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Data And Storytelling Inform Food Insecurity Research On The Wind River Indian Reservation

Rubena Tillman

On the Wind River Indian Reservation, it's hard to get things like fresh vegetables. And that lack of access is a contributor to the fact that Native Americans on the reservation have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than non-Indigenous people in the state.In 2016, 23 percent of Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation said they did not have adequate funds for food.

That same year a community-based research project called Growing Resilience received a grant to do research on food insecurity. The project funds gardens on the Wind River Indian Reservation. And researchers are studying how growing your own fruits and vegetables can help combat food insecurity.

"I think it would be hard for a place to have a higher food insecurity rate than we found within these families," said Christine Porter, a professor at the University of Wyoming and lead researcher on the project.

Food insecurity is a problem throughout the United states but Porter said there was a lack of data about Wind River food insecurity specifically.

Northern Arapaho tribal member Melvin Arthur is a researcher at the University of Wyoming on the project. Arthur said that the project combines data from biometrics with storytelling.

"We did 100 home gardens and we reached almost 400 tribal members. Both Shoshone and Arapaho," Arthur said. "And through that project I started interviews. First, I started with talking circles. To get them to tell us what the experience was like."

Arthur developed a technique that he calles 'sovereign storytelling' while conducting the interviews.

"And what that did is that it gave the participant the opportunity to tell their story however they wanted to," Arthur said. "We always come in give them a set of questions to answer. We formulate all these research paradigms where we don't really look and say 'How you would like to tell your story?'"

Arthur wanted to do something different. He instructed participants to submit anything from artwork their kids made to a conversation among other gardeners. While hard to put numbers on, Arthur felt it important to include how gardening makes you feel in the research.

Especially with how universities have a colonialistic relationship with researching Native people, Arthur said.

The project is now on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic and researchers hope to reveal findings when it is safe to collect more samples. But for now participants continue to share their stories in unique ways.

Rubena Tillman, a resident on the Wind River Indian Reservation, is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and an Eastern Shoshone descendant. Tillman participated in the project a few years ago and now has her own garden with a pumpkin patch. She gives out the pumpkins during Halloween to the neighborhood kids.

"The Growing Resilience Program really provided me with a lot of training and hands-on learning. We learned how to do a compost bin," Tillman said while snow fell in her garden on a cold January evening.

The project helped provide more than just tools to start gardening but workshops to teach how.

Tillman recorded highlights of her experience with Growing Resilience. She, also, was included in a video that Growing Resilience produced that emphasized the importance of storytelling in research about Native people. In the video, Tillman expresses how gardening makes her feel in slow poetic tones.

"In the winter I'm still in the garden...adding manure for the horses and getting it ready for spring. I am connected to the earth, to my husband, my four sons and my daughter. To our horses and pigs, to my heritage, my language, my culture, and always to my garden."

Lead researcher Christine Porter said the project, also, tries to quantify mental health but that is difficult.

"The only way to measure that really is by listening to people's stories," Porter said.

The research hopes to continue in August of 2021.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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