Food Sustainability Through Culture, Resiliency and Resourcefulness
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
This place, the Crow Indian Reservation, is my home and heart. I am a Crow Indian or Apsaalooke. My land is who I am. I was born here and I will die here on this reservation. This place carries my heritage, language and culture. I have lived here all my life. I am from the Ashkapkawiaa, or Bad War Deeds Clan and a Child of the Piegan Clan. My ancestors were important leaders and protectors of this landscape. My grandfather, Sits-in-the-Middle-of-the-Land, protected Crow land and water in the 1860s and I live in a way that continues the work that they started, as well as passing on these ways to my children and grandchildren.
My name is Peggy Wellknown Buffalo. I am an Elder and a Ba-Pa-Dua, which translates to one who heals with her hands. I inherited the right to use traditional healing medicine from my aunt, I use it to help the women and children in the community. I have worked with children all my life while practicing traditional ways on this land. My experience comes from my medicine and my cultural knowledge. I was orphaned at a young age, so I know the pain my community’s children have experienced, living with poverty and starvation. I was sent to an Indian boarding school as a child where I was abused. I worked for the Crow Tribe for many years as a health worker, and a foster parent, so I know everyone in the community. I built the Center Pole, a nonprofit, twenty years ago on my own land. In 2014, I received recognition from the Dalai Lama as an Unsung Hero of Compassion for my work with the reservation’s children.
Because of my deep connection to this land and the people whose health and wellbeing are inextricably linked, I will do everything in my power to help them both heal and reconnect. I believe one of the most important ways is through food.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The landscape is stunning, river valleys feed towering cottonwoods and thick willows. Grasses cover rolling hills that give way to the conifers of the Bighorn Mountains. The 15,000 Crow people live in seven clusters in mostly tumble-down homes and trailers, surrounded by old cars and other debris, many lacking clean running water and electricity. Or they live in the towns just off the reservation. Between these small communities, one can drive for miles without seeing another human being. Instead, herds of horses roam the prairie, deer and elk browse, and in the mountains you’ll find a large herd of bison performing the behaviors crucial to the health of a functioning ecosystem as it evolved over eons.The weather is extreme; with temperatures in the summer as high as 110 degrees F in summer and as low as -40 degrees in the winter. Despite the short growing season, food crops such as corn are successfully grown.
The reservation fell under the spell of industrialized farming and mineral extraction with little profit going to the Indigenous community because Indian trust land is held and administered by the US Government, specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the US Department of the Interior. Land use has always been determined by the government and ownership by individual Indians is on paper only. Slowly, Crow people have been taking their power back, but it is complicated and old habits rule. At last count, 11% of reservation land is owned collectively by tribal members, 48% is owned by individual Crow land owners, and 46% is owned by non-Indians, many of whom are violating United States law by holding parcels greater than 2,000 acres. The poverty rate in this area was 32% in 2015 while the rate in the United States was 12%.
Crow culture is alive according to the more than casual observer. The Crow language is spoken on a daily basis. The Crow spiritual ceremonial calendar is followed. Cultural celebrations include: Crow Fair, Hand Games, Crow Indian Days, Honorings, Sun Dance, Medicine Bundle Openings, Peyote Meetings, Community Powwows, Masquerades, Clan Feeds, Namings, Sweat Lodges, Blessings, Healings, and the Indian Horse Relay, to name a few. Crows are avid horsemen, but only a very few are ranchers and farmers, although that is part of their heritage. Crows who consume the processed American diet have developed high rates of diabetes.
Crow people are sharing, open, family-oriented, entrepreneurial, intelligent, resilient, deeply cultural, and unrelenting. The Battle of the Little Big Horn occurred on their Native land and have left wounds that are not healed. The residual traumas of genocide over the course of generations haunt the community, resulting in internalized oppression, substance abuse, and other psychological as well as physical impacts on well-being. Despite this, Crow people love their children, believe in education and count their wealth in the size of their family and the number of friends.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Today, on the Crow Reservation, there are only a few food producers, despite a strong heritage of agriculture by Crow people before damaging governmental legislation in the 1900s prevented them from competing as farmers. Literally all purchased food comes from off-reservation grocery outlets 80 miles away. The only locally owned food store burned down several months ago and there are no plans to reopen. Four fast food restaurants, just beyond the reservation border, do a booming business. As a result of the combination of hunger and scarcity of nutritious foods, diet-related health problems run rampant.
The lack of a reservation food economy results in money spent outside the reservation every year, so the community cannot grow or respond to its people’s needs. This affects the sovereignty of the reservation and creates dependency and an entitlement mentality that erodes the strength of the people as well as its cultural base.
Although nearly 90% of Native people live below the federal poverty line, according to the 2009 U.S. Census, Crow people do have resources, ie. plenty of land, water, and creativity. But the governmental reservation system does not reward or support individual entrepreneurs and actively seeks to keep leaders disempowered. Economic resources are diverted to those who protect and maintain the system, including tribal policy makers, and the true entrepreneurs succeed only by finding ways around the system.The goal of tribal policy makers seems to be to keep community members isolated, uninformed and dependent: No indigenous controlled media exists, no public access to internet exists, no fair elections are held, and no tribal food bank exists. Even the remnants of traditional hunting are negatively impacted by loss of culture, with the forgetting of how to use all of the animal hunted. The internalized oppression has tribal members who seek power set out with the goal of benefiting of their immediate family and not the entire reservation. Succeeding in the face of fraught tribal politics will be our greatest challenge. This is why securing outside funding is imperative.
According to Project Drawdown, an interdisciplinary collection of the most viable solutions to reverse climate change, protecting indigenous land management practices, reducing food waste, plant-rich diets, and regenerative agriculture are all on the list.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
In the 19th century, bison were almost hunted to extinction in North America. Their numbers plummeted from around 30 million to less than a hundred in the course of 30 years. The Crows suffered when the Bison disappeared, as they consisted of a large portion of our food supply. In the 1970s, a herd was released into the mountains on the reservation and the meat was reinstated into their diets. But much was lost, and not everyone has access to the herd.
Since 1999, the Center Pole has been working on projects that address health and well-being on the Crow Indian Reservation. This vision actually came in the form of a dream during a Sun Dance, a traditional religious ceremony, when I was young. The Sun Dance is where people go when they need a miracle. We fast for four days, no food or water, and we dance and pray. I was given a vision that let me know that my purpose in life was to feed my people and help them heal. I named this non-profit the “Center Pole” after the center pole that plays a key role the Sun Dance.
Center Pole has been following its mission: to build knowledge, justice, opportunity and prosperity in reservation communities, while protecting and preserving indigenous knowledge and ways. Center Pole is seeking to be a model for all indigenous communities by building power through creating a healthy food sovereignty system and food economy; by educating and training future leaders and entrepreneurs.
Today, our reservation is in crisis with 96% unemployment and people starving. The Center Pole’s food bank is recovering 1.5 million pounds of food every year from Billings, Montana, 60 miles away and redistributing it to the Crow Indian Reservation and the neighboring Northern Cheyenne Reservation. This is fresh food---fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other produce--that US grocery stores are required to remove from their shelves by an expiration date. These were thrown away, but now we take them and redistribute them to the needy in a timely way and use the spoiled vegetable matter for compost. Our food system is run by community food interns who are learning in our training program.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The next step in our vision is to change where the food comes from for those in the community that purchase food. What our community needs is a local food market. The Crow people would benefit most from a series of small scale, family owned and run regenerative farms that produce enough food to feed the reservation. We are seeking funding to jumpstart a community learning garden and indigenous food teaching space that will act as a catalyst for food sovereignty for the Crow. We will grow fresh nutritious food, sell it at our café, give away excess at our food bank, all the while training interns and volunteers how to grow their own food. Through our teaching program, we will provide assistance to others who wish to start their own gardens. We will teach regenerative farming practices and recreate a culture of mutual aid. We will also offer classes to the community that help maximize how far the food we already have goes. We will teach how to use all of the buffalo after it is hunted. We will teach how to make our harvests last through the winter. We will grow food and teach our community how to feed the people by first doing it ourselves.
We will also work with the tribe and crow land owners to create a migration corridor that allows the bison to return to the plains on the reservation. This will not only allow the animals to be more easily harvested by community members, but will also provide the opportunity for agro-tourism as tourists come to visit the Battle of the Little Bighorn National Monument will also stop to see the Crow Bison herd. If our community can feed itself and leverage what it already has to step out of poverty, both the land and the people will be better off. With the return of the bison, the spirit of the people will also return.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
For the last 20 years, the Center Pole has been working tirelessly toward justice, sovereignty and preserving knowledge for the Crow people. To date, we have been positively impacting our community in the areas of environment, culture, diet, economics, technology and policy.
Environmentally, our existing buildings are straw bale and are environmentally efficient as far as they can be without using alternative energy. We compost the foods that are not eaten or come to us already inedible. We have plans to host a river clean up this summer and we handle our trash responsibly.
Culturally, we run this non profit rooted in cultural values. We have seven guiding principles that govern all of our decisions and they are: carry the welfare of the people in your heart, have pity and compassion for all living things, have respect and honor for everything that lives, develop and nurture a great minds, be humble at all times, be guided by your own principles and discipline yourself and live with the wisdom and understanding of these great laws. Additionally, because I am Crow and the majority of our collaborators and interns are indigenous, Crow culture proliferates in everything that we do. We prioritize relational thinking. We practice our language every day to keep it alive for future generations. The purpose of this NGO is to keep our people and our culture alive.
To survive, our people need food, and more nutritious food than is readily available on the reservation. To address this, our food bank is connected with a food recovery program in Billings, MT and we bring produce and other foods to the reservation. We distribute this food in different reservation communities on different days of the week. We offer free meals to the community in our cafe alongside the goods sold there. We have a garden that we will expand this summer to sell fresh produce in our cafe, and to use in meals cooked for the community.
The Center Pole runs with the work of our interns, who are all workers who would otherwise struggle to be hired in the workforce. They are recovering substance abusers, released prisoners, or young people who have not yet been taught how to be a good worker. When they leave the Center Pole, they are often hired into respectable positions in other businesses.
Technologically, on-site we host Greasy Grass radio (www.CrowVoices.org) Work on the radio station began in 2010 because there was no source of indigenous issues, opinion, news or events for 500 miles and the reservation has no newspaper. Currently we stream beyond the community and internationally to more than 20 different countries. The radio will play a major role in streaming our food sovereignty activities to and from other communities. In the future, as we host our indigenous think tank to share the thoughts and projects of brilliant indigenous minds, we will use the radio as the medium.
Our vision will be realized in three phases. In the first phase, we will construct the Indigenous Discovery Center, a multi-purpose building for teaching nutritious food preparation and a gathering place for all kinds of community events and meetings. We are currently working with a team from Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, the Indigenous Environmental Network, a council of Crow elders and several private engineering and landscaping firms who are donating their expertise to develop and execute Phase 1 of our vision. We are developing the Center Pole as a model for conservation, ecological stewardship, regenerative agriculture, and decolonization education, including food sovereignty. The Indigenous Discovery Center will be completed in the next two years, though we are still working on reaching our funding goal. Our plans are included in the Attachments section.
In Phase 1, we need to find a way to address the policies created in the 1900s, when government legislation forbade Crow people from producing their own food with a series of policies that made it impossible for Crows to get approval on loans for their own land and encouraged leasing land to people with money. At one point, Crow people were forbidden to grow produce for sale because of their competition with non-Indian farmers. Center Pole would continue to reintroduce Crow farming practices and expand the indigenous practices of sustainability as well as rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit in the community through community classes on indigenous farming, returning farming methods to those that tap into ancestral knowledge of place.
We will begin to build an entrepreneurs network and create an entrepreneurs council. We will broadcast and document our activities, expand our media center and continue to develop partnerships to continue to build our base. We will create regular community feedback meetings to ensure continued community involvement.
We will fine-tune our composting system to make it functional during our long winters, and incorporate composting toilets that will not only add to our soil health, but help us address the water crisis created by the combination of high water tables and the overflow of hundreds of septic systems into our aquifers.
We plan to incorporate traditional growing methods into community gardens and found various committees, most notable of which will head gathering information to help us enact turning the Crow Indian Reservation into a prairie reserve that will help our buffalo herd and other wild game flourish.
We will figure out which alternative energy sources would make the most sense for our location, expand the reach of Greasy Grass Radio and our media center to provide content to help others do what we do. This includes indigenous knowledge content as well as agriculture tutorials. We will sell percentage of crops grown in our community garden in our cafe.
In Phase 2, we will grow Center Pole’s current healthy foods cafe into a larger community gathering place, serving our fresh produce and traditional foods, and use it as a teaching space and a place to host the various counsels that address various community challenges including: water quality, buffalo corridor, and jumpstarting the community food market.
We will maintain our sustainable outdoor gardens, creating a system of water filtration for the greenhouse, using diverted water from the nearby Big Horn River. We will build a small model aquaponics system in the greenhouse and create an indoor horizontal growing system for food and traditional medicines. Adjacent to the greenhouse will be the food sovereignty kitchen for butchering and preparing wild game and cooking workshops. The interior wall will be a seed bank.
We will expand our community services to include a “garden starters” service that start community gardens in other locations and provide guidance and troubleshoot problems in a way that ensures the success of expanding food production in our communities, as well as perpetuates the Crow value of helping one another.
We will install alternative energy sources and go off the grid to further lessen our carbon footprint. We will sell and help install “Composting Toilet Starter Kits” that will eventually replace the septic systems that are currently creating environmental problems when coupled with poverty.
In Phase 3, we will create an indigenous market, trade and barter center. In the old way, Crows will be able trade surplus food, goods and artwork to community members and tourists. We will found a Crow cultural school that teaches decolonization education, traditional Crow knowledge, and various classes on agriculture, economics, and other knowledge that will help community members start and expand their businesses and contribute to the food market.
We will create the Buffalo Corridor, expand land available for wild game, take down fences except to protect wildlife and horses from roadways and keep them out of crops. The Crow buffalo herd, numbering 2,000+ presently, would proliferate and be roaming from the Big Horn Mountains down into the Big Horn Valley where Center Pole is located. A wildlife bridge would be constructed to cross Interstate 90, a major artery that bisects the reservation. As lands are restored to ecological health and diversity, other wildlife would return. One of the main entrances to the Buffalo Corridor would be at the Center Pole. We would start to see cleaner rivers as the majority of the community will be using comp[osting toilets and not adding their waste to our rivers. Rivers will also benefit from farmers using regenerative farming techniques that don’t include fertilizer and a move away from classic cattle ranching and toward buffalo management. Cattle behavior negatively impacts waterways by breaking down river banks while buffalo tend to avoid spending time around rivers.
The earth is suffering from the impact of big agriculture and a consumer culture. The Crows, as a people, are suffering from hundreds of years of trauma and oppression. Now is the time to make a change, to put the collective efforts of all people toward solving the issues that will either end humanity or bring us to a new way of existing in the world. The Crow people, through the Center Pole, have the resiliency and ancestral knowledge that can not only bring the Crow people out of poverty, but also show the many communities on earth a way to strengthen a community through perpetuating interconnectedness and working with the goal of the survival of the community, not individual benefit.