SBC garden feeds, educates

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In the northwest corner of the recreation area behind the Sitting Bull College (SBC) Campus in Mobridge, is a lush garden filled with heirloom tomatoes, a wide variety of squash and beans and other vegetables. Where once kickball games were held during recess at Beadle School now stands the educational link into the traditional diet of the Native Americans that lived on the plains of South Dakota.
The caretakers of the garden are Luke and Linda Black Elk and volunteers from the staff and student body of the college. With help of a grant from the National Library of Medicine, the staff of SBC removed three layers of pea gravel, trucked in topsoil and began plotting the new garden.
“Linda is a botanist and I have always had a love of plants,” explained Luke. “I am a botanist at heart.”
He said the neighbors around the Mobridge campus have been curious about the garden and very helpful, even offering water to help sustain the plants during dry spells.
The purpose of this garden and another on the SBC campus in Fort Yates is to connect to and learn about the healthier lifestyle of the Plains people and to help students learn how to prepare traditional foods in a healthy manner. Luke said the Native American diet was a good combination of complex carbohydrates and proteins that helped sustain the people through the extreme conditions of plains life. The diet provided needed nutrition without the diabetes and high blood pressure that plagues Native Americans today.

Weather and other delays kept the crew from planting until the middle of June, but the location and soil are conducive to good growing. The tomato plants are covered in fruit that is beginning to ripen and the vines are heavy with squash, gourds and pumpkins. The caretakers recently planted fall crops of radishes and lettuce to harvest next month.
Luke said plans for next year’s garden includes using the sister mound method, which combines the corn squash and beans all in one mound of soil. This method gives each of the plants nutrients needed for growth and production of the produce.
Unlike the plant rotation method used in today’s gardening, the sister mound method provides a natural relationship that benefits the three plants.
“It is a symbiotic relationship between the plants providing sister plants with what they need to produce,” Luke said. “We want to learn why our ancestors did it that way and what makes it work.”
This year’s garden is planted with hybrid tomatoes, produced by Phil Seneca of the Onondago Nation of New York state, to resist drought. Many are not the red, round hybrids seen in stores, but yellow, pink, purple and even striped fruits. Each was developed by a Native American and has its own distinct taste and use. There are different species of the bean family (legumes) from string beans to beans that are dried for soups and other dishes.
“The purpose of the garden is to make people aware that things grown in this manner can be more healthy,” he said. “Some of the hybrid corn that is grown now has more sugar (glucose) than a candy bar. The traditional corn has much less sugar.”
He said the manner in which people eat squash today, with butter and brown sugar, takes a normally healthy food into the unhealthy category. Lessons from the traditional garden will include preparation methods that are healthier, including using squash in savory dishes and in soups.
The Black Elks also plan seed-saving workshops and workshops on preserving the fruit and vegetables grown in the SBC gardens.
This year’s produce will be given to students and staff and to anyone else who needs fresh produce.
In the future, the staff is planning to expand the garden and hold farmer’s markets for the public that will help to fund organizations at SBC.
Luke and Linda are available to answer questions about the new garden at 701-854-8044.