In the face of cutbacks brought about by the overhaul of welfare programs, members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe here on the Wind River Reservation have started a 7-acre community garden with donated land, seeds and equipment to grow vegetables for themselves and for the elderly and disabled who cannot work.
"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 with high winds and late springs, allowing only a 90-day growing season.
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 Northern Arapaho tribal member, said that 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, a 70-year-old 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, 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 grand-child. They receive food stamps for a $300-a-month budget for the four of them, but they said they often fed any member of their family who stopped by. Soldierwolf estimated they saved $70 with the free vegetables.
Soldierwolf's family represents the problems that plague many of the 1.3 million American Indians who live on reservations, where 49 percent are unemployed. It is estimated that at least half the American Indian population lives in poverty, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reports. 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." Florita Soldierwolf nodded, with tears in her eyes.
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 - including 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 population of 480,000.
Revere and Houser hope the garden can help reduce a dependence on welfare by producing cash crops, growing traditional Indian plants to be sold on or off the reservation, Revere said.
Howard Lujan, a father of four, used seeds Houser gave him to grow ceremonial Indian corn in a little garden on the side of his house. "I will give this corn to anyone who wants some because it is part of our religion," he said.