“If you’re not working, you have to leave. No press is allowed here,” said the big, beautiful young Native woman.
She sported a trendy blond crew cut. Her muscled arms were crossed officiously over her chest as she stood tall before us. Although she smiled and spoke courteously, I could see that if provoked she’d be perfectly capable of booting us out of there singlehandedly. Wisely, we withdrew and watched the kitchen action from afar.
And there was a lot of action to be seen in the sprawling Oceti Sakowin camp kitchen. A worried-looking young man added wood to a fire under an enormous black soup pot.
“How long would such a container take to come to boil?” I wondered.
People were busy cutting, chopping, washing, hauling, frying in an unending assembly line that dwarfed any powwow, ceremony or funeral feast ever seen.
The hungry people came in waves. Some groups were small and some large, with only tiny breaks between the action out here on the prairie—truly an unlikely place for such a vast enterprise.
“I gather the men and women who are cooking and tell them it shouldn’t matter whose kitchen you are in; you should have a good mind and a good heart,” said Melanie Stoneman of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. “No gossiping or too much laughing around; whatever feelings you have go into this food.”
Stoneman is an old friend who agreed to sit down and tell me of her experience in the Oceti Sakowin kitchen. Stoneman and her large extended family have been camping at Oceti Sakowin off and on since August. She began helping out in the kitchen early on.
At first she planned to help out for the day, but like so many people at the camp, she was drawn in and volunteers on a regular basis.
“We try to keep Lakota people in the kitchen so we can have traditional food like wojapi, soup and fry bread available for folks,” she said.
Volunteers, however, come from all walks of life, and Stoneman has learned about preparing different types of food, such as vegan and vegetarian offerings, during her time in the kitchen.
“All of the volunteers have been fabulous and willing to learn how we are when we feed people,” Stoneman said. “They see that everything we do here is based on spirituality and prayer. I think it has been a new experience for many of them.”
The non-Indians have been especially fascinated by how meat such as buffalo is butchered. Stoneman explained that in the Lakota way, the cooks are given a piece of raw kidney or heart to eat. At first some of the non-Indians were horrified and made faces.
“I explained to them that it’s not required that they do this but that it is considered to be an honor and a blessing,” she said.
To her amazement, most of the volunteers ate the raw meat. Later she heard the non-Indians explaining everything they had learned about the sacredness of the food and its preparation to Native kids who visited the kitchen.
“This is creating a powerful movement for us and the non-Indians,” she said. “Food is so important.”
The kitchen schedule is relentless. Breakfast begins at 6 a.m. and goes until 11, lunch continues until 4:30, and dinner goes to 10:30 p.m.
“It’s constant,” Stoneman explained. “We have peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and granola available round the clock for diabetics and newcomers who arrive off the road. We don’t really have break times. You’re there in the morning, and pretty soon you look around and it’s dark.”
The kitchen is well organized; tasks are divided. Sorters keep track of inventory, others chop and stack wood, keep the coffee coming and do the dishes.
And the donations continue to arrive. Salmon from the Lummi and Colville tribes, buffalo from the Plains tribes, refrigerator trucks of prepared and fresh food from tribes all over the country.
“We go through about four to five cords of wood a day,” Stoneman said. “Right now we are feeding about two thousand people a day.”
In the early days of the camp, she recalls there was never enough. No soup pot was big enough. At first, cooks would constantly be opening up cans of food, and there was no room to make bread.
“We had to learn how to cook in huge quantities,” Stoneman said. “Now that the kitchen is organized, things go more smoothly. I’ve done a number of fry bread demos so more people can make bread.”
She also learned how to butcher a moose after a tribe from Maine donated a load of meat. Although it had been kept in enormous coolers for its trip west, it needed to be cooked ASAP, Stoneman recalled. No one in the kitchen had ever butchered a moose before.
“My sister Winona and I figured it couldn’t be that different from buffalo, so we just dug in,” she said with a laugh. “The meat was beautiful. We made a whole traditional meal of wild rice, corn, cranberries and squash.”
Though the hours are long, the kitchen is never really closed.
“We tell our volunteers and cooks here that nobody should ever go hungry,” siad Stoneman. “Whatever we have as Lakota people, we share. If nothing else, we ask people to sit down and offer them water.”
However, junk food need not apply.
“We’re not like McDonald’s,” Stoneman said. “That’s a different kind of cooking and a different kind of world. We are careful with our food here; we are feeding the people in a good way.”