)

Like many reservations, the CRST Reservation is a food scarce and insecure region. A December 2014 report by the Economic Research Service revealed that “only 25.6 percent of all tribal populations" had easy access to a supermarket (defined as a distance of one mile or less), compared to nearly 60 percent of the non-native U.S. population. Residents of La Plant must drive a 64-mile round trip to the tribally owned grocery store, the Lakota Thrifty Mart. These trips are also dependent on having access to a working car and enough money for fuel, which, due to high rates of unemployment, is often not the case.

Many residents of La Plant depend on federal food assistance for low-income families and individuals in the form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Under the SNAP program, participants receive assistance from the USDA and are issued funds on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to be used on an accepted list of food items at participating retailers. The FDPIR program is a food commodities program, in which households receive a monthly package of food staples, now including flour, pasta, canned meats and vegetables, and some fresh produce. 

As the two programs exist now, participants can choose only one program for monthly enrollment. Participation in the two food aid programs in La Plant does seem to be dependent on participant age and transportation, with younger families preferring the variety of food afforded under the SNAP program and with older individuals preferring the delivery or ease of pick-up of commodity goods under the FDPIR.

Despite the billions of dollars spent on native health services, education and food assistance by the federal government ($22 billion between 2013 and 2015), rates of diabetes and diet-related diseases exist at alarmingly high rates among native youth. More than 40% of AI/AN children between the ages of two to four are considered overweight or obese, according to a 2014 White House Executive Report on native youth. The report also found that cases of type-2 diabetes among 10 to 19 years olds are "nearly three times the national average and five times higher than the average among white youth." 

This food picture, especially this long-standing level of dependence, seemed grim and daunting. But, heavily swayed by my naive millennial, new-agrarian perspective and inspired by emerging, hopeful native foods projects, movements on other Reservations in the U.S., and the dignity-building approach of Simply Smiles, I realized that the revitalization of Lakota food traditions and producing healthy, nutritious food in La Plant depended on taking a holistic approach. My job with Simply Smiles needed to focus on yielding domesticated crops as well as a showing a firm commitment to Lakota culture and local biodiversity in order to respect the people and bioregion. But, it also largely depended on tapping into the rich local knowledge of food traditions held by elders in the community to spark interest in a new food movement in La Plant.

La Plant Grows Its Own Food!

Native pollinators collect pollen on sunflowers in the native flower garden in La Plant (A.Gross, August 2015)

Native pollinators collect pollen on sunflowers in the native flower garden in La Plant (A.Gross, August 2015)

Radishes, pulled from the beds of the garden in La Plant. (A.Gross, August 2014)

Radishes, pulled from the beds of the garden in La Plant. (A.Gross, August 2014)

Over the course of five months, from April to September in 2014, I worked with Simply Smiles volunteers and members of the La Plant community to change the physical footprint of the Sam D. Horse Community Center for food and garden efforts. The project is currently known as “La Plant Grows Its Own Food!,” which is prominently labeled as such on the 20-foot garden windbreak billboard along the corner of the garden that can be seen while driving along U.S. Route 212. The initiative included the construction of a new, 72-foot long high tunnel to provide protection and season-extension for crops, the assembly of raised beds for climate-suitable varieties of vegetables and herbs, a three-bin compost unit made from reclaimed pallets and wood, a 20-foot garden windbreak and billboard, and native species and pollinator areas along the garden perimeter. 

And, the growing of food was only one element. Eating and sharing the fruits of our work was and is a firm part of program efforts. Weekly town-wide meals and cooking classes held at the community center utilized select ingredients from the garden. In gardening classes, children and adults alike gained confidence in newly acquired practical skills and discovered the invaluable seed-to-table - or seed-to-compost-to-seed - connection. By August 2014, Simply Smiles helped to mediate the formation of a garden committee with individuals who showed interest in the garden and food efforts throughout the season and who wanted to take on more responsibility and ownership of the space. 

Potatoes sprout in raised beds La Plant garden. (A. Gross, June 2014)

Potatoes sprout in raised beds La Plant garden. (A. Gross, June 2014)

Being given a bunch of wild turnips was truly a memorable experience, as it occurred early in the growing season, shortly after I moved to La Plant and knew very few people in town. As the season progressed, however, people in town began sharing their own food stories and traditions with me. While preparing for a new group of volunteers to arrive in July, a sweet, older woman named Doretta Bowker made a plate of wasna. Wasna, or sometimes referred to as pemmican, is made from dried meat, commonly beef or buffalo, finely pounded berries, suet or sugar, held together by fat (i.e., bone marrow or tallow) to produce a hardened, easily transportable bar that can be sliced for convenience. 

Doretta regularly attended gardening class and was an active presence in the garden at the community center, and she often told me bits of Lakota food traditions that she was taught over the years. When she presented me with wasna, I was honored. Wasna is a dish of necessity, eaten by men on long buffalo hunts and a staple for families during the colder months, as well as a ritual food, eaten and shared at memorial feasts among close friends and family. Maybe I was blinded by common symbolism, but I saw it as a sign that Doretta presented the wasna in a red, heart-shaped plate, and I fondly embraced the experience as I did with my turnip welcoming gift.

It is through moments like this, finding and holding wild turnips, and working with children and adults in the garden that I am now able to start conversations and maintain relationships with people in La Plant. Food is creating and sustaining community in what is otherwise seen as a broken town. Even in its early stages, the La Plant garden is proving to be a vibrant addition to the the native food sovereignty movement. Controlling the fate of one's own health and wellness through food is an essential step toward reclaiming identity and defining today's Lakota culture as one that is regenerative and resilient. 

The peak of harvest:  The high tunnel, in full bloom, as part of the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! initiative (A.Gross, August 2014)

The peak of harvest: The high tunnel, in full bloom, as part of the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! initiative (A.Gross, August 2014)