As the coronavirus limits access to food, many are relying on customs, like seed saving and canning, that helped their forebears survive hard times.
By Priya Krishna Published April 13, 2020Updated April 16, 2020
For the roughly 20,000 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — a vast, two million-acre expanse in southern South Dakota — social distancing is certainly feasible. Putting food on the table? Less so.
Getting to food has long been a challenge for Pine Ridge residents. For a lot of people, the nearest grocery store is a two-hour drive away. Many rely on food stamps or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, a federal initiative that provides boxes of food (historically lacking in healthy options) to low-income families. Diabetes rates run very high.
The coronavirus crisis — one case has been reported on the reservation — has only made access to food harder, as shelves of the few groceries empty out, shipments of food boxes are delayed because of supply chain disruptions, and hunting and gathering are restricted by government regulations and environmental conditions.
But the Oglala Sioux, like many other Native Americans across the country, are relying on the practices — seed saving, canning, dehydrating — that their forebears developed to survive harsh conditions, with limited supplies.
“It is kind of a Catch-22 to be so well-adjusted to react to threats,” said Jamie Azure, the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in Belcourt, N.D. “You’re forced to stay in a specific area, you’re told to trust the government, you’re told food will be scarce — welcome to 1700s Native nation.”
Big-box stores and processed foods have eroded some of the old customs. But now, faced with a disrupted food system, many Native Americans are looking to those traditions for answers.
Milo Yellow Hair, who lives in Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is hard at work preparing 8,000 seedlings of local varieties of squash and corn — hearty crops with a short growing time — to plant in people’s yards.
Many residents live without electricity to run refrigerators or freezers, so to prepare for what could be weeks or months of staying indoors, he is encouraging people to dry their vegetables so they’ll keep for a while. Corn, for example, can be cooked and dried to be used as a base for soups and stews, or to make wagmiza wasna, a traditional snack in which the corn is pounded with berries and tallow.
“Here on the reservation it is a day-by-day existence,” said Mr. Yellow Hair, 70, who works for the nonprofit Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Program. “If this thing goes crazy and the external food services… Continue reading here…….