Indigenous-led Permaculture Movement Brings Resilience And Food Sovereignty to Pine Ridge Reservation

Article by Maia Wikler | Video & Photos by Syd Woodward, Hemmie Lindholm & Alex Harris.

The prairie lands of Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota, are storied with resistance and resilience to colonialism, both past and present. Recently, community members are channeling their ancestral knowledge of the land to address food sovereignty, housing and poverty on the reservation. Community members founded Oglala Lakota Cultural Economic Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI), designed to “restore resilience, self-sufficiency, economic independence, and cultural revival among the Lakota people” through a broad range of Lakota-led projects grounded in principles of permaculture. 

Part of this initiative is the annual Indigenous Wisdom & Permaculture Skills Convergence, a six-day gathering hosted on Pine Ridge that welcomes builders, healers and community change makers to work together on Lakota-initiated projects that address food scarcity, poverty and lack of housing. Their approach is one that is tried and true, the Lakota can help their own community best. “We work on seven tenets: food, fire, water, shelter, earth, spirit, and self. Those seven tenets are things that we all need. This is a common denominator amongst all humans. What we’re trying to do here, is make that available to my people and those teachings universal so that you can take them back to your community,” Bryan Dean explained at the convergence.

Permaculture is a design concept that models the diversity and resiliency of natural ecosystems through practices like regenerative agriculture and using materials from the land for building. Permaculture practices are nothing new for the Lakota, it has always been an integral part of their culture and way of life, community members explained.

“When I heard the term permaculture, and that was many years ago, I said, “What the hell?” It’s nothing but white people, and they’re going around the world and they’re taking the best practices of all the indigenous nations and they’re putting in a package and they’re saying, ‘Look what we invented… But really, as my brothers here mentioned, it’s something that the Indigenous people have been doing for thousands of years,” Christinia Eala explains.

The age old practice of companion planting with beans, squash and corn is a testament to the Lakota’s long standing ecological knowledge. “Permaculture comes from traditional ecological knowledge synthesized into twelve principles that came from thousands of years of observation and interaction with nature. That lineage is held by Indigenous peoples,” Megan Szrom explains. Felix Earle adds, “our ancestors have been doing this for thousands of years. My family, we used to cultivate and we used to plant and it was communal. It was huge, practically the whole community came to plant these enormous fields. We practiced crop rotating, everything. We had more than four cornfields. We would plant these fields in three days and then of course during harvest that was distributed to everyone. When we plant corn, we plant seven seeds. One is for us, one is for family, one is for the animals, one is for the birds, one is for the earth, that’s how we plant.”

From planting a food forest to greenhouses made of abundant resources on the reservation, like old tires and clay, the Convergence focuses on projects that implement creative, education-based, long-term solutions. Organizers are focused on spreading their food distribution networks across the reservation and creating gardens to heal emotional trauma. Last year’s Convergence attendees constructed the Indigenous Wisdom Center along with a tribal Permaculture and Lakota Language Center made of cob. With hands-on experiential learning, attendees can learn natural building, aquaponics design and permaculture garden design– all of which support food security and sustainability. Accessibility is a fundamental principle at the gathering. The event is free to Indigenous Resilience Groups and Pine Ridge locals. Tahera Hamdani explains, “We’ll cover fuel costs, whatever it takes. It’s free for all for native folks. To really showcase what’s happening here, to demonstrate it, to share, and to use this energy to activate and mobilize our projects moving forward as well.” Accessibility also means replicability. “We work on low cost alternative replicable models that any family could implement with a little bit of help across their reservations.”

Community members and speakers emphasized the importance of showing up as an ally and what that really means. “I think showing up as an ally starts with a contextual understanding of not only what has happened but what is happening. I think it’s really important to remember that this isn’t past tense and these injustices are happening every day,” said Megan.

Ecological and human resilience are intricately intertwined. The work of OLCERI serves as a mutual restoration of both the earth and community. In times of climate change, colonial violence and industrialization, the convergence is a source of hope and community. OLCERI addresses the tenants of resilience and well-being: food, shelter, water, and community. By empowering people from across the nation with tools to thrive while honoring life systems, OLCERI and the IWP convergence create powerful and accessible solutions to climate change and colonialism. “As we move from this egocentric, colonialist ideology back towards this indigenous ancestral knowledge that is ecocentric,” Michael Alcazar reminds us, “we actively work towards embracing our humanity.”

Come to Life is gearing up to participate in this year’s Indigenous Wisdom & Permaculture Skills Convergence, August 19-25th on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. Join us at the Convergence and stay tuned for stories from the Convergence on allyship, food sovereignty and the power of community.

Come To Life , Women Who Farm, Rob Greenfield and We Are Wildness are excited to partner on our #RegenerativeMovement campaign. ⁣

This summer, we’re exploring stories of new urban food systems along with Guayaki who will be hosting a series of events in NYC. For a chance to be featured, share your story and tag #RegenerativeMovement. ⁣