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Native American Dakota Tribes Fighting High Prices, Poor Food Quality

There’s only one grocery store on the reservation, says Lisa Hope-Heth, but she refuses to shop there

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Tribal Dakota people riding horses, courtesy: Wikimedia commons

South Dakota, March 25: South Dakota’s Crow Creek Indian Reservation is home to the descendants of the Dakota people, who thrived in Minnesota before they were forced onto the reservation in the 1860s. Crow Creek sits in the center of the state along the Missouri River, and its more than 1,000 square kilometers stretch across three of the poorest counties in the United States.

There’s only one grocery store on the reservation, says Lisa Hope-Heth, but she refuses to shop there.

“A lot of the prices are too high. Some of the meat is not always fresh. And the bread – you know how in some larger stores when bread doesn’t sell and it gets stale, they take it off the shelf? I sometimes think that we get that bread.”

She once worked as a meat cutter, so she knows old hamburger when she sees it. She also recognizes when meat that has been sitting on the shelf too long is reground with slightly fresher meat, then repackaged and put back on the shelf for sale.

When Hope-Heth needs groceries, she must either drive 40 kilometers south to the town of Chamberlain or 100 kilometers northwest to Pierre.

“For people that do not have vehicles, they don’t have that choice,” she said. “They have to go to the local places. If they want to go farther, they have to hire somebody to take them. And they’ll either have to pay $50 for gas for the ride or pay in EBTs and groceries.”

EBTs, she explains, are electronic benefits transfers. The U.S. government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food benefits to low-income individuals and families. These are transferred electronically and accessed via a plastic credit card.

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On Crow Creek and elsewhere in Indian Country, EBTs are used like currency to pay for favors or services. And this means that beneficiaries often run out of food money before the month is up.

In 2014, in an effort to eliminate food insecurity among First Peoples, the First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) began a year-long study on food pricing. They recruited volunteers to monitor prices of basic food commodities such as milk, bread, ground beef and eggs on eight reservations across the country.

“What we found was that the price of food was higher, which is a funny thing, since reservation communities have much lower income and are much more likely to be in poverty,” said A-dae Romero-Briones, an associate director of research and policy for Native Agriculture at FNDI.

At the time of the study, for example, a gallon (3.79 liters) of milk was priced an average of $3.76 in urban centers across America, but one South Dakota grocery store, was charging a dollar more. Similarly, a store in New Mexico was charging Cochiti Pueblo people nearly $1.50 more than the national average price for a loaf of bread.

“We are now in the process of trying to figure out why this is,” Romero-Briones said. “Price tells us a whole lot of different things about the market. The cost of shipping food to remote areas is one likely culprit.”

That may, in part, explain the dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables on Crow Creek.

“You can usually find potatoes, apples or tomatoes,” said Tally Monteau-Colombe, executive director of Hunkpati Investment, a nonprofit group that works to eliminate poverty on Crow Creek. “That’s what they call ‘fresh food.’” Everything else comes in cans.

The Crow Creek tribe, with help from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service, provides diabetic tribal members $10 vouchers every month to buy vegetables.

“But if they have to pay $4.39 for a pound (.45 kg) of tomatoes, that $10 doesn’t go far,” Monteau-Columbe said.

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‘Weapon of health destruction’

When Native Americans were driven from their homelands, they lost control of healthful and complex food systems that had sustained them for tens of thousands of years. The U.S. Army provided them with basic commodities — refined wheat flour, salt, sugar and lard, ingredients that were alien to Native diets but went on to become fry bread, a salty, fried dough that is found on reservations across the country, what Romero-Briones calls a “weapon of health destruction.”

“I love the stuff – in moderation, of course. And it speaks to the ingenuity of the grandmas who figured out how to make worthless flour, salt, and lard from commodity baskets into something we now charge $5 or more for at public gatherings,” she said.

Today, at least one third of Native Americans live on reservations and depend on government-issued commodities and inexpensive packaged food, high in fat, salt and chemicals, which has contributed to alarming rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Alarmed, Crow Creek, like many tribal communities across the country, is now working to regain control of its food supply. Hunkpati last year launched a fresh food initiative on the reservation to get the community to grow its own produce and promote healthier eating.

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“We set up a community garden and orchard, which we hoped would be enough to sustain the community, and hired local youth to take care of the garden,” said Monteau-Columbe.

For a while, the garden thrived, but when funding ran short, they could no longer afford to pay for its upkeep.

“Now it’s defunct. But we still kept the orchard going,” she said.

Today, the tribe is able to harvest its own chokecherries and wild plums, staples of the traditional Dakota diet. Hunkpati has held classes to teach tribe members how to make traditional foods, like wochapi, a thick berry sauce served with game or fry bread, and wasna, a pounded mix of lean dried meat, chokecherries and grains. Portable and packed with protein and natural sugar, it was a mainstay of the original Dakota diet.

The Crow Creek Fresh Food Initiative also provides support to food entrepreneurs and others who want to grow their own food by providing garden kits and plowing and tilling services. It hosts a farmer’s market, selling locally-grown produce at affordable prices, even accepting EBT cards instead of cash. And this summer, thanks to new funding, the group hopes to be able to construct a series of raised-bed vegetable gardens and, if they are really lucky, build a community greenhouse. (VOA)

Next Story

“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)