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An Offering: Lakota Elders contributions to the future of food security

May 10, 2019 — 

Dr. Mary Kate Dennis shares contributions to the future of food security by Lakota Elders

In order to understand and gather knowledge surrounding the relationship between Lakota elders and food security, Dr. Mary Kate Dennis spent the summer of 2009 living on the Pine Ridge reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota. Her findings, which counter the stories of poverty on the reservation through Lakota voices, provide new generational opportunities for food security, and establish a dialogue on food security unique to the reservation were shared at a Food Systems Research Group seminar on February 27th, 2019.

Dr. Mary Kate Dennis, Assistant Professor in the Master of Social Work based in Indigenous Knowledges Program in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, begun the seminar by explaining that while social work research done on food security has gained popularity over the past years, it is often looked at on a global or urban scale and fails to account for issues in smaller communities and reservations where the nearest source of fresh food can be up to 160 km away. The few studies that have been done on food security in rural environments are also typically done through marginalized rhetoric of race, class, and poverty. From the beginning of her research on the Pine Ridge reserve, Dr. Mary Kate Dennis’s intent to study food security in one of poorest counties and largest reservations in the U.S. was different, and as said by a Lakota elder, would include “no sad stories!”.


Of the 25 elders that Dr. Dennis interviewed, 20 were women, five were men, only three were under the age of 70 and all had been born and raised on the reservation. In interviews that varied from an hour and a half to nine hours in length, they shared stories from their youth and what it was like to grow up on family homesteads without running water while relying on wooden fires for heat and being a part of large families that had up to ten children to feed. Stories shared were primarily from female perspectives. Of these stories, strong themes that came out were self-sufficiency, unison in family and neighbors, and food preservation. 

While the conditions may have been terrible, they survived on what was given to them. Growing up, the elders’ communities operated differently than they do today in part because they didn’t have access to the goods and services, government resources and programs that are meant to benefit the communities. Families could only rely on themselves and their neighbours to get by, and so they did. Men were responsible for husbandry and hunting while the women took care of the domestic work including cooking, cleaning and making clothes for the family. Farm animals included cows, horses, and chickens, while the large gardens grew tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, watermelons, corn, beets, turnips, onions and more. Wild fruits and berries like chokecherries and wild plums were also gathered, dried and stored for the months ahead, much like everything else that was gathered and grown. While the communities were extremely independent, anything that couldn’t be made or grown could be purchased in town which required a horse and buggy to travel to. 

While many of these tasks were done as a way of survival they were also family quality time, used as teaching opportunities for the children so that they could also be self-sufficient. Because of this time spent together, food preservation was a significant part of the elders’ lives. Anything that could be used, ranging from fruits and vegetables to “garbage cuts and leftover parts” like animal lungs, were dried and stored in community root cellars. Community members would share their season’s harvest and dried meats and take what they needed from others, but never more. This unison of families eased the burdens that were present and “everyone worked together so that it was an easier time.”


As the elders moved into their adult lives, government intervention and ‘modern’ goods entered their lives. Chips, pop, and other unhealthy but cheap convenience foods became accessible at nearby gas stations and government programs distributed processed rations lacking quality and proper nutrients. While the elders remained self-sufficient because of the knowledge that they had acquired during their youth relying on the land for food, this change in food supply shifted the immediate need for the younger generation to learn those same skills. Rations and modern food items have created a sense of dependency for the younger generations in the communities while creating many health problems like obesity and diabetes. Without the need to garden, farm and preserve food like their elders, residents and in particular, youth, became dependent on government aid. 

The elders, however, even in their old age, are still very much independent and continue to garden, share with their neighbours and only ever take what they need and nothing more. As Dr. Dennis explained, the Pine Ridge elders’ knowledge of land and food security needs to be accessed and shared with their community. Their knowledge and skills, which are unique to the land on the Pine Ridge Reservation, would allow other community members to be more independent and less reliant on the safety net that is government funding and rations. 


Like all FSRG seminars, the last half-hour of Dr. Mary Kate Dennis’s talk included an open space for discussion between her and the attendees which included staff, scholars, and students from various faculties and programs. During this time, attendees had the opportunity to ask any questions related to Dr. Mary Kate Dennis, her research and the Lakota elders.

Some of the paraphrased questions and responses were:

What surprised you the most about the elders as it related to food?

They didn’t farm hogs.

How are seeds stored and exchanged?

Like any grandma! They dried, saved, exchanged and shared seeds in envelopes with their neighbours.

What do the elders think about the youth’s stance on food security?

Over time, government aid and resources have become much more prominent on reservations which have created relatively easier upbringings for Indigenous youth compared to those of the elders. Without a need for complete self-sufficiency and community interdependence, the elders respectfully see the youth as having a different work ethic than their own simply because the elders were not dependent on anything or anyone while at the same time had a much larger sense of community growing up. Coincidently, because Indigenous youth have a loss of self-sufficiency, the elders also believe that their own childhoods were in a sense, in fact, easier than today’s youth.


What is the Food Systems Research Group? The FSRG is an umbrella group fostering the creation of multi/trans-disciplinary collaborative research to advance the theme of Safe, Healthy, Just and Sustainable Food Systems. 

Sign up to receive FSRG news by sending an email to foodsystems [at] umanitoba [dot] ca


Sara Poppel is an economics student in her second year, helping with communications with the Food Systems Research Group.

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