When The Growing Project (TGP) was asked by Global Natural Health Alliance (GNHA) to collaborate on a garden build at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a team of our leaders promptly headed up to the reservation this past weekend for a 4 day jaunt into the land of the Lakota tribe. The experience will be remembered and treasured, and hopefully repeated in the seasons to come!
Upon arriving on the reservation, the first item of business was to check out the locations of the garden plots. At first glance, we were disappointed and very concerned to see that the soil appeared to be infertile ashy silt and that it would be impossible to grow anything. So we scoped the land for signs of vegetation and life…and soon, we thankfully encountered alfalfa, bind weed, blades of grass, and acres upon acres of fertile soil! There was now enthusiasm in the group for the growing and digging in the days ahead, and the design, construction and layout needs began to take shape.
Once we arrived at camp to unload gear and get our tents in place, our hopes and concerns for the soil quickly shifted; every few minutes, the stormy clouds and gusts of wind began to show signs of just how much weather could halt the garden plans altogether. Just as our camps were set up, and talk of the next day’s plans were underway, we found ourselves hunkered down in the private home of our host for several hours to stay warm and dry. Thunderstorms continued to drive in heavy wind and rain. It rained the entire night and by the early morning, the thick mud brought several delays in obtaining materials and other needs for the gardens. These delays had several of us worried. Would we get the garden built? What, in the given amount of short time, could we possibly manage to build? Would this garden even actually happen? It was frustrating for the volunteers and leaders on both sides, and certainly more questions arose as the planning and designs began. What was certain, we would do whatever we could to begin, rain or not…we were going to begin.
The weather was windy, rainy, and at times downright unbearable; especially to work in. A little sunshine would seep through, a break in the rain would allow small advances the whole day, and little by little the materials were obtained. Finally, 24 hours into our adventure, we were given the opportunity to begin! Soon, each rake, shovel, and pitchfork did their part to lay out the beginnings of the Jail House garden. As the moisture from the night storm made its way deeper into the newly tilled soil, it began to show its life through gifts of huge earth worms and tiny little toads. After all the concerns, all the what if’s; this fertile wet soil was clearly showing signs that this all will work! As the drip tape was measured and laid, and the final pieces of the irrigation line were being dealt with, the seeds and plants, and a few trees were planted in the ground. By sunset, the chatter among the volunteers, and later the jail mates, went from, “Wow, look how much we’ve gotten done” to “Wow, look at how much we could do further!”
We left South Dakota knowing that although this little 'big garden took more effort than we had anticipated, it also gave us all a reflective view of what exactly it takes to live on a reservation. As we drove home, I thought a lot about the evening we were invited to a “night fire dance” at one of the local elder’s homes for a meal and to celebrate in community. We watched as members of the younger Lakota tribe were called by name to participate in a “celebration of service.” These young men and women were celebrated in a drum song, as they danced around 3 large fires. The elders in the audience looked at each of the young members as the future of the tribe and celebrated them in their honor, honesty, integrity, and for their community work. After the dance, each member was asked by the drum leader to go out into the audience and “shake everyone’s hand”. One by one, each of the young members reached out their hands, looked you in the eye and shook your hand. What a proud moment that we were able to share in, and what a turning point in all of our hard work and dedication for the garden we were asked to help build. After such a poignant and enriching evening, we returned to the garden the next day with a new lens of tradition and community through which to look.
When the rain was heavy, and gardening was delayed, we ventured out into the reservation community. We visited the Wounded Knee memorial, a burial site that housed many of the tribe’s greats who were killed in battle, and read about their bravery as we visited the Wounded Knee museum. The museum honored and remembered their tribal leader’s service through pictures, quotes, and paintings on the wall. We were able to take in a different view of the Lakota as a tribe with so much to look forward to… and upon reflection; we were brought here to help in the healing of all of the pain from the past. For us, this was no longer just a garden at a jail site, but a way for us to take part in a collaborative tribe garden for the youth and generations of community leaders who will turn it into a way of giving back, like so many of the Lakota elders before them.
I had gone up there originally thinking that I was the one who had so much to give, to teach, and to contribute; but in the end I was the one who had received. Through so many examples I witnessed during my short stay, I saw how much they had to teach, and I to learn, about what really makes community.
We feel truly blessed to have been asked to participate, and very honored to be part of this story.