Hundreds of water protectors gathered in a solar-powered 200-foot geodesic dome nestled on the plains amid tipis and waited three hours to join a traditional Lakota dinner on Thanksgiving. Ancient tradition guided a solemn dinner initiated by prayer and a small offering of food to the spirits. Traditional Lakota protocols guide how food is prepared and served. Elders eat first, followed by women and children, and finally adult men. There was some grumbling among tribes like the Cheyenne, who serve food to men first.
The community meal was one of many produced by rough kitchens in the encampments that have grown on the treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. This kitchen is at the largest camp, Oceti Sakowin—recently renamed the All Nations Camp—where the number of people camping there was recently estimated at 10,000.
The star of this feast was the Lakota-style huckleberry pudding, or wojapi (wo-ZHA-pee), made by Winona Kasto, a member of the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, who combined rare wild berries from the northern Rocky Mountains with sugar, water, and flour. Kasto is founder of “Winona’s Kitchen,” a community mess hall and camp kitchen with a front storage shed decorated in columns of dried corn. She left her home and job to support the NoDAPL movement by feeding the water protectors in accordance with Lakota values, which say everyone eats, food is offered in thanks, and sacrifices are made to the spirits, who will return favors twice over.
Newcomers, Native and non-Native alike, could mistake the ad hoc leaderless NoDAPL camps for Burning Man, but activists on the front lines have no illusion that protecting water is a sacred duty. Like Kasto, many have abandoned their jobs and modern houses for tents and prairie snowdrifts to join a pivotal moment in indigenous environmental rights. Traveling to the All Nations Camp—a vibrant community built from donated material, skill, and time—is a pilgrimage; people from across the globe have come to Lakota country. As a result, Lakota etiquette and ceremony provide informal structure: In most Lakota ceremonies, it is customary that every participant be fed—in fact, feasts are integral.
The water protector kitchens are not merely free restaurants but ritual offerings.
The landscape of these indigenous-led kitchens is dynamic, much like the ad hoc camps that depend upon them. Native American cooks are rare and transient because, like the general camp population, skilled kitchen leaders are temporary residents. Several kitchens have lost their leaders and are in disarray. One camp had just replaced their head cook hours prior to a meal being served, explained a sleepless, young, glassy-eyed volunteer. Meanwhile, entire kitchens had simply vanished. An official map of the All Nations Camp lists kitchens and other landmarks that no longer exist.
One of the few resilient landmarks is Winona’s Kitchen.
The Kasto-led kitchen is one of the biggest with Native leadership and is predominantly staffed by her family; in a culture of extended families, she is easily related to half the Lakota at camp. There is a friendly atmosphere in Winona’s Kitchen, but it is run like a high-volume commercial kitchen, with Kasto constantly delegating tasks to volunteers.
The “Main Kitchen,” featured by the New York Times, is still run by outsiders and once served chicken strips while Kasto was making deer stew for the veterans. There are few Native Americans in the Main Kitchen, although it is where Kasto first started cooking at camp. She left, in part, because the chef was vegan. Veganism is anathema to a tribe of the Great Plains like the Lakota, who were hunter-gatherers for more than a thousand years until the U.S. military forced agriculture upon them in the 19th century.
The decline of traditional food systems tracks a rise in diabetes among Native Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For the Great Plains tribes, such as the Lakota and the Crow, traditional food includes lean wild game and vegetables or berries gathered or traded. Great bison herds, now confined to reserves of their own, were the biggest calorie source, and corn could be acquired from agrarian tribes along the Missouri River. Today’s Lakota diet is dominated by an industrialized food system foreign to North America. For example, modern American fare like a hamburger is made from beef native to Europe and wheat originally bred in Asia. But food native to North America is local, small batch, and inherently gluten-free.
At the camps, water protectors have access to diverse indigenous diets, including regional foods brought in from across the nation. Northwest tribes serve salmon smoked on cedar planks alongside an open fire, while the Southwestern Diné make Navajo tacos smothered in fresh jalapeños. These meals are made from fresh ingredients like organic kale and peppers and attract passersby.
In Winona’s Kitchen, the volunteers are interracial, intertribal, and interested in dicing onions and slicing still-warm deer from a fresh kill into long sheets for drying. Making dry meat, which involves delicately slicing thin sheets from the tenderloin, is a method to safely dry and preserve excess protein for leaner months. Kitchens like Kasto’s are well-supplied.
Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux, has committed the resources of the tribe to supporting Kasto and her kitchen. The Cheyenne River Sioux also are downstream of the Dakota Access pipeline and are kin of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. (The Lakota are composed of seven sub-tribes, one of which is the Standing Rock Sioux, and another four live on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.) To support his fellow Lakota at the camps, Frazier’s government has provided the water protectors with wood, fuel, and food; he estimates over $100,000 in material support has been provided to the All Nations Camp so far. This support is evident as propane trucks fill tanks for anyone with an empty canister.
As the weather has turned bitter cold, this kind of support is crucial. When thousands of veterans began to arrive earlier this month, the camp’s infrastructure, already stressed from snowstorms, was quickly overwhelmed. Jennifer Martel, coordinator at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Sitting Bull Visitor Center, kept track of at least 4,000 military veterans, and although there was planning and a meeting point for them in the All Nations Camp, no one had managed to feed them.
“All these veterans were showing up hungry!” Kasto exclaimed.
In biting winds, she and volunteers assembled new mess and preparation tents and did not turn away the veterans. She immediately put her kitchen into 24-hour service. Just as the water protector camps have, Winona’s Kitchen has expanded haphazardly but remains miraculously well-run. She has good help; volunteers from across the country do multiple tours, leaving and returning again. “People return,” Kasto explains.
Michael Running Wolf wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Michael is enrolled with the Northern Cheyenne from Montana; his father is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. He has a masters in computer science and spent the last month at Standing Rock filming a virtual reality documentary on the protests.