Community garden helps Indians in hard times As government aid dwindles, crops fend off hunger for elderly


ETHETE, Wyo. -- In the face of cutbacks brought about by the overhaul of welfare programs, members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe have started a 7-acre community garden with donated land, seeds and equipment to grow vegetables for themselves and for the elderly and disabled.

"We were concerned that when time runs out, when they are no longer eligible for government assistance, what are they going to do for food?" said Glen Revere, a nutritionist with the Indian Health Services on the 2.8 million-acre Wind River Reservation, about 100 miles east of Jackson, Wyo.

"Then we came up with the idea for this community garden, and it's been bigger than we ever expected in so many ways."

At the all-volunteer garden, this is the time of year when potatoes grow larger than a man's fist, popping out of the soil, and 5-foot-high cornstalks develop ears with red, yellow and white kernels ripening inside.

The conditions on these wide plains near the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains can be harsh; high winds, late springs and early autumns limit the growing season to 90 days.

Revere's partner in this effort is Irene Houser, director of the Northern Arapaho Tribe Community Services, who has distributed produce around the Wind River Reservation and to the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

Houser, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said people were stunned when she brought them bushels of potatoes, onions, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, beets, radishes and other vegetables.

"They asked, 'How much are you going to charge me for this?' " she recalled. "I said, 'It's free,' and they were so happy. Many of them didn't have food in their house when I showed up."

Mark Soldierwolf, the father of nine and grandfather of nine, said: "That food lasted us about six weeks. We dried some things, boiled some. Just ate all of it."

Soldierwolf, 70, a Northern Arapaho who served with the Marines in World War II and the Korean War, lives with his wife, Florita, a daughter and a grandchild.

They receive food stamps for a $300-a-month budget for the four, but they said they often fed members of their family who stopped by. Soldierwolf estimated they saved $70 with the free vegetables.

Soldierwolf's family represents the problems of many of the 1.3 million American Indians who live on reservations, of whom 49 percent are unemployed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that at least half the American Indian population lives in poverty. Soldierwolf said all but one of his adult children were unemployed.

"If you can make it to the end of the month, you're all right," Soldierwolf said, referring to the monthly food stamps. "It's worse than in the Depression."

The Wyoming Department of Family Services says the Northern Arapaho on the reservation account for 18.9 percent of all welfare cases in Wyoming. The reservation population of 12,000 -- 6,000 Northern Arapaho tribal members, about 3,000 Shoshone tribal members and 3,000 from other tribes -- represents about 2.5 percent of the state's population of 480,000.

Revere and Houser say the community garden can help reduce dependence on welfare by enabling residents to produce cash crops, traditional Indian plants to be sold on or off the reservation.

On the Crow Reservation in Montana, at a 5-acre garden to be planted this fall, the plan is to let people's work at the garden count toward fulfillment of their welfare community service requirement.

"We are trying to provide people with skills that they can use here or take with them," said Charlene Johnson, a Crow tribal member and nutritionist with Indian Health Services.

In Ethete (pronounced EE-tha-tee), the school is adding horticulture to its natural science curriculum, and students take field trips to the community garden for hands-on experience growing their own food.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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