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Growing Food For Better Health On Wind River Indian Reservation

Melodie Edwards

Out under the cottonwoods in her backyard near Fort Washakie, Eastern Shoshone member Pat Bergie shows off her new raised-bed garden.

“Those are the tomatoes, strawberries,” she says, pointing at the rows of small seedlings. “Over here, I’d done some cabbage inside. I brought them out and planted them and those are what’s gone.”

Gone because birds came and gobbled them up.

“The big ones, the magpies are the ones that went out,” she says, laughing. “They’re the hoggy ones.”

Bergie inherited high blood pressure and hopes to bring it down with the kind of exercise and healthy food you get from vegetable gardening. She says to monitor those benefits, researchers put her through a lot of health tests.

“Well, they took blood for diabetes, blood pressure, and I think cholesterol, I’m not sure. Anyway, I remember the one with the blood!” she says with that same infectious laugh. And she’ll take those same tests three more times over next two years. The project is called Growing Resilience, and the National Institute for Health gave it $2.5 million dollars to study the health benefits of gardening for five years on Wind River reservation.

Christine Porter is a researcher in community and public health at the University of Wyoming and one of the project's organizers.

“What happens is, randomly assigned, half the families get a garden right away and half the families serve as controls for two years and they get a delayed intervention,” says Porter.

It’s a joint project partnering the University of Wyoming and tribal groups to find solutions to health problems on the reservation like heart disease which Native Americans are almost twice as likely to deal with as whites in Wyoming.

But the biggest health disparity on Wind River is diabetes. Tribal members here are up to five times more likely to struggle with the disease than the rest of the state’s population. She says the rations provided for tribes after the U.S. government placed them on reservations in the late 1800’s likely sparked some of the unhealthy trends still seen today.

“Like fry bread was a very innovative development out of the lards and fats and white flour people were given, and it's deadly. It's delicious,” she says with a chuckle, “but it's deadly.”

But Porter says, the study will look at more than just diabetes and obesity. They're looking at 100 different health factors, physical and mental.

“I would be very interested to look at the impacts of gardens on things like substance use and abuse,” Porter says, “which can also be an issue among a small subset. Native Americans on average actually drink, for example, alcohol way less than other groups, but those who do are much more likely to struggle with it being an issue.” 

The original pilot project already showed conclusive evidence that gardening does have powerful mental and physical health benefits. Porter says over the next five years, she'll gather yet more health data from 100 Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho families. The tribal health advocacy group Blue Mountain Associates will handle the logistics, doing the hard work of building 100 raised beds and teaching people to garden.

Northern Arapaho Dr. Virginia Sutter is Blue Mountain's president. She says, at one point, her tribe was forced to turn to farming.

“I believe it was Sharp Nose who was my great grandfather, and they settled over on the river,” Sutter says “And they got them and said, we're ending the rations. You're going to have to plant a garden. So they gave them a plow. One plow, for all these people.”

But Sutter says, the Northern Arapaho were Midwestern farmers before they moved onto the plains to hunt bison. And so they knew what to do with that plow.

“They used that one plow over on the Wind River Reservation, and they fed all of their bands. They just planted row after row after row and they worked them.” 

But Sutter says, since then, younger generations have lost those farming skills. And that’s why the project hired garden coordinators like Ethelene Potter to teach people how to raise their own food.

Today, Potter’s putting up a fence and bird netting to keep the magpies from eating Pat Bergie's seedlings. She shows Bergie how to get in and out of the new fence.

"I just bent this one right here, Pat,” Potter says. “So you just need to take this one off right here to get in there.”

“Very good. See what I mean, handy? I would have been like, how do I close this?”

Coordinator Potter says her grandfather did lots of gardening on the reservation.

“He had fields of like strawberries and a garden and his farming. He had his cattle, pigs, chickens, you know,” Potter says.

And now she’s teaching her own children and grandchildren.

“If we capture them at a young age, they’ll learn to love their vegetables.”

Growing Resilience is still looking for families to participate in the study. To sign up, visit the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health or the Wind River Development Fund.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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