When she was a child, Julie's mother and father were important role models. Her mother worked with seniors on the Cheyenne River Reservation while her father was a tribal police officer. "I was fortunate growing up because my parents never divorced and we had a pretty regular childhood," says Julie.
After college, she returned to Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation. She started volunteering with the Cheyenne River Youth Project during her free time and quickly became very involved in its activities. When the project needed a full-time coordinator to expand its programs, Julie took on the direction of the center. "I didn't really have any training in youth education, but I loved these kids so much and I felt that I could do something to help," she says. With 45 percent of the people on the reservation under 18 years old, teaching kids about land stewardship, personal responsibility, and good eating habits is vital to the future of the reservation.
The Organic Garden Program
In 1999 the Cheyenne River Youth Project constructed a new, larger youth center. Most of the 300 kids who visit the center are dropped off after school and spend the afternoon and part of the evening there.
In 2000, when the 2½-acre garden area across from the youth center was abandoned by another program, Julie stepped in to take over. "Again, I really didn't have any history or knowledge about gardening, but I felt it was important for kids to learn how to grow and eat more nutritious foods," she says. "Many of our kids don't know where their food comes from. It's a shame because it is part of the Lakota culture to be close to the earth and natural cycles of animals and plants," says Julie. "Children just haven't been taught about these traditions."
Julie raised funds to hire a gardener and collected donations of gardening tools and supplies to start the Organic Gardening Program. Volunteers from the community offered their assistance and the kids were eager to be involved. "I didn't know what to expect at first. I was as amazed as the kids when the first beans and squash started to produce," she says. "At first the kids weren't interested in eating the vegetables," says Julie. "We had to cover the broccoli with cheese just to get them to try it."
Now they not only like eating fresh vegetables, they also help plant, weed, and harvest the crops. Julie began to teach weekly classes on the importance of good nutrition, as well as watering techniques and other topics related to gardening. "Because they feel such a sense of ownership for the garden, there's never any vandalism here," she says. Everyone pitches in to help. Julie has kids, aged 4 to 12, volunteers from the community, and even international volunteers coming to work in the garden. It has truly become a collaborative effort.
The kids are also learning to care for the earth by growing the vegetables organically. The food is served at the youth center and the local elderly nutrition center. It is also given away to the women's shelter, adolescent shelter, and to the kids' families. Some families are starting to garden at home and many residents have begun buying fresh produce at the farmer's market that the Organic Gardening Program operates each fall.
The Garden and Being Lakota
Not only is the garden producing fresh, healthy food for the kids, it also helps instill Lakota values. "The Lakota have seven values that we live by: truth, honesty, respect, compassion, generosity, humility and prayer. In the garden I can see the kids learning these values in very direct ways," says Julie.
Although the Lakota people have a rich history of living close to the earth, farming isn't part of that tradition. "Our people were nomadic. We would follow the buffalo herds and gather wild foods such as turnips, berries and echinacea," says Julie. "Having a market-size garden is new to us," she says. Through trial and error, and with the help of community experts, the garden is producing a wide variety of vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, carrots, watermelon, raspberries, strawberries and corn.
"We're using some of these crops to teach the kids about Indian agricultural traditions such as drying corn for food during the winter months. We're also adapting other Native American gardening practices, such the Three Sisters Garden, to our location," she says. "The garden is also used to teach about identifying and harvesting native grasses and plants," says Julie. "I'm learning as much about our traditional way of life as the kids."
Julie's next goal is to show the kids how to make a living through the garden. She is heading up a project to create value-added products from the garden's produce, such as jalapeno jelly, canned vegetables, pickles, and salsa, from the produce. The children learn how to process the foods and market and sell these items.
Julie's dream is to make the garden a model that can be used reservation-wide. "The kids are our future," says Julie. "If we can show them how gardening can feed them, help them make a living, and provide a connection to the land and their heritage, then we'll be a stronger people."
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