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Youth Partner in Growing Opportunities on Rosebud Reservation

Every morning behind the Turtle Creek Crossing grocery store just west of Mission, South Dakota, a growing group of young people plants the seeds of a healthier community. The Rosebud Economic Development Corporation—or REDCO—is the largest employer of interns on the Rosebud Reservation. Most of their interns work in the community garden. 

It’s just after 8 am, and a heavy grey mist hangs low over the garden. There’s a white-domed greenhouse on one end, and long rows of vegetables on the other. It’s been raining for the last few days, and the morning’s group of workers carefully make their way up the muddy trail and wait for instructions from the garden manager. Her name is Leahanna Keeler.

“Ok so we can’t really do much in the garden cus it’s too wet, so we’re just moving our excess wood and stuff to the outside of the garden," she says. "And when we’re done with that we’ll probably just start weeding again.”

The team starts hauling scrap wood and metal out beyond the fencing that surrounds the garden. Keeler says this is the kind of work she loves.

“Just, like, knowing all the hard work at the end of the season you’ll see how much—how big of a difference it makes and just…it’s satisfying to know what you’ve accomplished.”

This is Keeler’s second year working in the garden, but her first year managing as a part of REDCO’s staff. Last year she was an intern, like most of the workers here this morning. Some of them are here through various Americorps programs, and others work through the Ogallala Commons—a nonprofit that works in communities that sit on the Ogallala Aquifer.

Edwin Her Many Horses heard about the opportunity for an internship in the garden from a cousin, and figured this would just be another summer job.

“But then I talked to Mike Prate for a while, and he got me pumped with all the talk about helping the community and eating healthier so, I started to love it. And…it’s good.”

He’s talking about REDCO’s Director of Food Sovereignty. Mike Prate is originally from Long Island. He says he realized his interest in food during a tour of a community garden in the Bronx during his senior year of college.

“I just started thinking about how much I didn’t know where my food came from and have that connection to it," he says, "but then also like the physical piece of like touching the land and the soil that it comes from. I didn’t have that experience and it was something I was looking to have.”

He first visited the reservation on a service trip to St. Francis five years ago, where he built his first garden. He says he fell in love with the area and eventually applied for the position with REDCO.

Prate explains that food sovereignty is about working to reverse the ways the reservation system has harmed Native Americans’ diets.

“We’re kind of looking to take back the power I guess in terms of control over the food system," says Prate. "Who’s growing it, what kinds of food are we gonna be eating, who are we allowing to bring food into our homes…”

That also includes making healthier choices with modern food options.

“You know, tomatoes versus Hot Cheetos," he jokes.

But Prate says his focus as a non-Native person in this position is to recruit local talent. He’s looking for people to eventually take over leadership roles in the garden and with other food sovereignty projects so it can be truly community-owned.

In some ways, he’s already succeeding. He says local interns from the Sicangu Nation Employment Training program came up with the idea to build another garden just outside the new Food Sovereignty office in Mission. They suggested that in this garden, members of the community can just come and pick what they need, instead of buying the group’s other veggies through the grocery store.

“They were just like, ‘No, we just need to grow food that people can just HAVE.’ That’s so awesome! Like, you guys totally know what people need and what’s gonna excite everyone. So. Working with kids is the best. Like, young people just bring the best energy,” says Prate.

That same positivity plays a big role in the gardeners’ work, whether they’re moving scrap wood or digging out weeds. Iyankawin Yellow Hawk is interning in the garden through the Ogallala Commons. She explains that this kind of work also helps give youth a sense of their culture.

“It’s all done out of positivity and that’s one of the goals and spiritual values of the Lakota people, is that if you’re preparing food for people you should always have a good mind, think good thoughts," explains Yellow Hawk. "Because whatever food you’re preparing, those thoughts can affect that food, whether it be positive or negative.”

Yellow Hawk says this is her first year working in the garden.

“I say that it definitely made me more passionate about working with plants and learning more about the environment as well. And I really hope that also is the same goal—or not the same goal, but you know, that it also has the same effect on others as it has on me.”

Later, some of the gardeners take fresh fruits and veggies to the Boys and Girls Clubs in Mission and in Rosebud. Every week this summer they teach the younger children how to prepare healthy snacks—teaching the next generation in a community they hope continues to grow stronger.

Credit Rosebud Economic Development Corporation
Rosebud Economic Development Corporation

SDPB's Lori Walsh and Jackie Hendry discuss other aspects of REDCO.

LW: And Jackie Hendry is with us now in the studio after her travels across the state. Welcome back, Jackie. 

JH: Thanks, Lori.

LW: Alright, give us a little more idea about what REDCO is.

JH: So it stands for the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, and it was first chartered around 1999 by the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Government. And the idea was to kind of create an economic arm of the tribe, run by a board of directors. And Wizipan Little Elk became CEO of REDCO about six years ago. I was able to chat with him as well while I was out there. He says at that time REDCO was made up mainly of 4 different subsidiaries, and all of them were losing money.

Wizipan Little Elk: "We were losing about 1.3 million dollars a year on less than 4 and a half million in gross revenue. And this past year, we did almost 14 million in revenue, and we had almost half a million in profit. When I first started, all of the employees were down in the various subsidiaries and I was the only employee in REDCO central. This past month we just hit the 50 employee mark.” 

JH: And also, kind of mentioned in the story, REDCO itself I think has something like 15-17 interns, and then also maybe more than 20 from a variety of other organizations working in that garden and kind of in other places as well. So there's a lot of partnershio with other kinds of organizations as well. 

LW: So in the piece that we just heard, you focused a lot on health and food. How does that fit in with the goals of improving economic development?

JH: Right. Well REDCO has turned their attention to really a number of different projects at once, this food sovereignty initiative and the garden being just one of them. For one thing Rosebud constitutes what we're hearing more and more about, is this idea of a food desert. Which just means there’s a lack of affordable fresh food options. But also, Wizipan explains that many of the issues we see on reservations, including the high poverty rates, are a direct result of more than a hundred years of federal policies that really interrupted tribes’ original ways of life.

WLE: "And that means we need to have a very holistic approach, because the original assault on our peoples was from every angle. So that means that we need to have a good, we need more jobs that are good paying with strong benefits. We need to have strong educational systems, we need good places for our people to live, for our employees to live in. We need a good healthcare system. If we’re just gonna address just one of those areas, it’s gonna take a lot longer to get where we need to."

JH:  So along with that community garden REDCO is part of an emerging Community Development Financial Institution called the Tatanka Fund. They’re in the very early stages of--the board has just come up with that they need to start developing a scholarship program. And they’re also working on a major kind of residential living and retail development called the Keya Wakpala development as kind of part of a way to encourage both recruitment of more businesses and more families to come to Mission and live and work there. And also to keep some of those dollars in their community as opposed to many people either going to Rapid City to do a lot of their shopping or jumping across the boarder to Nebraska and Valentine.

LW: Right. So is this the first time you've been there? Is this your first trip?

JH: I've been out there a couple times for a couple different projects, but this is...most recently was last year during the [Ken Burns] Vietnam screenings I got to interview some veterans out there, but this was kind of the first trip as a reporter just for that. And I think there's a lot to be watching out there so I'm hoping I get to make some return trips.

LW: Yeah. What else is the community like? And I'm trying in a delicate way to get around to the world's greatest scone, because I follow you on social media and I understand that there's a place to check out!

JH: (laughs) Yes, well in my opinion, totally off topic from REDCO, but I got to check out--I had an hour to kill and I was like oh man I'm tired, I got up really early to drive down from Murdo to hang out at this garden and so I need coffee. And the Buffalo Brew in Mission is I think fairly, just within this last year opened up. And you know, coffee was good, brought me back to life, but also I had to try. It was a black berry and dark chocolate scone. And I swear to you, the best scone of my life! The clouds opened. It was really good. (laughs)

LW: I was trying to figure out, how do I ask Jackie about that scone, and how do I ask her why she didn't bring one back? But it's not the same if it's not fresh and you're not eating it that morning. 

JH: I was told they make them right there every day, so there you go.

LW: Jackie Hendry, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it. 

JH: Thanks, Lori.