Raising chickens, rabbits, and goats, and producing enough organic crops to keep a family of three plus friends and neighbors well fed brings to mind hay barns and fields amid a rural landscape.
But the farm-like environment of Monycka Snowbird’s property sits in the center of Colorado Springs, a city of more than 440,000 residents. Snowbird and her two daughters butcher their own meat, collect eggs and milk, and make cheeses and soaps in addition to growing and harvesting a variety of vegetation, which flourishes on about a tenth of an acre.
Urban farming—also known as urban homesteading or backyard or micro farming—isn’t rare, but what makes Snowbird’s endeavors unique is the mix of indigenous knowledge, techniques, and values the Ojibwe mother of two infuses into the food and household products she makes and teaches others to practice.
“You can’t be sovereign if you can’t feed yourself,” says Snowbird, 40, borrowing a line from Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), an environmental activist and founder of Honor the Earth. “One of the ways colonizers controlled Indian people was to take our food sources away. Let’s reclaim our food.”
Snowbird works with both Native and non-Native organizations throughout the Pikes Peak region to educate and promote the benefits of urban food production. She leads educational classes for children and adults, including seed cultivation, plant recognition, harvesting, livestock butchering, and more.
Given the staggering rates of poverty, diseases like diabetes, and unemployment for Natives nationwide, Snowbird points to the many economic and health benefits of individuals creating their own energies, whether it’s food, fuel and power, or social capital.
“We as indigenous people have gotten farther away from our traditional food sources than anyone else in this country, and I think that’s why we have this sort of swelling epidemic of diabetes and obesity in Indian country, because we’re losing the knowledge of our traditional foods,” says Snowbird.
Returning to traditional roots—in a literal sense—is also what drives Snowbird, who has lived in Colorado Springs for more than 20 years.
“We have to teach our kids it’s not just about preserving our cultures and language; it’s about restorative stewardship and about knowing where food comes from, who—tribally—it comes from,” Snowbird says. “Indigenous food is medicine. And food brings everyone together.”
Snowbird earned a reputation as a knowledgeable indigenous educator after she spearheaded a city-wide movement a few years ago to change and educate people on the local laws of urban food production.
Now Snowbird manages the Colorado Springs Urban Homesteading group, which boasts roughly 1,150 members. Through that group, Snowbird leads several classes every season on animal husbandry, butchering, and more with her fiery brand of wit and know-how.
Perhaps closer to her heart, however, are the lessons she imparts on the city’s urban Native youth. Colorado Springs School District 11, in which Snowbird’s two daughters (age 11 and 13) are enrolled, has the only Title VII Indian Education Program in the city.
“Monycka is an inspirational parent liaison who has encouraged many students to learn about their culture,” says Carolena Jackson (Diné), District 11’s Title VII Program Coordinator. “Introducing her own traditions to help students be proud of their cultures has been a natural gift.”
Thanks in large part to Snowbird’s efforts, the program has several garden beds and a greenhouse growing traditional Native edibles, including Apache brown-striped sunflower seeds, Navajo robin’s egg, Pueblo chiles, and more.
The children also learn to grow, harvest and cook with chokecherries, prickly pears, beans, and other local vegetation.
“She takes time to show students traditional foods and showing them that natural foods are healthy and a part of who they are,” Jackson adds. “Parents and staff are appreciative of her personal time and dedication for the students.”
Re-introducing and re-popularizing indigenous foods and traditional cooking, especially among Native youth, will help strengthen Native people and the communities they live in, Snowbird says.
She points to studies that show food stability, affordability, and access is severely limited for Native communities. According to a report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service released in December, just 25.6 percent of all tribal areas were within a mile’s distance from a supermarket, compared with 58.8 percent of the total U.S. population.
The latest USDA data also shows 23.5 million people nationwide live in a food desert—their access to a grocery store and healthy, affordable food is limited—and more than half of those people are low-income. Many tribal communities and urban areas with high populations of Native people are considered food deserts.
Snowbird admits maintaining a lifestyle committed to food sovereignty can be hard on her tight budget. However, she says it helps her save and earn money in the long run. Snowbird is able to collect, grow, use and sell or barter with the milk, eggs, meat, vegetables, cleaning and toiletry items, and other useful goods produced on her property.
“I’m not completely self-sufficient by any means. But urban homesteading—or whatever you want to call it—is about as traditional as you can get,” she insists. “It’s living off the land within the radius of where you live and knowing the Creator has put what you need right where you are.”
“I always find it surprising how removed from the whole food process people are; they don’t know or care where their food comes from,” says Snowbird, who harvests edibles on hikes through the mountains or on strolls through downtown. She tries to combat ignorance by giving eggs and other food produced on her property to those who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—normally buy organic in a supermarket.
“Pretty soon those people are asking me for more eggs and then we’re talking about how they can get started with chickens in their backyard or growing herbs on their window sills,” Snowbird says, adding those conversations eventually lead to discussions on indigenous issues, regardless of whether the person is Native or not. “We’re trying to put the culture back in agriculture.”
Writer Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in Colorado Springs. She can be reached at www.jtatewalker.com or via Twitter @MissusTWalker.