WORDS BY RUTH H. HOPKINS
PHOTOGRAPH BY EVAN BENALLY ATWOOD
In the first edition of her column on Sacred Ecology, Ruth H. Hopkins explains why sustainable harvest practices and food sovereignty are not only key for survival, but a roadmap connecting the past and future.
Growing up on the Reservation, I was taught to live off the land.
Traditionally, my People, the Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation), are hunter gatherers.
We are the Pte Oyate, the Buffalo Nation. For time immemorial, we followed their mighty herds across the prairie, hunting them sustainably, and using every part of the animal for food, clothing, and shelter. Our bond was so close that when the federal government decided to implement a scorched-earth policy to wipe us out, they targeted the buffalo for extinction. They slaughtered nearly 30 million of them until there were only a few hundred left in the wild.
Tribes have worked hard to replenish their numbers, so many have their own herds now. Every year we select a few to harvest, mainly for use in ceremonies—but in 2020, we are harvesting them to survive. Once again, we are the Buffalo Nation. They are feeding our people in the midst of a devastating historic pandemic and economic depression.
We are subsistence hunters and pursue other wild game in addition to the buffalo. I have many fond memories of my dad’s hunting parties as a child. He, his brothers, nephews and other extended family would wake up a few hours before sunrise. My mom and I would make them breakfast, fill their thermoses with wakalapi (hot coffee), and then they would get dressed in many layers of camouflage warm winter gear and grab their shotguns, rifles or bows, depending on what they were hunting, and go out into the cold to find meat for our freezers. They hunted according to season: pheasants, grouse, ducks, geese, deer, elk, and moose. I learned from a young age how to hunt, clean, skin, butcher, prepare, dry and cook all of it for traditional dishes.
When we pick medicine, we do it with a good heart, leave an offering and say a prayer of thanks.
We are Dakota, so we were also fishermen. The name of my grandmother’s band of Oceti Sakowin is the Sissetowan, which means People of the Fish Village. Our ancestral homelands are in Mni Sota (Minnesota), the Land of a Ten Thousand Lakes.
Autumn is thought of as harvest time because that’s when most plants, fruits and vegetables are ready to pick. There are exceptions, however. For example, the best time to collect cansasa, or red willow, is before the thunderbeings come in the spring. Cansasa is sacred and cannot be harvested or prepared during menstruation. It is our traditional tobacco and offered to spirits or used while praying and smoking the canupa (pipe). Similarly, timpsina (wild turnips) are ready to harvest in the spring.
Strawberries and raspberries grow wild here and are ready to pick mid-summer in the northern plains, and so are plums and onions. Oceti Sakowin love chokecherries too—black, ripe, tart and succulent. They are ready from late July to mid-August. They’re eaten fresh, or we make them into jams and jellies. We mix chokecherries with kidney fat and dried meat to make wasna, a ceremonial food.
Late summer and early fall are also when it’s time to harvest medicine. Prairie sage and sweetgrass grow tall and fragrant. You can smell them growing in the field. When we pick medicine, we do it with a good heart, leave an offering and say a prayer of thanks. There are many other medicinal plants that grow wild, but you shouldn’t use them without the guidance of someone who knows what they’re doing, like an elder, medicine person, or ethnobotanist. Be careful about where you harvest, too. Some plants are tainted by pollution and shouldn’t be consumed.
Growing things allows us to catch a glimpse of the essence of life. It is the Great Mystery working through us, revealing himself as an integral part of who we are. We become one with the Creator, the Source, the Universe.
Besides hunting and gathering, we planted. I visited an archeological dig on my Reservation where ancient caches of corn were unearthed. My nomadic ancestors put them there before the arrival of Columbus.
This year I planted onions, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and tomatoes. It was a good year for my garden. Everything flourished and my harvest was plentiful. There’s nothing like witnessing the development of a new being from a tiny seed. Growing things allows us to catch a glimpse of the essence of life. It is the Great Mystery working through us, revealing himself as an integral part of who we are. We become one with the Creator, the Source, the Universe. Working the soil involves so much more than merely physical exertion. Touching the dirt reconnects us to Ina Maka, Mother Earth. Growing your own food and medicine is good for the mind, body, and soul. It is a spiritual endeavor.
Gardening is a great way to preserve tradition across cultures while eliminating GMOs, insecticides and pesticides, promoting healthy living and practicing food sovereignty. And food sovereignty is more than a trendy catch phrase. It is a crucial element of Indigenous ancestral instruction. There is an Oceti Sakowin prophecy which tells us that if we keep the teachings of our ancestors well, one day, they will save our lives. That’s why they made sure to include hunting and fishing rights as well as the establishment of a legally acknowledged land base in the Treaties they signed. They wanted to ensure the survival of their People for the next seven generations, and as long as the grass grows.
Now, it appears, this prophecy is coming true.
Contrary to what you may have been told, indigeneity involves embracing new ideas and tech that help us thrive while maintaining balance with the planet.
As the United States collapses beneath the weight of its own systemic racism, ignorance, greed and corruption and the world around us floods and burns as a consequence of a climate emergency caused by western civilization, we must revive the practice of growing and harvesting our own food and medicines in order to survive.
Individuals and communities should have seed banks, gardens, animals, pantries, and access to fresh water. We should be using green energy technology to create our own power sources and secure our own infrastructure. Contrary to what you may have been told, indigeneity involves embracing new ideas and tech that help us thrive while maintaining balance with the planet. Our ancestors also instructed us to learn all about our homelands—the landscape, the animals that live there, the stars above, weather patterns and everything that grows there. It is up to us to teach our children these things, too.
Sustainable living and food sovereignty are not just key to our survival, they are the road to freedom. Independent individuals and communities who build their own supply chain are not indebted to the system. Through them, we can be truly sovereign, like our ancestors were.