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Finding a “New Buffalo”
~ Mary Burrows

There are places in the United States that

are considered food deserts, meaning fresh

and unprocessed foods are in limited supply,

if at all. Pine Ridge Reservation, land of the

Oglala Lakota, was such a place.

But first, the back story:

In order to subdue, and effectively destroy, Native American tribal life, the “Great Father” federal government, undertook a deliberate massacre...the largest destruction of an animal species ever...of the American Bison, which was the spiritual lifeblood and guiding force of Native existence, especially in the Great Plains.

After the Bison were scarce, and anyone caught trying to hunt them was considered hostile, Human Beings were herded, marched, and forced to live on reserves with promises of abundant largesse from the government, some of which would be in the form of food, known today as “commods,” or commodities.

Over time, and with the creation of the Department of Agriculture, feeding people consisted of government purchasing crops and subsidizing the agriculture industry. Natives were “fed” white flour and white sugar, commodity cheese, and other foods totally alien to their digestive systems and lifestyle.

Many reservations are long distances from urban centers and grocery stores with fresh produce and other healthy foods. Thus, at Pine Ridge, a food desert existed. Ninety-five percent of food was trucked in and was mostly highly processed, which contributed directly to exploding incidences of heart disease and diabetes among Native people. Much of this category of food is conveniently served at fast food entities in the villages.

Over the past decade, there have been at least eight underground greenhouses constructed on Pine Ridge, an area with one of the highest poverty levels in the United States. The goals of the greenhouses are to help solve the food desert problems of lack of affordable, nutritious food, along with the difficulty of farming in inclement weather and the climate crisis; as well as establishing greater food security for the residents of Pine Ridge.

One notable contributor to creating food sovereignty is Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC), a non-profit organization founded in 2007 and a 37-acre community near Sharp's Corner that serves the Lakota nation with a mission of empowering Lakota youth and families to improve the health, culture, and environment of Native communities through the healing and strengthening of cultural identity. Thunder Valley will be familiar to long-time readers of WnT, as this reporter shared their story in 2010 following President Barack Obama's recognition and praise for the endeavor.

Obama said that "day by day" and "community by community" Nick Tilsen (founder), Thunder Valley, and others like it are making a positive difference.

A highlight of Thunder Valley is the community garden, currently elevated to the status of “demo farm,” an undertaking of learning by doing and sharing what is learned with any who are interested. In the orchard are chokecherries, wild plums, and buffalo berries, all native flora whose fruits were utilized in the past. There is a high tunnel greenhouse as well as an underground structure. Food Sovereignty Coodinator Brandon Big Eagle shared that kale and radishes were growing in the winter greenhouse, however visitors were not allowed in order to protect the integrity of the interior from germs or viruses on shoes, for example.

Big Eagle also explained that the greenhouses, while allowing for traditional foods, have also expanded the diets and palates of the community, who find innovative ways to utilize the fresh gifts from Mother Earth.

An energetic and vocal flock of Belgian D'uccle chickens offered a delightful greeting to a newcomer to ther territory adjacent to the greenhouse. They occupiy the “poultry palace” and aerate and fertilize a large plot of ground near the administration center, in addition to supplying eggs to the community.

Decora Hawk, Director of Community Engagement, spoke a little about where the community is now. Four different prototype housing structures were built in the beginning, seeking energy efficiency and small carbon footprints. Hawk shared that, of the original structures, the traditional homebuilding techniques of wood, sheetrock, insulation, and shingle turned out to be the most cost-effective when it came to materials and transporting them to the reservation. Homes are built in circles, embracing the circular villages of the culture. All doorways face east, and all structures are equipped with solar panels.

Following the original vision of founder Nick Tilsen, the community is becoming self-sustaining and, most importantly, is willing to share the knowledge gained about living sustainably from the land to all who wish to learn, Natives and allies alike. Hawk also related that Thunder Valley will soon be permitted to sell the compost created via the demo farm endeavors.

In September, 2023, Thunder Valley sponsored a Food Summit to bring together tribal members, community leaders, food experts, policy makers, and others, with stated goals of fostering meaningful dialogue, sharing knowledge, and problem-solving when it comes to locally sourced food systems and revitalizating traditional Indigenous food cultivation, harvest, and preparation methods.

The Summit goals were to

~ Promote food sovereignty for Indigenous communities,

~ Provide a platform for Indigenous voices and perspectives,

~ Educate participants about the importance of traditional foods and sustainable agriculture, and

~ Foster networking and collaboration among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and allies.

Makoce Agriculture Development was founded in 2019 and, after three years of research and planning, has released a master plan for the first-ever Food Hub on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“On Pine Ridge, our local producers and food-based entrepreneurs possess so much knowledge and innovation, and a deep commitment to bringing nourishing foods to as many community members as possible,” said Nick Hernandez, Makoce's founder and president. “At the same time, there's an ever-increasing desire among our community members to have local, fresh, and traditionally Indigenous foods accessible here on our homeland and to move away from the highly processed foods that have harmed us.”

The Makoce mission is to develop a food system that will support a thriving Oglala Lakota nation. Outmoded policies and neglect have led to lack of infrastructure. Reservation land-use policies are obstacles to investment in local agriculture. Makoce is shifting this narrative by tapping into the strength of the Oglala Lakota Nation and it's local land base.

In 2022, Makoce was awarded a community innovation grant from the Bush Foundation to support “...the ultimate aim of this work (is) to advance tribal sovereignty in the region by supporting tribal leaders and communities to build their own systems for wellness and modes of self-determination.“

Five core initiatives of Makoce are:

~A Regenerative Production Farm, caring for the land while supporting local food producers;

~The Oceti Sakowin Food Systems Alliance, advocates for needed changes in tribal policies and food codes, and for expansion of local land use policies;

~A Food Systems Institute, provides education, training, and preservation of knowledge of traditional Lakota foods and culture;

~The Makoce Food Hub, provides local businesses and community members with a shared space; and

~Hemp Production Infrastructure, leveraging hemp's diversity and increasing opportunities to particpate in the emerging hemp industry.

The Food Hub will be on 24 acres in Porcupine, South Dakota, a fairly central location, and will serve as a connection for local producers, food entrepreneurs, and the broader community. Through the Hub, producers will access tools and resources to help grow their businesses and effectively market their goods. Most importantly, the Hub will ensure access to locally produced, nourishing food to all community members, thereby encouraging better health and well-being in the people.

Rebel Earth Farms tests ideas and technologies and adapts them to fit Lakota culture and the Northern Great Plains Ecosystem. This helps tribal members access land, technologies, and education in affordable ways.

“It's about creating equity,” said co-founder Jason Schoch. For nearly two decades, Schoch has worked on the reservation with Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots program for youth. He heads South Dakota State University's Tribal Local Food Program and leads Pine Ridge's AgrAbility and Beginning Farmer and Rancher program. He is an expert in agro-ecological practices.

He also co-founded Can Wigmunke, roughly translated to “Rainbow Bridge,” which works in tandem with other entities to build a new food system on the reservation; finding a new buffalo, in a way. In the past, Bison provided food, medicine, clothing, and shelter for the tribes.

The Farm's high tunnel greenhouses are protected by a culturally adaptable windbreak that directs wildlife to property outskirts rather than through the farm. Prairie patches are planted between the greenhouses and along the tree perimeter to attract pollinators and build soil health, creating a biome that will support the growing of traditional nutrient-dense and medicinal plants.

Schoch embraces the Farm From a Box concept: a shipping container with all that's needed to create a two-acre farm except the land and seeds. Founders Brandi DeCarli and Scott Thompson's mission is to shift focus from mass food production to food production by the masses and to reinvent the small farm.

Each box is equipped with farm tools, a seedling house, solar power, water purification, and irrigation systems, among others, meaning the farm can be started anywhere. A wide variety of plant-based proteins can be produced, to shift away from animal products and reduce carbon footprint.

“Global warming, acid rain, overpopulaton, and deforestation are real. It is a mess, and all of us two-leggeds will have to work together to get ourselves out of it. A spiritual fire that promotes a communal commitment to a worldwide environmental undertaking is needed. Native or primal ways will fuel that fire and give it a great power. I call on all experienced Native American traditionalists to consider coming forward and sharing their knowledge. Come forth and teach how Mother Earth can be revered, respected, and protected.”

Eagle Man (Ed McGaa)

from Mother Earth Spirituality, 1990

Makoce (

Photo courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC