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Cultivating Connection: BIE Schools Embrace School Gardens

Image of student at Santa Rosa Day School planting herbs and leafy vegetables

Pictured above - Santa Rosa Ranch School Student harvests leafy greens from a raised pot in their school garden. 

Bureau of Indian Education schools across the nation are cultivating more than just young minds. They are fostering a deep-rooted connection with the Earth by implementing school gardens. This initiative highlights the importance of environmental stewardship and embraces Indigenous cultural teachings and practices.

Many Tribal communities hold a deep reverence for nature, a value that BIE schools aim to instill in students. By incorporating school gardens into their curriculum, these institutions offer hands-on learning opportunities that educate students about botany, ecology and nutrition and impart knowledge about traditional Indigenous farming practices.

At Santa Rosa Ranch School in Sells, Arizona, first through third-grade students collaborated on a school garden project with an aim to teach students about food security, environmental benefits, healthy eating and the value of growing their own food. This multi-age project fosters teamwork skills and an appreciation for those involved in food production.

The hands-on nature of gardening provides a unique and engaging educational experience beyond the traditional classroom setting. Through planting, maintaining and harvesting gardens, students learn responsibility and patience. They witness firsthand the life cycle of plants and understand the factors that contribute to a healthy ecosystem. This experiential learning fosters a sense of pride and accomplishment as students can see the tangible results of their hard work and dedication.

Second graders at Turtle Mountain Elementary School in Belcourt, North Dakota work hard to maintain their garden. The class uses a hydroponic garden tower to grow salad greens and herbs. Hydroponic gardens are a space-saving way to grow plants indoors. This process allows plants to grow in containers where water and nutrients are delivered directly to their roots without the use of soil. Through this innovative project, Turtle Mountain Students learn about the plant cycle and explore how to prepare healthy recipes. Students also share what they grow in their school lunch. 

BIE school gardens also play a crucial role in bringing the school and local community together. These gardens offer community members opportunities to contribute, whether it is through lending a hand, sharing gardening expertise or participating in harvesting what is grown. These collaborative efforts strengthen relationships and ensure the gardens become inclusive spaces for collective learning and growth.

A wonderful example of this can be found at Chitimacha Tribal School in Jeanerette, Louisiana. Here, eighth-grade students actively tend to their garden on the Chitimacha Reservation, providing fresh produce for all community members and showcasing the power of unity and sustainability.

These gardens function as outdoor classrooms, laying the foundation to cultivate students' interests in agriculture and foster a connection between the land and food. A passion for agriculture can easily follow students into their secondary education journeys through programs at BIE colleges and universities. 

The BIE, Native American Agriculture Fund and Haskell Indian Nations University recently announced a pioneering agriculture business degree program to enhance financial literacy among Native farmers and ranchers. This program, housed within Haskell’s business school, seeks to empower Indigenous agricultural professionals and address financial barriers to success in Indian Country.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute hosts a student garden that offers invaluable hands-on experience. Students engage in a variety of activities ranging from conducting soil samples to researching pollinator issues and cultivating traditional plants. This immersive experience allows students to explore diverse facets of agriculture, empowering them to refine their interests and chart a course toward a fulfilling career in agriculture.

As BIE schools continue to integrate school gardens into their curriculum, they are sowing the seeds for a greener future and a deeper understanding of Indigenous culture and environmental responsibility. These gardens are more than just plots of land; they are living classrooms that nurture life, learning and a lasting respect for Mother Earth.

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