Through the creation of organic gardens, Slim Buttes Agriculture is an excellent and inspiring initiative providing hope and vital nutrition to the people of Pine Ridge, a food desert and Indian Reservation facing a multitude of hardships in South Dakota, USA.
The Onaway Trust has a long-term close relationship with the project and the people, having provided annual funding for decades. Keep reading to find out how Onaway has made a vital difference to such a deserving cause.
The Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Project is an organic gardening initiative based on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Set up by Tom Cook (Mohawk Indian) in the 1980s and now managed by Milo Yellow Hair (Oglala Lakota), the project aims “to provide nutrition, jobs and hope” to the local Native population. Slim Buttes Agriculture has grown from only six gardens in 1985 to now helping over 400 home and community gardens across the reservation to flourish, by providing the tools, seeds, training and advice needed by local residents to allow them to grow organic produce on their own land.
The Onaway Trust’s support of sustainable gardening and nutrition projects in Pine Ridge began when the founder, John Morris, visited the reservation in the 1970s and met the Native peoples living there. Realising that the community’s high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes were a symptom of the poverty brought about by years of oppression and neglect by the US government, John resolved to make a difference by setting up the Trust, which has been regularly funding Slim Buttes Agricultural Development via Plenty International since the very beginning.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is a region desperately in need of the care and assistance provided by the Slim Buttes project. The community is stuck in a vicious cycle, with poverty, chronic illness, unemployment and poor location leading to the area becoming a food desert, making it extremely difficult for residents to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle and improve their situation.
Locust infestations regularly decimate the crops, leading to the loss of entire harvests. Without the help of gardening projects such as Slim Buttes Agriculture, locals currently face a 2-hour drive just to access fresh produce, with those who cannot afford these pricey commodities turning to unhealthy food choices which are more readily available.
As a result, Pine Ridge, although one of the largest Indian reservations in the US, experiences some of the most shocking standards of living. Rates of chronic illness are incredibly high, with incidences of diabetes nine times the national average and around 50% of adults clinically obese. With almost 90% of residents unemployed and 97% living below US poverty level, the region sadly has very high suicide, infant mortality and school dropout rates. Life expectancy is the lowest in the country, at around 52 years old for women and 48 for men.
“Access to affordable fresh vegetables is literally life-saving.”Slim Buttes Agricultural Development
The effects of climate change are making life even more complicated for Pine Ridge residents, who are now experiencing shorter growing seasons, late snow, early frosts and more extreme temperatures and weather events. With all of these difficulties to contend with, organic gardening projects have never been more important in the fight against food insecurity and ill health.
Preparation for the year’s planting starts in February with the ordering of supplies and seeds, which are first sown in the Slim Buttes greenhouse. The project focuses on growing a wide variety of the nutritious organic fruits and vegetables which once formed the natural diet of the Native community. Local residents enjoy growing their own ‘salsa gardens’ including tomatoes, chillis and peppers, as well as staple crops such as corn, squash, beans, herbs and potatoes. In order to ensure the success of the project, those taking care of the plants have moved closer and now live in the timber-frame house next door to the greenhouses.
Once established, some of these seedlings, as well as the soil and tools needed to nurture them, are distributed around the community for residents and local charities, such as the veterans homeless shelter, ‘Meals for the Elderly in Oglala’ and ‘Families and Children Education’, to care for in their own gardens. The project’s organisers provide vital support and guidance to budding gardeners as well as offering to till residents’ land to prepare it for planting.
Further advice and encouragement can be found by tuning into Milo Yellow Hair’s radio show which airs on local station KILI FM from February to June. The show provides information on gardening and health, in addition to offering insight into the importance of eating nutritious food in order to prevent and treat illnesses such as diabetes and live a long and happy life guiding the next generation in the celebration of their native culture. The programme, which is half in English and half in Lakota, has been a great success so far, with many people phoning in to ask further questions.
“Lakota people always say that food is the first power.”Milo Yellow Hair
Going forward, the Slim Buttes Agriculture team hope to experiment with growing a higher volume of native crops on smaller plots of land. With the impacts of climate change already being felt on the reservation, gardeners are having to find ways to help plants adapt to tougher growing conditions such as strong winds and less precipitation.
Slim Buttes Agricultural Development’s mission to right the injustices suffered by the Native American population through sustainable development is central to the ethos of the Onaway Trust. We look forward to continuing to help them achieve this goal through the implementation of empowering community self-help initiatives and to protecting and promoting Indigenous ways of life, and the environment, for generations to come.
“We have a lot to celebrate because we have a beautiful history… and we have to make it even more beautiful for the future.”Milo Yellow Hair