New Belgium Brewing is a company that exemplifies what it means to “walk the talk”. Their Local Grants Program began in 1995 when it was established that for every barrel of beer they produced, $1 would be given to non-profit organizations in the communities where they sell beers. To date, they have donated over $5 million dollars!
A recent grant from New Belgium to our Tribal Renewable Energy Program is now supporting the employment of a “Garden Coordinator” at our newly established Solar Warrior Farm on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Thanks to this generous donation, Gloria Reyes is now employed and responsible for taking care of our 1/2 acre farm, which provides nutritious food to Lakota families living on the reservation. From all of us at TWP: Thank you New Belgium Brewing!
This month’s featured volunteer, Jordan Engel, is embracing a truly unique opportunity through Trees, Water & Peoples Internship Program. Originally from upstate New York, Jordan moved to Kentucky in 2010 to attend Berea College. With his studies focused on Sustainable Community Development, Jordan’s decision to pursue an internship with TWP for the summer was a no-brainer. “I first heard about Trees, Water & People when I saw Henry Red Cloud’s profile in Yes Magazine,” Jordan explained. A few months later Jordan finds himself (a self proclaimed “Yankee”) smack dab in the middle of Indian Country, working side by side and towards the same goals as our partner, Henry Red Cloud.
Jordan arrived in Pine Ridge South Dakota excited to learn about sustainable building techniques and solar energy. After living on the Rez, Jordan has learned about a lot more than just that. “The numbers only tell part of the story,” Jordan exclaimed when referring to the staggering poverty statistics that exist about life on Pine Ridge. “I’m learning about happiness, and how to be happy…how to live my life and make the most of it.” The Lakota culture is beautiful and can be quite invigorating; Jordan’s learning this firsthand.
The Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) campus on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the heart of TWP’s Tribal Renewable Energy and Food Security Programs, and the place that Jordan calls home at the moment. As TWP’s on-site assistant, Jordan handles a myriad of tasks including maintaining and improving campus buildings, assisting Henry in accommodating trainees, and assisting Henry with sustainable living and renewable energy projects. When asked what his favorite task is, he said it’s definitely taking care of the Solar Warrior Farm and foraging for traditional foods. “I love working the earth!” Jordan exclaims, “We’re growing food for the people and it’s making waves. This is a little thing that’s making a big difference.” In the end, this is what TWP is all about: Finding culturally appropriate ways to improve lives and help people manage their natural resources.
If you would like to hear more about Jordan’s experiences, check out his regular “Notes from the Field” posts right here on the TWP blog.
It seems to be on everybody’s minds these days. Maybe they don’t reference it directly, but no one can ignore the facts. Climate change is happening now. In days like these, when 100 degree temperatures are engulfing much of the country and bizarre and deadly weather is taking its toll right here in our communities, we can no longer marginalize our relationship with the planet. The National Climatic Data Center released a study today reporting that the current drought affecting the continental U.S. rivals the severity of the 1930s dust bowl. Here on the Great Plains that might scare a few people. It seems inane that we as a society are still turning up the oven knob while you, your family, and billions of people you’ve never met are all inside that very oven. We must ask ourselves what we are doing for the Earth, and in turn for ourselves. Not for our grandchildren – that falsely implies that our actions will not affect us in our lifetimes – but ourselves.
At the Tribal Renewable Energy Program, we can proudly say that we are doing a lot. We’re training Native Americans to be 21st century Solar Warriors and defenders of Mother Earth. This past week was an important milestone in the program as walls went up in the new training annex in Pine Ridge. The interior construction of this new training space was expected to take two weeks, and was done in just over one. So now we’ll just take a moment to send out a few obligatory thank you’s: Big thanks to TWP board member Jeremy Foster for leading this project. His dedication to the renewable energy program cannot be understated, and without him, none of this would have been possible. We’re also supremely indebted to all of our volunteers who gave their time to travel to Pine Ridge and work like dogs for a while. And of course, we couldn’t have done it without our friends at Re-Member, an amazing volunteer service non-profit based in Pine Ridge which supplied tools and man power for a week. If you haven’t heard of them, please do yourself a favor and check them out.
With all this heat, you’ll be happy to hear that the Solar Warrior Farm hasn’t shriveled up and the squash hasn’t begun baking right there in the sun. In fact, we were told the other day that it is the best garden on the reservation, and last week the Solar Warrior Farm had its very first harvest! Beautiful yellow summer squash, an explosion of zucchini, buffalo currants, buffalo berries, calendula flowers, cilantro, mint, dill, wild bergamot, and sage all came out of the garden are were promptly distributed to visitors and other Pine Ridge residents. The rewards of our food security program are beginning to be realized, and they are so sweet. The key to our success thus far has been access to water. Water is life – without there are no trees, no people, no Trees Water & People (and you shudder to think “what would the world look like without TWP?”). In the garden, ecological design demands that there is redundancy in all things as a sort of safety net to prevent complete system failure. Irrigating solely from well water is dangerous because times of drought will eventually leave people hungry as well as thirsty. As rumors began to circulate around the reservation that wells were going dry in Porcupine, Wounded Knee, and elsewhere, we didn’t wait any longer to diversify our water sources. A solar-powered pump was installed to divert water from White Clay Creek to the garden. Rainbarrels are planned for water catchment from the greenhouse roof. A large cistern in the garden is kept full as an absolute last resort to keep the plants alive. With these measures in place, we can allay our fears of drought and move on to other battles: pests.
If you drive down Solar Warrior Road this time of year, it might seem like you’re boating across rough water. Grasshoppers, thousands of them, jump out of the road on both sides and form what appears to be cohesive liquid wave until further inspection reveals it to be a biblical swarm of bugs. Folks around here have told me horror stories of how the ubiquitous insect destroyed their gardens in an afternoon. Luckily Henry, the experienced gardener that he is, had an organic solution to save the Solar Warrior Farm from being devoured. Spreading flour over the corn stalks acts as a natural insecticide that doesn’t poison the food. It seems to be effective so far, but it’s an ongoing battle.
I’m starting to wonder whether the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center may have outgrown its name. Since its inception, it has become an educational center in many areas other than energy – from sustainable food production to natural building. And it continues to grow. In the coming months, straw bale and rammed earth homes will be going up and natural construction workshops will be planned around those events. We already preparing the sites and anticipation is building.
As new architecture makes its way onto the reservation, I think it is appropriate to briefly pay homage to the vernacular architecture of the Lakota people. The more I learn about tepees (and I’ve learned a lot by putting them up and taking them down in the last couple weeks) the more I appreciate their design for doing everything that good architecture should. They use local materials, are appropriate for the local climate, the conical frame offers robust protection from the wind and rain, and they’re comfortable. I’ve slept in the tepee during the hottest nights of July and during the coldest nights of May – no complaints. A small fire inside the tepee will keep you plenty warm. Tepees are meant for easy assembly, but make no mistake; it’s only easy if you know what you’re doing. Henry was once in the tepee business and he and his family are seasoned tepee veterans. There are precise measurements and subtle details that that few realize. For instance, contrary to popular belief the tepee is not a symmetrical cone. The front end is more steeply pitched to leave a low ceiling in the rear sleeping quarters and a high one in the front living area. So if you’re feeling the heat out there, go crawl into a tepee if you have one.
Last week, Lakota Solar Enterprises was on the road representing the tribal renewable energy movement at a photovoltaic training in Carbondale. With Henry and crew back on the reservation now, and newly certified as PV instructors, the wheels of that movement are turning ever faster as we prepare for a busy summer at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.
At the top of our to-do list is completing the construction of the training annex – a second Quonset hut with a classroom, kitchen, and dormitory that will significantly increase the number of trainees that the Tribal Program can accommodate. In the first two weeks of July, droves of volunteers will be coming to the center with hammers in hand to help build the interior walls of this new building.
Of course, it wouldn’t be ready for this phase of construction without first insulating the heck out of the exterior walls. The RCREC insulation of choice: cellulose. Lakota Solar Enterprises fortunately has all the equipment necessary to do cellulose installations including a mechanical hopper, a water pump, hoses, and a horse trailer full of cardboard (cellulose insulation) that is sitting outside of the new Annex. This cardboard comes from the only recycling program on the entire Pine Ridge Reservation, and is coordinated by Henry.
The process of installation is usually quite simple. However, the Quonset hut does present some challenges. The vaulted steel walls require a wet-spray application as opposed to the much simpler dry fill that is often done with cellulose. Our spray is mixed with standard wood glue to ensure that the fibers adhere to each other. Wet cellulose needs time to dry before another layer can be added and that can take time. Eventually, the walls we be layered with 3 to 6 inches of insulation with an overall R-value between 11 and 23. The ingredients in the cellulose are just recycled paper content and borates, which act dually as a fire retardant and deterrent to nesting rodents. Converted horse trailers at RCREC are now a collection spot for used cardboard that will eventually be ripped apart to make more cellulose. Using local materials to create local jobs to build local sustainable infrastructure – now that’s progress.
On the gardening front, the Solar Warrior Farm recently got a huge facelift. Birch Hincks and a group of volunteers drove up from Colorado last week with a truck full of lovely starts donated by the Plantorium nursery in LaPorte, CO. Together with a group of Pine Ridge residents, we planted rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and zucchini (which we now call Sioux-kini: a terrible pun, I know). Inter-planting crops is part of our strategy for maximizing the amount of fertile garden space that we have. In one row alone we have tomatoes, carrots, peppers, sunflowers, horsetail, and sage all growing together. The first three were planted by us Solar Warriors, and the rest was nature’s doing.
More and more, I’m slowly learning the involved ways in which the Lakota interact with the environment. Though agriculture was never part of the old ways here, plants have always played an important role in Lakota culture. As my friend Mary took me up in the hills above White Clay Creek to forage for timpsila (Lakota for wild prairie turnips), we ended up finding much more: wild plums, chokecherries, soapweed yucca (used for bathing), coneflowers, and the list goes on. The knowledge of how to use these native species has been forgotten by most, but has been preserved in Lakota tradition. I am trying to document this knowledge as best I can with the hope of eventually producing a small guide to identifying and using traditional Lakota plants.
The garden is now bursting with plant life, but plants aren’t all that we’re growing on the Solar Warrior Farm. Composting worms, a garden’s best friend, recently found a new home in a re-purposed freezer next to the garden. Vermicompost is nothing new at the center. Henry kept worms to eat his kitchen scraps for quite a while but unfortunately the flood in February 2011 that did so much damage on the reservation also drowned our subterranean friends. With drainage holes drilled into the freezer, the new worms should be comfortable and hopefully they will produce lots of castings that we can harvest and use to fertilize the garden next spring. Maintaining soil fertility each season is an absolute must.
We’re not expecting a flood anytime soon, so we have to be careful about how we use our water. Unless Wakia Oyate, the Thunder People, bring rain from the West soon, we are in for a dry summer. An old method of water conservation commonly used in arid regions of Africa is clay pot irrigation. The pots are buried in garden beds and filled with water. The water then slowly seeps out through the porous clay directly to the plants’ roots and prevents waste in the topsoil. We’ve adapted that on the farm, substituting pots for reused milk jugs with holes drilled throughout. There are a variety of methods that can be used for sustainable agriculture on the plains, and on our educational farm we hope to inspire those who are interested to explore these methods.
There are storm clouds moving in from the Black Hills as I write this and we’re all hoping for a little bit of rain tonight here on the Pine Ridge Reservation. By and by, the new TWP-sponsored Solar Warrior Farm is off to a quick start. The farm consists of two greenhouses and a half-acre, fenced-in garden, which was planted in the late spring by a generous crew of volunteers. Pastured buffalo roamed this land for many years before its current incarnation as a garden, leaving behind loamy, fertile soil. To the north of the farm, White Clay Creek supports the growth of large cottonwoods along its banks that create a much needed windbreak. And of course, a good southern exposure lets in the bright South Dakota sun that gives life to the variety of plants we have here.
The three sisters – corn, squash and beans (or wagmíza, wagmú and omníča in Lakota) – are the mainstays of the garden. Historically, these three crops came to the northern plains through an extensive trade network with distant agricultural tribes. Native Americans from Mexico to Canada grew the three sisters together because of their mutually beneficial properties. Corn stalks provide a natural trellis for the bean vines to climb, beans are nitrogen-fixing legumes which add nutrients to the soil, and the broad squash leaves cover the ground, retaining moisture and keeping weeds down. There were also many plants that the plains tribes traditionally foraged for in the wild – from herbs like sage and wild bergamot to fruit like chokecherries and buffalo berries. These native plants all have a place in our symbolically medicine wheel shaped herb garden. We owe this all to the hard work and determination of many solar warriors, because of whom the farm is slowly growing into an oasis of healthy food and natural medicine.
That is all a huge accomplishment if you consider the environment within which the farm exists. With only one grocery store on a reservation nearly the size of Connecticut, Pine Ridge is a food desert – a place where healthy, affordable food is hard to obtain. When I first came to the reservation last month, that very grocery store had just reopened after a week of being shutdown because they had been caught routinely selling expired meat. Many Pine Ridge residents lack access to transportation, compounding the issue of food security. Healthy food is always scarce here (as reflected by a diabetes rate that is 800% higher than the national average), but that is especially true at the end of each month when government-supplied commodity food begins to run low.
Commodity food is distributed to low-income families on reservations throughout the country by the Department of Agriculture at the beginning of each month, though it’s clearly not enough to last anybody through that entire period. The USDA has contracts with farmers to buy surplus produce, the purpose of which is to avoid national price collapse. Commodity foods have usually been unhealthy, highly processed canned good with corn starch, sugar and salt– all things that were never in the traditional Lakota diet. In the old days, I’m told, commodity food consisted of a can of pure lard with a USDA label slapped on it. And so members of the Oglala Lakota tribe are looking to the alternatives. Buffalo ranching is becoming increasingly common, and more and more people are looking into growing their own food. The Solar Warrior Farm is pioneering this movement on the reservation and we hope that it continues to spread.
There are, however, many obstacles to growing food on Pine Ridge. Because small-scale vegetable gardening is so uncommon, there are very few options for purchasing seeds, tools, and other necessary gardening equipment. Most of our plants were transported here from Colorado by TWP volunteers. For others on the reservation, that is not an option. Another obstacle is the wind. While the regional abundance of bright sunlight and strong wind is terrific for renewable energy, the combination of the two accelerates the evaporative process and dries out the garden.
Rather than fight nature, we are trying to work with it by planting more trees around the garden that will block that wind. Still, the most limiting factor is water scarcity. With infrequent rains, the garden is partially irrigated by drip line and partially watered by hand. Our water comes from a well that draws from the massive Ogallala Aquifer. Running from Texas to South Dakota, the aquifer is quickly being depleted because of industrial agriculture on the plains and harmful “Use It or Lose It” water rights policies. To combat this environmental catastrophe, the Solar Warrior Farm will soon put a variety of measures into place for water conservation, catchment, and groundwater recharge. As straw is locally available and inexpensive here, we are continuing to mulch the garden with it to retain precious moisture, reduce evaporation, and minimize the growth of weeds. Also in the works is a rain barrel workshop at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center for later this month.
If you would like to visit the Solar Warrior Farm, we have weekly volunteer gardening days every Friday throughout the summer. Come pull some weeds and learn about what we are doing for food security on the Pine Ridge Reservation. To learn more about how you can help please email Lacey Gaechter, International Director, at email@example.com or call (970) 484-3678. You can also visit our “Volunteer Opportunities” page to sign-up for volunteer email alerts.
Our Food Security Program provides a functional and educational example of sustainable food production to tribal communities. The program empowers Native Americans to grow their own nutritious and traditional foods, an important step toward tribal food independence. By bringing together the tools and knowledge needed for sustainable food production, Trees Water & People will directly strengthen the relationship of one’s food, one’s body, and the connection that Native Peoples have with Mother Earth and her ability to sustain life.
This past weekend, we had a second group of volunteers join us to break ground on the gardens and work on greenhouse structures at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Food Security Program’s Solar Warrior Farm will have a wide variety of native and heirloom fruits and vegetables. We will nurture this garden space by building raised garden beds, protected by hoop houses to extend the growing season. These small scale gardens will become living examples that Native Americans can visit and learn from. In addition, we will offer the fresh produce, grown at Solar Warrior Farm, to Pine Ridge residents in need. The farm will be open for harvesting as needed.
The Food Security Program will also improve the lives of vulnerable Oglala Lakota youth using a community-based approach, empowering families with the confidence, knowledge, and ability to produce healthy sustenance for themselves and their extended families. By promoting self-sufficient food production within the Pine Ridge community, children and youth will learn all the benefits that accompany producing food for themselves and their families, as well as the importance of nutrition and the negative health effects of processed foods. By volunteering their time in the educational garden space, they will learn self discipline, the rewards of hard work, and the importance of understanding the cycles of Mother Earth that their ancestors knew so well.