On the Fort Peck Reservation, where Dakota and Assiniboine tribes have officially made their home since 1866, how food is viewed by its people has changed over many generations. From the Dakota peoples who once lived in what is now Minnesota, many reservation residents still bear the trauma involved with war, death, broken treaties with the U.S. government, and separation and relocation from a land unowned that was once home.

Generations of structural violence within a community can physically and psychologically decimate its people. Generational trauma is a cycle, and this concept helps to illustrate the philosophy of nonlinear time, or that the past still lives in the present, cohabitating with while simultaneously preventing a desire for change. Here, this ever present cycle was first caused by colonialism and ethnocentrism, which led to confrontations and confusions, and eventually the U.S.--Dakota War of 1862. Subsequently, Dakota warriors who fought in this war received unfair trials, and 38 were sentenced to death by hanging. It was discovered later that two were wrongly accused. The ripples of the largest mass execution in U.S. history is still felt by Dakota peoples today. Their ancestors were forced by the U.S government to separate and relocate further west, in areas in Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.

After the first migration of Dakota onto Fort Peck in 1864, smallpox spread through government issued blankets. Other diseases were not uncommon. Eventually, Native children were forced or coerced into either local boarding schools or schools in the east, separating and destroying families. While at boarding schools, children were forced to have their hair cut short, which was a powerful part of spiritual identity for many Native peoples. Hair is seen as not only a symbol of strength, but an embodiment of strength and spirit. To cut the hair was to cut the spirit, and was only done in periods of grief. For many children, that mental association with grief and boarding school would not have provided the environment for a proper education. The Dakota language was also not allowed at boarding schools, and using it often led to severe punishment, even for children who did not know English. These boarding school practices were kept until recently in the historical timeline; living tribal elders and younger adults still recount boarding school experiences. Fairly rapidly, assimilation into western culture caused the near eradication of Dakota culture. When a people are forced from their native lands, separated and stripped of their way of life, their language and their particular perspective on the world, how they continue to persevere and endure is proof of an endearing strength.

This strength is what lives on today, as it must. Many tribal peoples still fight within this cycle of generational trauma, combating diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. These diseases are products of that trauma cycle, but more specifically, a combination of generational mental and psychological stress, poor diet, and lack of physical activity. Food can sustain and food can kill. With government provided rations of lard and flour, traditions are born in Indian frybread. Frybread is an Indian food, but more than that, it is a colonial food, a product of oppression. However, it comforts, so it is continued, not just on Fort Peck, but within many Native communities. It keeps wounds open, literal and figurative wounds, while its birth is forgotten. It is something that American Indians can call their own, and after all that was taken, so many Native peoples would ask, why let it go now?

After generations, trauma endures, but the importance of food that sustains and heals is also forgotten, along with language and other aspects of culture. Due to the consequences of boarding schools and other governmental actions, families were separated and starved, again literally and figuratively. Reservation superintendents kept tribal rations for themselves or for the black market, starving tribal members, after those members had sacrificed their weapons for those very rations. Without weapons, it becomes difficult to hunt, and traditional foods are slowly abandoned. Ways of life changed, and the value of traditional foods in more nomadic times like buffalo, elk, deer, wild turnips, wild rice, corn, wild onion, chokecherries and juneberries were forgotten, and are now not commonplace in many homes on Fort Peck. There is minimal farming, and not many families have gardens, although growing more of your own food was often common just a few generations removed. Tribal members tell stories of the attempts to sell cattle and homegrown food to whites off reservation in nearby towns, and the racism that often prevented those exchanges. If farming isn’t profitable and leads to heartache, why continue?

Now, poverty and chronic disease is more common on Fort Peck. In Poplar Public Schools, nearly 100% of K-12 students are eligible for free meals, so every school meal is free and reimbursable through the federal government. Access to food and healthy food is shortened in one of the most rural regions of what is now the continental United States, and this creates what is known as a food desert. Many families and individuals go without regular meals due to access and poverty. When families can eat, healthy foods like whole grains and produce are often not available, not accessible due to distance, not available in plentiful quantities, not fresh, or passed over due to price or preference. As in any poverty stricken region, foods that are cheap and often void of nutritional value drive local demand. The produce provided locally could not and does not sustain the nutritional needs of every individual living on the Fort Peck Reservation, and in addition to being sparse, is often not fresh upon arrival. In a place where the effects of trauma are still felt within that generational cycle, food is often one of the only comforts, along with illegal drugs and alcohol.

In order to break this cycle birthed from trauma, the tribal organization Health Promotion Disease Prevention aims to tackle current food norms and food education head on. In order to prevent disease, we must promote health, and the first step of that promotion is community intervention to encourage and promote change within the people of Fort Peck. Food norms here on Fort Peck, connected to generational trauma, are of the biggest causes of the chronic diseases facing its people today. Over-reliance on sugar, salt, processed foods and processed meats, with a lack of emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole foods leads to inflammation in the body, which causes obesity and chronic diseases like high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. On top of unhealthy foods, a lack of regular, steady meals in so many reservation homes causes its own health crisis. In order to be agents of change for the future, local students must first have access to regular meals in order to maintain health and success.

After methods of intervention, including locally supported health promotion, disease prevention within the community will begin to follow. A reliance on more healthy, traditional foods and balanced ways of life will return. Change will come with strength, endurance, intervention and education. This return to health and traditions, paved locally, will be the ultimate action of tribal sovereignty, a final victory in the long fought wars of oppression and colonialism.

Danielle Scudder
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA
Poplar, MT