David and Nyla Swallow, Oglala traditionalists, teach children to harvest wild foods, grow their own gardens, and prepare their food traditionally, keeping the old ways alive in Porcupine, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Swallow says the old ways are still relevant in today’s world but worries that people can’t see their way back. Swallow believes that returning to traditions is not only possible but important to our own well-being.
With so much suicide and alcoholism on Pine Ridge, Swallow reminds us that these were non-existent before colonization, and blames both, at least to some degree, on depression.
“I listened to my grandfather’s words and his grandfather, and their stories. We didn’t have depression then. I blame it on modern ways; 80 percent are depressed because there is no future on the reservation, and there has to be. We could dig the medicine again, and the laughter would calm the people down, and the grass would be greener, and the water would be clearer and the buffalo would return…”
Swallow, who never finished school, stayed home with his elders. He still remembers riding horses, fishing, and walking in the hills.
“They walk their walk,” said Michelle Salvatore, who brings the Swallows in to teach school children throughout the reservation. “The knowledge they hold is priceless. I watch them unfailingly help their people and their community.” Salvatore is the coordinator of American Honda Foundation’s Woniya Sa (Red Breathe) Program and the SEMA NASA program. Both are outreach programs operated through the Oglala Lakota College. The programs combine traditional Lakota knowledge with science.
“I lived with my grandma and grandpa who showed me everything,” Swallow told a group of young students at the Wounded Knee School in Manderson, SD. “Those days they said I was a dumb Indian because I cannot spell, but now today your grandma and grandpa’s ways are very important.”
He notes that modern medicines are made of chemicals, without ceremony and in factories, none of which he believes conducive to good health. “As Indigenous people, we have medicine and ceremony because that was given to us before western medicine hit these shore, and there is no side effects. People keep complaining about hospital bills, but they keep going back,” Swallow said.
“We used to eat dehydrated food; buffalo, rabbits, it’s the medicine on the ground,” Swallow said, adding that he and Nyla find healing through plants that grow naturally in the area. “I call it natural medicine: the food, the choke cherries, the carrots, the plums, the mushrooms. A lot of people don’t know, you don’t have to go to the store. You just have to know your food.”
Swallow said his grandparents dug up wild carrots and turnips. “Grandma and grandpa know where these things grow. So, they were way taller people back in those days, big, strong ones! Now today, it is hard to put a deer over my shoulder, but back in those days the grandpas put two deer over their shoulders. In pictures, you see them, the horses looked small like ponies, but they were real regular horses.”
Today, David and Nyla have a combined total of 39 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and Nyla cooks for many of them everyday. Explaining the lessons she learned from her grandparents and others in her life, she said, “Back then I learned about eating healthy. We would come back to the reservation to harvest foods and game, and grandma showed us how to make dried meat. I was recently showing a daughter-in-law how to cut it. This fall we harvested roots and plants for teas and we put some in our food. The kids all take a part in the garden. We planted blue corn from the Hopi this year and the colors, pinks and blues, were so pretty!”
The Swallows teach children the harms of eating junk-food, which David believes is linked to depression. “I didn’t drink pop until I was 9-years-old,” Nyla said. “We used to eat a lot of fruit leather like those Fruit Roll-Ups you buy.”
Nyla makes fruit leather for her grandchildren by boiling fruits with a little raw sugar. “Just let it boil and when it’s soft, spread it on a mesh or waxed paper, and let it dry.” Nyla said she never uses a modern dehydrator or modern equipment. “I stick to the old way,” she said.
Pointing out that many on the reservation eat processed food, David said, “You want to think right, eat right. You go to the swamp, you could dig those wild carrots.” Foods that grow wild on Pine Ridge include choke cherry, plums, turnips, carrots and apples.
“We are lucky spearmint grows on its own,” Nyla said. “Nowadays they talk about certain teas that help to detoxify, but back then, teas were just part of our diet. We didn’t eat a lot of fry bread then,” she laughed.
Speaking to the schoolchildren, David said, “When I was your age you could drink the rivers. You drink that water today, you get sick and die. It's sewer and contaminated. When you eat, bless the food, then it will become a medicine,” he said, adding, “We cannot turn around and go back to grandfather's days. We have to move forward and you all are the key to a new world, a new way of life. A long time ago, they taught how to plow and have gardens, and everybody helped work on those gardens. To eat right is a good thing, to think right, it's a good thing.”