On Thursday, May 16, the Cheyenne River Youth Project officially launched its 2024 growing season with a Lakota garden blessing. Staff, youth, and community members gathered in the 2.5-acre, naturally grown Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) Garden for the annual event.

Prior to the blessing ceremony, renowned hoop dancer Starr Chief Eagle performed for the gathering. An enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), Chief Eagle is a frequent guest instructor at the nonprofit youth organization; over the years, she has been a performer at the RedCan Invitational Graffiti Jam as well.

Cheyenne River elder Wakinyan Peta led the ceremony. Twenty-three young people — CRYP’s teen interns and the 4- to 12-year-olds from “The Main” youth center — were responsible for officially blessing the ground.

“The kids faced the four directions and smudged in a circle,” explained Jerica Widow, CRYP’s programs director. “Then, we poured water into the middle of the garden for a bountiful growing season. Several of the children spoke, sharing their thoughts about the garden. 

With a smile, she added, “One boy said he hoped the carrots would grow so the bunnies could eat. One of our teenagers said she hopes the soil will be easy to work, and that it will grow lots of food for the kids to eat. Another teen said he wants the garden to bring in more kids and to nourish the soil.”

Other children shared they were excited to grow favorite produce like cucumbers and watermelon. After the blessing concluded, CRYP staff served a community meal in the Čhokáta Wičhóni Teen center. 

The Winyan Toka Win Garden is the beating heart of CRYP summer programming. From May until September, youth focus on planting, nurturing and harvesting crops; tending to fruit trees and shrubs; learning about soil health and water conservation; processing and preserving food; and connecting with traditional foods, medicines and life ways. 

“During the summer months, our teens will be busy with two of our internship tracks, Native Food Sovereignty and Lakota Culture,” Widow said. “Our younger children at The Main will be learning age-appropriate versions of the same lessons and tasks through Garden Club.”

This year, CRYP is doing something a little different. It is combining Garden Club with its award-winning Main University program for the summer season. 

A recipient of a “Champion for Children” award from the South Dakota Coalition for Children, Main University is one of CRYP’s signature programs. A long-term volunteer created it in 2002, and it quickly became a favorite at The Main.

Main University gives young children opportunities to take short courses that mimic those offered in a college setting, allowing them to explore subjects that may not be offered in school. They earn “credits,” and those who complete the program will enjoy a special graduation ceremony with their families.

“We want to give our kids access to opportunities they might not have otherwise,” Widow said. “It’s so important for their healthy development. With a garden-focused Main University this summer, our kids will have opportunities to spend time outdoors, be active, connect with the earth, learn about sustainable agriculture and traditional Lakota culture, and have fun with friends.” 

Garden Club officially started in April, with meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. Now that the growing season has begun, participants will meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until mid-September.

To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit www.lakotayouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.