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A community seeks to feed its own

 

ETHETE, Wyo. - A tribal elder on the Wind River Indian Reservation is relying on Arapaho traditions of generosity and prayer to fight hunger here.

The elder is Laverne Brown, who has donated seven acres of river-bottom land for a community garden. Vegetables grown in the garden are made available free to families who need food, and in this area, it is estimated that 40 percent of families don't have enough to eat by the end of the month. Residents say welfare reform may work in areas where jobs are available, but in this remote place it will make life harder for the eight of 10 adults who can't find work.

Brown says when she was growing up, Arapaho elders and her parents taught her the virtues of sharing: "We always had to help one another in ways to keep families going," she says. The garden itself was an idea talked about by her late husband, Ervin Brown Sr., for almost four decades. He died just before his dream was realized in 1997.

Brown was helped by her niece, Irene Houser, who runs the Northern Arapaho Community Service Block Grant program. Two years ago, the two women inaugurated the garden with no equipment, seeds, money or workers. But people donated what was needed at the right moment, Houser recalls.

The garden proved fruitful, producing 10 pickup-truck loads of everything from tomatoes and corn to beans and pumpkins, which was donated locally and to the Wind River and Pine Ridge, S.D., Indian reservations, and to a Riverton, Wyo., food bank. This year, cash donations reached almost $2,000.

A board of directors now oversees the nonprofit Wind River Community Garden, and recently, another reservation member, Louise Lujan, donated two acres of land for a second community garden.

According to Andrea Starks of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, Fremont County has about 30 percent of the state's welfare recipients, or about 500 cases, and most live on the reservation. Welfare reform passed in 1997 limits welfare payments to a total of five years.

Houser says unemployment on the reservation is as high as 80 percent and that families routinely lack food. Besides abundant food, says Brown, the volunteer garden also shows people that "there are still things they could do. I think about them (young people on the reservation) and worry about them and pray for them all the time."

One of the supporters of the garden says, "I had a dream about a huge garden under the Wind River Mountains months before I read about plans for a community garden in the Indian Health Services newsletter. So you see, their prayers are strong."

* Debra Calling Thunder

The writer, a former staff reporter for the Casper Star Tribune, lives and writes in Lander, Wyoming.

You can contact ...

* Irene Houser, 307/332-6120;

* Glen Revere, Indian Health Service, 307/332-9421.