Everything is Connected

By bringing bison back to Native lands and cultivating their own food, the Sicangu Lakota people are reclaiming not only their food sovereignty, but also their health, culture, and identity

Two women looking at plants under a greenhouse frame
Rattling Hawk standing outdoors

A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Rattling Hawk believes that traditional ecological knowledge is vital for conserving land, food, and Indigenous culture in the Great Plains.

Monica Rattling Hawk begins dinner with a prayer. Holding aloft a paper plate as a sacred vessel, she breathes out an invocation in Lakota, her soft, assured voice incanting the same clusters of vowels and consonants that have been spoken for thousands of years. According to custom, a sampling of the evening’s meal—breaded chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, leafy salad, and pieces of pineapple—has been arranged on the “spirit plate,” an offering of nourishment and gratitude to her ancestors. Her words are a blessing, a giving of thanks to Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth.

“We are taught that food is our medicine,” says Rattling Hawk, the Native nations liaison with WWF’s Northern Great Plains program and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “It is sacred,” she adds. “Everything is connected.”

This late November evening, she’s sharing a meal with several staff members of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, or REDCO, the economic arm of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (also known as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe). Two years ago, REDCO secured a 15-year lease on 28,000 acres of native grassland with a dream of bringing bison, also called buffalo, herds back to the Sicangu Lakota Nation’s lands as a source of both physical and spiritual sustenance. Now, the organization has not only realized that goal with its Wolakota Buffalo Range, but has made significant strides toward building a healthier, more prosperous community and ensuring greater access to food on the Rosebud Reservation, one of the least food-secure places in the country.

It’s little surprise, then, that as the group sits down to eat around a folding table in an office turned dining room, the conversation shifts to food—methods for growing it, where to find it, traditional ways to cook and preserve it.

Michael Prate, the managing director of REDCO’s Sicangu Community Development Corporation (CDC), excitedly describes the best techniques for cultivating sweet potatoes. They like warmth and a long growing season, he explains; you should plant them in raised beds during the spring. Rattling Hawk, an avid gardener, chimes in with her own expertise: “Our Lakota ancestors dried vegetables on racks in the sun to preserve them. They worked as one with Mother Nature,” she says, taking a sip of hot tea steeped with ceyaka, or mentha arvensis, wild peppermint that’s been used medicinally by Indigenous peoples for centuries.

Sitting across from Rattling Hawk is Foster Cournoyer-Hogan, who foraged the herbs himself. A recent Stanford grad with freckles and long hair tied back in a ponytail, Cournoyer-Hogan is the food coordinator at REDCO’s Wakanyeja Tokeyachi Lakota Immersion School. Foraging, he says, helps him feel connected to his cultural roots: “I like learning about what grows around here that we can use for food and medicinal purposes.”

For decades, headlines from Rosebud have emphasized long-standing problems: broken treaties, poverty, underdevelopment, and inequity—all of which remain considerable challenges. But as the night progresses, a much more hopeful narrative emerges. Could a collection of tiny houses be constructed on the reservation to help alleviate the housing crisis? What if we used dung from the buffalo range to heat homes lacking electricity? How can we increase small-scale farming initiatives? Meanwhile, jokes are traded in Lakota, an endangered language that’s increasingly being taught to the next generation, and menus are planned around locally grown ingredients. Tomorrow, Rattling Hawk will deliver some squash she’s just harvested to Cournoyer-Hogan. He plans to use them to make soup.

These exchanges might seem low-stakes, but they represent the real and transformative projects taking place across this Native-owned landscape. They also demonstrate how REDCO, with support from partners like WWF, is at the helm of a rising movement to decolonize food systems, reclaim Native identities, and build the resilience—ecological, cultural, and economic—of the Sicangu Lakota people and their land.

“Food security is about reconnecting with our traditional concept of food. It’s also about harvesting, preservation, and conserving foods for future generations.”
— Monica Rattling Hawk

Around noon on a dazzling winter day, Rattling Hawk blazes along South Dakota Highway 27 in a Toyota RAV4. Sunlight illuminates the landscape as she heads south through the Pine Ridge Reservation—around 2 million acres of sprawling prairie grasslands, panoramic vistas, and rich cultural history just west of the Rosebud Reservation. In the distance, craggy buttes climb from the horizon alongside deep, windswept canyons.

Rattling Hawk was born and raised on Pine Ridge, and her knowledge of the land, its people, and its fraught past is encyclopedic. “Up on that hill is Stronghold Table,” she says, indicating the formation that in 1890 hosted the last Ghost Dance—a ceremony the Lakota and other tribes performed to try to halt the annihilation of their people and way of life. “They thought the ritual would help bring their land back, and that the buffalo would come back too.”

Before Euro-American settlers arrived, her Plains Tribes ancestors shadowed the buffalo as they migrated across the vast grasslands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. “Buffalo were a huge part of our lifeways,” she says. Meat supplied food; hides were used for clothing, tents, and bedding; hair was braided into rope; bones were carved into tools and weapons. The hulking mammals, called pté, also figured centrally in oral histories and creation stories.

Until the early 1800s, between 30 and 60 million buffalo populated the Great Plains, traversing the continent in massive herds said to sound like rolling thunder. Those herds were the beating heart of a richly biodiverse ecosystem: The buffalo’s grazing patterns fostered nesting habitat for birds, and their dung spread seeds and fertilized grasses. In winter, the herds cleared paths through the snow, enabling pronghorn and elk to forage in their wake. Their sharp hooves also left behind divots that aerated the soil and allowed water to soak into the ground, nourishing native plants and creating aquatic habitats for other wildlife.

Man with hat in field examining livestock

“If our buffalo nation family is strong and healthy, we become strong and healthy,” says TJ Heinert, the assistant range manager of the Wolakota Buffalo Range.

But during the 19th century, these plentiful landscapes became graveyards. Waves of white hunters and settlers slaughtered the bison for sport and trade, while the US government campaigned to achieve greater control over Native nations and their land by deliberately exterminating their primary food source. By the late 1880s, less than 500 bison remained, most in a few sanctuaries like Yellowstone National Park.

Around the same time, tribes were pushed onto reservations—remote, often dangerous and disease-ridden land—where they were cut off from their traditional diets and forced to rely on government-issued rations, all but destroying the culture and social fabric of these societies. In 1887, the Dawes Act divvied up Native lands into allotments that individuals were encouraged to farm and ranch, though the plots were frequently unsuitable for either and recipients possessed neither seed capital nor the tools to implement newly imposed western agricultural practices.

More than a century later, the maps haven’t been redrawn much.

Today, reservations are highly fragmented and owned by a complex mix of entities—the federal government, tribes, and private owners, including Native and non-Native individuals. Often lacking basic property rights, Native Americans face a major barrier to economic opportunity and self-governance. While they can work or run cattle on land leased from the tribe, for example, they can’t sell, develop, or borrow against the land, leaving them few options for accessing capital to invest in start-up businesses or agricultural ventures. In fact, 46% of tribal agricultural lands in the Northern Great Plains are leased to non-Natives who take their product and profit away, contributing to profound food scarcity for the people who live there.

“We grow hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat here annually, but not a single ounce comes back to feed us,” laments Rattling Hawk, gesturing to the undulating prairie, where a group of cows munches golden grass on what she knows to be tribal land leased by non-Native ranchers.

For Rattling Hawk, these realities underscore why the Wolakota Buffalo Range is nothing short of revolutionary. “The tribe has chosen to invest in themselves by managing that land. To me, it’s amazing,” she says.

“I’m hoping REDCO’s model—the partnerships, leasing terms, returning bison to the landscape—can be replicated across Indian Country.” To advance that vision, WWF has over the past five years invested more than $3 million in bison restoration efforts alongside Indigenous communities in the Northern Great Plains, one of the world’s last temperate grasslands and a critical natural resource. Their target is to secure the health of the species and the ecosystem by restoring five herds of at least 1,000 bison each by 2025.

“We’ve been on the reservation for 133 years,” says Rattling Hawk. “It’s time.”

A herd of buffalo on the move on the Wolakota Buffalo Range. For many, the return of these animals to the landscape represents ecological and economic revitalization and renewed spiritual connections.

The sun hangs low in the sky by the time Rattling Hawk has made her way to the Wolakota Buffalo Range. Leaning against a metal fence, she looks on as TJ Heinert, the assistant range manager, maneuvers a tractor around an enclosed pasture and deftly unfurls a bale of hay—dinner for the 60 or so cows and calves corralled in a weathered barn next door.

Heinert, wearing a Stetson and a silver-buckled belt, looks the consummate cowboy as he paces across the pasture and disappears briefly into the barn, his Australian cattle dog Bandita at his heels. He swings open an iron gate; suddenly, buffalo charge into the paddock in a flurry of dust and snorts.

These animals, recently acquired from Cross Ranch Preserve in North Dakota, are in quarantine until they receive a clean bill of health, explains Heinert in a relaxed drawl. Afterward, they’ll be introduced to the range herd, which, thanks in part to his careful watch, now numbers close to 800.

White building with Let Food Be Your Medicine painted on wall

Families Working Together, a local nonprofit, holds gardening and food preservation classes and runs a food distribution program from its community center in Wanblee, SD.

Over the next few years, REDCO aims to establish a herd of 1,200 animals, which would ensure a genetically diverse population and make it North America’s largest bison herd owned and managed by Native Americans. The range welcomed its first 100 bison in October 2020 with support from WWF, the Rosebud Tribal Land Enterprise, and the US Department of the Interior. By the fall of 2022, it could be home to more than 1,000 bison.

A growing herd will benefit not only the species, but local people as well. Once it reaches full capacity, REDCO plans to designate a few animals each year to be sold or donated for harvest. In addition to generating revenue, these bison can become a nutritious protein source for the community, providing meat for school lunches, cultural ceremonies and events, and families. Discussions about a tribally owned meat-processing facility are also underway.

Already, the ecological benefits are obvious. Heinert, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, says he knows the land so well he “could be dropped in the middle of nowhere and know exactly where I am,” and notes that before the buffalo arrived, the land had been severely over-grazed by cattle. But with more sustainable land management, such as moving the herd throughout the range to mimic how bison historically grazed, the ecosystem’s health has improved drastically. “There’s a difference in the grasses and a lot of our traditional medicinal plants,” says Heinert. “I’ve noticed a lot more sage, for example. The buffalo are really helping the land come back.”

They’re also helping reestablish deep cultural ties, Heinert says, looking out toward the pasture, where the shaggy animals have settled to the task of feeding, noses to the ground, under a hazy blue twilight. “We evolved from the buffalo—they’re our family,” he says. “It’s great to be part of this program because I get to witness our relatives coming home again.”

“Sometimes,” says Heinert, “I catch myself standing and watching them, or drinking coffee at sunrise and just listening to them grunt.”

Spend one day on the Rosebud Reservation, home to 29,000 residents, and it becomes clear just how vital REDCO’s programs are. In the 20 communities that dot the reservation, about half of households live below the poverty line. Limited food access, economic depression, and poor health are intertwined, deeply entrenched issues—ones that Rattling Hawk views as the legacies of historical trauma and oppression.

It’s a perspective she comes to through experience. As a child, Rattling Hawk endured periods of extreme poverty and food insecurity, especially after her family moved into government-owned housing when she was 12 years old. “There were times when all we had to eat was popcorn or USDA commodity foods. We got rations of flour, oatmeal, rice, and hot cereals, but our diet became very dependent on carbs and starchy foods,” she recalls. “We didn’t get much protein.”

In Native American communities across the US, healthy, nourishing food is still difficult to come by, and grocery stores are few and far between. On Rosebud, some residents must drive two and a half hours to reach the nearest grocery store. In the supermarkets that do exist, they encounter row after row of processed and prepackaged foods—everything from sugary cereals to frozen pizzas. Fruits and vegetables, which have a short shelf life, are often low quality and sold at inflated prices.

Last year, when an outpost of the Mexican fast-food joint Taco John’s opened on the reservation, it became faster and easier for some community members to buy a super-stuffed burrito or fried chicken taco than a locally grown squash or tomato.

Matte Wilson in greenhouse

The Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative increases food access and educates people about regenerative agriculture. “This work is a way of connecting with my culture,” says its director, Matte Wilson.

As in many food deserts, shortages of fresh and affordable food have contributed significantly to widespread health problems. Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death, while heart disease, lower-respiratory disease, and cirrhosis are also prevalent.

Witnessing these impacts on peoples’ health motivated Matte Wilson, who is from Rosebud, to leave the reservation for Nebraska, where he attended college and earned a degree in health administration policy. After working with the Navajo Nation in Arizona, he returned in 2018 to join REDCO’s Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative (SFSI), a community-led project that focuses on fostering food autonomy and building a better world for future generations. “I really wanted to be a part of that,” he says.

Now the initiative’s director, Wilson leads efforts to reconnect Rosebud residents to their land, health, and culture through a regenerative, Lakota-inspired agricultural system that will create jobs, provide environmental benefits, and deliver healthy and traditional foods to the community.

“Our goal is to bring local foods here, teach people how to grow their own food, how to afford their own food, and cook with their own food too,” says Wilson. “I think all of [these] are going to be tools to get us out of our current situation.”

“Food sovereignty is a lifelong process. You can’t change it in a day.”
— Foster Cournoyer-Hogan

On a bright, brisk morning, dew clings to Rosebud’s fields as Michelle Haukaas, a willowy figure sporting a black beanie, strides into a geodesic-domed greenhouse. Upon entering, she points to the main attraction: a towering banana tree, its leaves fanned out toward the sunlight.

“This is probably the most surprising thing we’ve grown. It was only supposed to be 20 feet tall, but after just six months it’s already touching the roof,” she laughs.

Closer to the ground, a chaotic jumble of plants grows in raised beds. Walking around the perimeter, Haukaas lists some of the bounty she oversees: sprays of lettuces, leggy stalks of rhubarb, bright green peppers, kale, cabbage, and tomatoes. Nearby, a pop of color peeks out from behind some leaves: a lemon that’s just begun to turn yellow.

Perched on Rosebud’s highest hill, the greenhouse is part of the Keya Wakpala Community Garden, a one-acre teaching and production plot and SFSI’s flagship project.

As garden manager, Haukaas supervises a large team of volunteers and interns who keep it running—watering and monitoring the plants and soil, hoeing, weeding, adding compost to crop beds, preparing seedling trays, and tending the birds in the coop next door, where a vocal rooster struts alongside a throng of snow-white ducks.

Their labor is testament to the project’s success. In its first season in 2014, the garden was little more than an empty wheat field and a vision, says Haukaas. Volunteers had to attach a garden hose to a fire hydrant and run it 800 feet to water beets and a few other seedlings. Fast-forward eight years, and the garden has become a thriving enterprise that supplies fruits and vegetables to SFSI’s seasonal farmers market, donates to the immersion school, and delivers fresh produce to 16 Rosebud communities.

Bolstered by a Food System Vision Prize from The Rockefeller Foundation, SFSI’s work has also recently expanded to include a seed bank and cooking and nutrition classes for adults and children. Another program teaches participants to grow their own gardens and to develop agricultural business plans—and provides opportunities for start-up funding.

“Rosebud has around 1 million acres, so we’re trying to get people to learn how to work and grow off the land,” Haukaas explains. Ultimately, the goal is to empower them to contribute to local grocery stores and restaurants and support a food system that’s self-sustaining.

Building interest is a slow process, Haukaas and Wilson admit, but as these projects continue to meet people’s acute needs, community awareness and excitement are increasing. The farmers market alone is proof: when open, it receives around 200 visitors each weekend.

For his part, Wilson is looking to the future. He envisions more locals starting their own gardens, learning to forage, and opening catering businesses, restaurants, and cafes. “And I would love for buffalo to become a much bigger part of people’s diets,” he says. Wilson himself, a fan of cooking and putting an Indigenous spin on his favorite recipes, dreams of one day opening his own food truck.

“I’m hoping that I can work myself out of a job and that, eventually, food sovereignty is a reality.”

“These vegetables came from a local garden,” says Foster Cournoyer-Hogan as he plates an Indigenous-inspired lunch for students at the Wakanyeja Tokeyachi Lakota Immersion School.

That reality seems within reach as Cournoyer-Hogan prepares lunch for the kindergarten and first grade students at the immersion school. Just outside the kitchen where he’s busy chopping vegetables, a kid-sized sandwich board announces the menu: khukhúše-tȟaló (pork), psíŋ (wild rice), watȟotȟo (vegetables), and tȟaspáŋ (apples). “I try to make home-cooked meals every day. I don’t used processed or canned foods,” he says. “Instead, I use fresh produce that’s in season.”

Launched through the Sicangu CDC in 2020, the school aspires to create a new generation of fluent Lakota speakers who are also well versed in Lakota traditions, heritage, and culture. 

As part of that education, in September 2021 the school’s staff, students, and their families took part in one of the first buffalo harvests on the Wolakota Buffalo Range. “Many of the attendees had knowledge about how to harvest the bison and use the different parts,” Cournoyer-Hogan says. “How cool is that?” Since then, he’s been incorporating bison meat into the students’ meals, using it in soups, roasts, and more.

Through food, he says, he’s hoping to teach the children about healthy eating habits and Native diets, as well as the challenges their community faces: “You’re teaching life skills, but also critical thinking,” he says. He believes that if students and others on the reservation can begin to make connections—between what they eat and how and where it’s produced, for instance—they too can become drivers of change.

Cournoyer-Hogan, like Rattling Hawk, Wilson, and Haukaas, recognizes that there’s still a long way to go before the Sicangu Lakota achieve true food sovereignty. But, he says, the buffalo range, garden, farmers market, and school represent substantial steps forward—and for him, they are indicative of larger efforts by Native nations across the country to realize their economic, spiritual, and political power.

As the morning’s lessons wrap up, children trickle into the large main room where they eat lunch. One boy with a long braid makes a beeline for the kitchen and shouts his request: “Foster, don’t forget about my celery and my carrots!”

Cournoyer-Hogan chuckles. “Some students like their vegetables raw,” he shrugs.

The moment could be easily overlooked, but it speaks to the evolving attitudes toward fresh food and its availability on the reservation. Long-held stances—and perhaps even taste buds—are shifting.

And like a sprouting seed, change is growing from the ground up.

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