Grounding Our Work Across Cultures: Indigenous Perspectives

by Eriq Acosta
Personally, I feel really sensitive and protective of our tribal communities. Although I am not a direct descendant of the Lakota I still feel responsible for keeping our communities safe.
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Solar Training in 2017
One can attempt to understand my hesitancy of bringing strangers to the reservations who want to “come see the native folks and their culture”; the thought of doing this didn’t sit well with me at first. The world, obviously not all, has historically held very skewed perspectives of Indigenous people. On one side of the spectrum, we are described as these glorious people who ate all of the buffalo and roam the plains, moving our teepees from here to there, and living off of the land. On the opposite side of this are descriptors like drunkards, poor, sickly and “without”.
The truth is not all of us live in teepees and eat buffalo. When traveling throughout the United States, one will find many differences and similarities between life on or off the reservation: poverty, disease, or corruption as some examples. These are not exclusive to the reservations, it is everywhere. Being an urban Mexican-Indian myself and having lived with people from urban settings and on reservations, I have seen so much beauty. Beauty in the people, the culture, and the land – it’s all around.
It’s not that I choose to turn my head to the struggles, rather I choose to fuel myself with all of that beauty so that I can continue to do the hard work that needs to be done. In Leonard Peltier’s words, “What you believe and what you do are the same thing. In Indian way, if you see your people suffering, helping them becomes absolutely necessary. It’s not a social act of charity or welfare assistance, it’s a spiritual act, a holy deed.” 
With that said, I was hesitant to host TWP tour groups to Pine Ridge Reservation. However, this is the second year I have hosted the folks from Lansing Michigan Catholic High School and the second year that I have been overly impressed. Volunteers were asked to provide an evaluation of the most recent trip and one person wrote:
“It definitely made a mark on me. Being able to help people who are definitely in need and not only being welcomed like we were but also being able to partake in their amazing culture was an experience of great significance”.
They came to Pine Ridge to learn, to be of service, to enjoy the plains, and most importantly learn the story of Indigenous people from Indigenous people! I am honored to call them friends and family of the human race!
Thank you to all who came and offered their time and energy. Your efforts are much appreciated and we look forward to more opportunities like this in the future.
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Setting sun over rolling hills of Pine Ridge

 

Learn more about our U.S. Tribal programs and how you can help here.

A Trip to Pine Ridge for William Smith High School Students

by Chelsea Audin, Math Teacher at William Smith High School

Chelsea Audin and Matt DiOrio are two teachers from William Smith High School in Aurora, Colorado. They teach math and English (respectively) and recently worked with students on a service based class to Pine Ridge Reservation. William Smith is a High School that values service, community and student exposure to new experiences and culture. 

As two teachers from Aurora, Colorado, we were looking for ways for our students to gain cultural perspective while feeling the ability to engage in lasting work that authentically impacts a specific community. We have partnered with Trees, Water & People in the past to work with Henry Red Cloud and Lakota Solar Enterprises. This year, we were able to expand this learning opportunity and create a short class in which 18 high school students began by learning about the history of the Lakota Sioux Tribe and ended with a week of service and collaboration on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Prepped with historical background of the culture, struggles, and traditions of the Lakota people, students understood the importance of land, nature, and preservation and thus understood the partnership between Lakota Solar Enterprises and Trees, Water & People.

Our first day with Henry, Trees, Water & People delivered 33,000 seedlings that would help reforest lands in Pine Ridge that had been devastated by two wildfires within the last decade. In preparation for the delivery, it took all 22 of us all morning to re-roof the greenhouse. Imagine flying a 75ft by 50ft kite, because that is what it felt like to hold down the roof until it was connected properly — needless to say, this would have been far more difficult without our small army of students.

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The students of William Smith High School work together with Henry Red Cloud to repair the greenhouse, despite windy conditions.

Aside from the physical accomplishment of seeing the new roof secure on the greenhouse just as it started to rain, our experience was enhanced as we worked alongside Henry and others from Lakota Solar Enterprises to accomplish this task. Our students quickly gained the confidence to ask questions and engage in conversation with these individuals in order to enhance their understanding of the culture and traditions of the Lakota, as well as the vast number of people this work would impact.

At home, students are able to travel down the block in order to have access to fresh food; Henry is working tirelessly to provide as much access as possible for others on Pine Ridge through sharing the food produced in this greenhouse and on his farm. Through education and stewardship, he also encourages others to replicate his work in order to provide fresh food for themselves.

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The students of William Smith High School, along with Henry Red Cloud and Trees, Water & People unloaded over 30,000 seedlings into the newly repaired greenhouse.

The culminating work on our trip was the planting of nearly 600 seedlings.  Henry explained to our students that the trees they were planting would have a 200-year legacy.  Each tree will provide both the habitat and oxygen necessary for the reservation to be sustainable.  Our students left with the knowledge that while they are helping by providing service to a community in need, their work will mean more as it will continue to help a culture in need.

If you are interested in learning more about group trips to the Sacred Earth Lodge on the Pine Ridge Reservation, sign up for our monthly eNewsletter for upcoming opportunities.

 

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Volunteer Voices: Working on the Solar Warrior Farm and Loving Every Bit!

by Patrick Hall, TWP’s Solar Warrior Farm Intern 
What an exciting season it’s been! The farm seems to have a life of its own. I’ve been surrounded by farming my whole life, I’ve seen bits and pieces throughout the seasons, and I’ve studied a little and talked about it with friends, but I haven’t actually done farming myself. So in a way, this has been a very new and experimental opportunity for me. I’ve grown and learned so much just by listening to the winds and watching nature.

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The Solar Warrior Farm is thriving despite some setbacks earlier in the season, thanks to the hard work of Patrick Hall!

One difficulty I had early in the season was that the truck we use for hauling things and making store runs broke down, so I’ve been unable to get a lot of the supplies that I would like. However, that allowed me to focus on what I DO have and how I can utilize those things to reach my end goal. This season’s theme has been success and failure. Two steps forward, one step back. We started off with a late frost killing ALL of the transplants. Ouch. But with determination, we grew enough seedlings and talked to enough organizations in Fort Collins, CO to resupply.

However, I had never worked with irrigation before. So during this lag time between extermination and revitalization, I began experimenting and learning. Even after the plants came into the ground, I was still puzzled about certain aspects of irrigation. I still play around with it, trying to maximize the amount of water the plants are getting, only to realize I need a lot more emitters. So I bought some more — they were the wrong type. So I bought some others from somewhere else — they didn’t work. And we were buying hundreds at a time, so I really hope I can get some emitters that do WORK because these plants need more water!

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Patrick Hall (left) works with volunteers to produce local food on the Solar Warrior Farm on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Something I truly appreciate is the magic of this place. Listening to stories of the elders, reading books written by medicine men, visiting sacred sites and hearing the spirits’ call, this has been a beautiful place to reside. I’ve left the farm a few times to go to a sweat lodge or go hiking with a friend, but for the most part, I’ve been staying right here. We even had a local mama turtle lay her eggs in one of the garden beds! Good turtle medicine, showing signs of fortitude and persistence, which was really helpful for me at the time. Tankashila (Grandfather Spirit) blesses me with what is needed, not just what I want. I’ve had a friendly face show up just as I begin to get lonely; a volunteer engineer shows up on the day that I was determined to put together the irrigation system and much more.

Trees, Water & People is a unique nonprofit working to find solutions to some major issues on the Pine Ridge Reservation. If you like the work they’re doing, show it by supporting projects like the Solar Warrior Farm.

 

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Spring has Sprung with 15,000 Trees!

by Molly Geppert, Marketing Manager

After a long winter, we at Trees, Water & People (TWP) are excited to begin the planting season on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This morning, we happily bid farewell to 15,000 Ponderosa Pine seedlings provided by the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery. These trees will help reforest areas burned by wildfires on Pine Ridge.

Planting the Ponderosas will sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases, improve air and water quality, reduce soil erosion, reestablish wildlife habitat, and enhance ecosystem resiliency, while engaging Native Americans in the protection of their lands. One thousand of the seedlings were sent with special well wishes written on gardening stakes by the Earth Day patrons from TWP’s recent Earth Day event in Colorado with New Belgium Brewery and Topo Designs. The collaboration was a huge success and a whole lot of fun!

 

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Earth Day patrons wrote well wishes on garden stakes to be planted with their donated trees at New Belgium Brewery.

In addition to the trees, 1,000 veggie starters are also making the trip to South Dakota. The plants are destined for Solar Warrior Farm, an educational demonstration garden located at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Solar Warrior Farm produces native and traditional foods such as, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, corn, melons, peppers, carrots, and a variety of berries, all of which are harvested and distributed to local Lakota families.

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15,000 Ponderosa Pines and 1,000 veggie starters safely stowed for the trip to Pine Ridge.

Helping us plant all these trees and veggies is long-time supporter, Rob Beheady of BeHeady.com. Rob has been raising funds to plant trees with TWP for many years through the sale of his beautiful steel drums. We are so grateful to have his help and support!

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Sending off the trees with the well wishes from the Colorado Earth Day event. (Pictured from left to right: Richard Fox, Amanda Haggerty, Molly Geppert, and Rob Beheady)

If you would like to help us plant trees on the Pine Ridge Reservation, please make a donation to our Tribal Reforestation program.

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Volunteer Voices: A Bittersweet Trip to Pine Ridge

by Gemara Gifford, TWP Intern and CSU Alum

Those of us who work in sustainable development and conservation know all too well the roller coaster of “inspiration highs” and “heartbreak lows” that go along with this line of work. Working from an office is one thing, but working directly with the communities we are supporting is another. I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit Pine Ridge Reservation as a part of my internship with Trees, Water & People. As hard as it was to see the striking overlap between rural farmers in Guatemala, and Lakota families in South Dakota, it is incredibly important to recognize how these stories weave together.

“For me, it was difficult to see and hear about the state of people’s living conditions on the reservation, and their own personal struggles. Though, I also saw hope in the people we met who take pride in their culture and are excited to share it with others.” – Julia Matteucci, CSU Freshman

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Building a house for a Lakota family using sustainable Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB) from local materials on Pine Ridge. Photo by Vanesa Blanco Lopez

I wasn’t alone on this roller coaster ride, however – nine enthusiastic Colorado State University (CSU) students participated in a week-long service learning trip as a part of their Alternative Spring Break. In fact, the TWP-Pine Ridge-CSU partnership has been in existence for over 10 years! During our week, we worked alongside Henry and Gloria Red Cloud and Lakota community members on a variety of service projects. On our first day, we prepared the Solar Warrior Farm for planting, an initiative that feeds hundreds of people each season who usually only have access to over-priced-and-processed foods found at the only grocery store in town. When I learned that over 60% of people in Pine Ridge suffer from diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, I realized first-hand how important food sovereignty initiatives are and have been within the Lakota Nation.

“By working on the farm, we were setting a foundation for Henry to feed people on the reservation and help educate people on how to grow healthy food and find a sustainable way to feed themselves.” – Amy Borngrebe, CSU Junior

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CSU Alternative Break students and TWP intern, Gem (far left) at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC). Photo by Gemara Gifford

Among the cross-cultural experiences we had, such as meeting a storyteller, visiting Wounded Knee Massacre, and participating in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, we engaged in meaningful reflections each night at the Sacred Earth Lodge, and embraced the ups and downs of visiting Pine Ridge. After a week of bonding with new friends, and experiencing a forgotten culture so close to home, we promised to return one day.

If you would like to donate your time and volunteer with Trees, Water & People, please email Molly Geppert at molly@treeswaterpeople.org to see what opportunities we have available. If you’re short on time and can’t make a trip to Pine Ridge, please consider making a donation.

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Notes from the Field: A New Growing Season at Solar Warrior Farm

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We love our volunteers!

Not even a Mother’s Day snow storm could hold back the early plantings at the Solar Warrior Farm (SWF) and Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Hardy cabbages survived and are ready to greet the next sets as they arrive. May is a funny month in Zone 4, but many of the gardeners on the Pine Ridge Reservation are happy to see the last frost behind them and they are ready to start more of those early crops of spinach, cabbage, carrots, radishes and raspberries.

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Anna and Caroline share gardening stories in the sun.

We were lucky enough to have a visit from Lakota elder and seasoned garden expert Caroline Cuny. She helped us welcome our new Solar Warrior Farm Coordinator for the season – Anna Dunlap, a student from Berea College in Kentucky. A lifetime organic gardener, Anna still had many questions about what works best in the particular microclimates on Pine Ridge. It really takes knowledge and experience to sense what the season might be like this year, and we are very thankful that Ms. Cuny could spend a day, have some lunch and share her time and talents with our crew.

And about those other tasks… The SWF needed some TLC. The beds are tilled, the plantings mapped out and visions of big, juicy tomatoes danced in our heads, as we mucked out the solar powered water tank, weeded the cabbages and cleaned out a space for work tables and starters in the greenhouse. Thanks to Uma Black Hawk-Wilkinson from the Cheyenne River community for helping with those efforts.

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It just seems when help is needed, people show up. Trees, Water & People likes to be able to show up for others as well. In 2014, we plan on sharing more veggies and sharing knowledge through more workshops on gardening – focusing on traditional Lakota recipes and healthy eating. Gardening is a perfect time to bring young people and elders together, and helps keep Native communities strong.

We hope you will donate to this important project and consider visiting RCREC and Solar Warrior Farm in 2014. Stay tuned and watch us grow!

Notes from the Field: Always plant extra for the animals!

by Jamie Folsom, National Director

(L to R: Jamie Folsom, Caroline Cuny, Henry Red Cloud, and Ivan Looking Horse)
Sharing knowledge about gardening with Lakota elders. (L to R: Jamie Folsom, Caroline Cuny, Henry Red Cloud, and Ivan Looking Horse)

Sometimes the best lessons come in very short stories, especially in the middle of a very busy work day.

The busy work day was during my recent trip to Pine Ridge with a group of volunteers – mixing mud, plastering, gathering clay and hauling it back to the worksite – all to repair one of the demonstration straw bale houses at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.  We were very lucky to have Henry take a break from his work to spend a few minutes sharing his ideas and advice over some fresh tea.

Talking about the Solar Warrior Farm project, he said they always plant more than they need. He described watching the rabbits, horses, deer and other animals munching away in the garden with a certain fondness and joy. Not the most typical attitude toward animals in the garden (think Farmer McGregor and poor Peter Rabbit).

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Hailey, a Lakota teenager, works on mudding the straw bale home at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.

But then he said, “It’s OK for them to eat food that’s right there in their house. That’s still their house even if it’s part my house, too. I know if I went in my house and saw free food, I’d eat it, you know? So, I always plant extra food for the animals!”

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Thank you Henry for sharing what you do and what you have with others around you, and helping remind me of how we can do this every day in our homes, our relationships and our work.  Yakoke!