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For the Cheyenne River Youth Project, concepts like food sovereignty, land stewardship, and cultural reclamation and revitalization do not exist in separate silos. Rather, they all are dynamic pieces of a larger whole: cultural health.
 
“For Lakota people, these are all one and the same,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s chief executive officer. “We cannot have true cultural health without control of our food systems, access to healthy lands, and strong cultural connection. To heal, and to restore that cultural health, I believe we must start with increasing access to our ancestral homelands.”
 
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Colonization sought to sever the Lakota Nation’s connection to its own culture, and one of its most powerful tools was to sever access to the land. Loss of access meant loss of traditional food systems, medicines, ceremonies, and life ways. And that meant cultural devastation. 
 
“When Great Sioux Reservation was broken up and then the Dawes Act of 1887 divided our remaining lands into individual allotments, we lost our ability to grow and gather what we needed,” Garreau said. “Then, when Lake Oahe was dammed, we lost the remaining good land in the river and creek bottoms. We were left with poor soil, and nothing would grow.” 
 
When asked how a youth project could affect meaningful change in the face of such daunting obstacles, Garreau first pointed to the beating heart of the CRYP campus: the 2.5-acre Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) Garden. 
 
Nearly 50 years ago, Garreau’s mother, Iyonne, and a group of Cheyenne River elders started the garden so it could provide local, nutritious produce for the adjacent Elderly Nutrition Center. In 2000, when it became too much for them to manage, they turned it over to CRYP and the community’s children.
 
“My mother always strived for Native food sovereignty and security,” Garreau reflected. “She felt community gardens would help solve the many health issues our people have. She stressed the importance of fresh produce, the significance of traditional foods for Native people, and the powerful relationships that a garden can foster between generations — and between our people and Unci Makha (Grandmother Earth).”
 
The garden is a living classroom for CRYP’s Native Food Sovereignty teen interns and Garden Club for 4- to 12-year-olds. It produces approximately 10,000 pounds of food each year, which staff and volunteers incorporate into meals, snacks, and gift shop items.
 
“It has been quite a journey,” Garreau said. “We had to nurture the soil, devise watering systems, everything we could think of to coax the plants to grow. We learned so much, and we’re grateful to be able to do our part to feed our children and community.”  
 
Food sovereignty at CRYP is not just about gardening, however. To improve access to traditional foods, the youth project also maintains an orchard to provide chokecherries, leads field trips to harvest red willow and prairie turnips, and is developing a program that would allow youth to participate in a buffalo harvest.
 
“We have significant gaps that we need to fill,” said Wakinyan Chief, CRYP’s arts manager. “Organic produce is prohibitively expensive, so we are empowering our young people to do it themselves. We’re encouraging them to grow and harvest food, share food with others, and when possible, regain access to land.” 
 
CRYP took an enormous step to support this vision when it recently purchased a nearly 40-acre parcel of land adjacent to sacred Mato Paha (Bear Butte) in Meade County. The property has organic certification, and Garreau said it will provide new opportunities for Lakota youth to harvest traditional foods in their natural environment.
 
“We are committed to being the permanent stewards of this land, caring for it in the Lakota way,” Garreau said. “Again, Lakota people cannot have food sovereignty if the land is not healthy; traditional foods and medicines are abundant in healthy Great Plains landscapes.
 
“Colonization created food insecurity,” she continued, “so we are reclaiming what was taken away.”
 
Back at the CRYP campus in Eagle Butte, the growing season is well under way in Winyan Toka Win, and this week, the staff is launching a fundraiser to support their efforts in the bustling garden. Both financial and in-kind donations are welcome.

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