Food Revolution

Food is Medicine: A Conversation with Vi Waln

Food Revolution
Food is Medicine: A Conversation with Vi Waln

In this episode of Food Revolution, host Matte Wilson chats with Vi Waln, a He Dog community member and the founder of the Lakota Wellness Society. Matte & Vi talk about pressing issues facing the Oyate, the idea of food as medicine, an Oceti Sakowin community fire cider project, and her work to provide wild medicinal and edible plants to relatives on the Rosebud. 

Full transcript available here.

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 Intro 00:00:00 Han Mitakuyapi, and welcome to Food Revolution, brought to you by the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative. Every other week, we'll be bringing you stories of food sovereignty from community members and tribal food producers working to build a more just, equitable, and regenerative food system for our Sicangu Lakota Oyate, the Burnt Thigh Nation. Together, we're building tribal sovereignty through food, and we've set a place at the table just for you. Join us and be part of the Food Revolution.   

In today's episode of food revolution, Matt chats with Vi Waln, a He Dog community member and the founder of the Lakota Wellness Society about pressing issues facing the Oyate, the idea of food as medicine, and her work to provide wild medicinal and edible plants to relatives on the Rosebud. 

Matte Right Vi, can you introduce yourself to us? Tell us a little bit about your background  

Vi 00:00:49 Mitakuyapi, cante waste nape ciyuzapi. Cante hunkeshniwe Emaciyap. My name is Viola Waln, everyone calls me Vi. I've lived on the reservation for most of my life. I live in the He Dog community, and I've spent a lot of years as a journalist, but now I've shifted my life purpose and we founded a nonprofit called Lakota Wellness Society, and we want to get more involved in food sovereignty and grow a hemp crop in the He Dog community. So that's basically what I'm doing now, Matte.  

Matte 00:01:37 Awesome. Thank you. What inspired you to start Lakota Wellness Society?   

Vi 00:01:42 Well, I have a big interest in traditional medicinal plants that grow here on our reservation. And the more I learned about how we could be using these plants as food and medicine, the more interested I became in learning more and helping our, our young people especially, learn about these medicinal plants that might be growing in their own, own yard. So about twenty years ago, I worked with Ann White Hat on the Sicangu Way of Life nonprofit. We did some workshops here on Rosebud and on Pine Ridge, and that's kind of where it, it, I got the idea from was from that work we did. But I want to focus on Rosebud and help people understand that natural foods and natural medicines are sometimes more beneficial than the prescriptions you get through IHS or other clinics. 

And I want our young people who have, there's a lot of people with great interest in harvesting, turnips, picking cherries, plums, those of foods and learning which plants can help, which elements we've got a really good, echinacea plants that grow here, there's some of the best in the world. And I kind of learned a lot about that plant. We also have other medicinal plants and trees that we could be using.  

Matte 00:03:23 Awesome. Thank you. So for the past year, a lot of organizations had to switch the way they, um, do the work. And so how has that been, the pandemic changed the way you work with Lakota Wellness Society?  

Vi 00:03:38 Okay. That's a great question, Matt. I founded the Lakota wellness society under the state of South Dakota in 2018. I got a state nonprofit charter and I applied for a few grants, but I didn't get any funding. So I worked part-time jobs. And then when the pandemic hit, in April of 2020, we got our first, or we got our 501(c)3 letter approving us. So instead of trying to organize summer activities last season, because it was, we were, we're still under that shelter in place, social distancing, mask mandate, all those things. So we decided to apply for all the COVID money that was available. And we started with a small grant from NDN Collective. We did some, some delivery of supplies and food. I think we teamed up with Rez Raised beef from the Eastern side of the reservation. When the Spring Creek community was first locked down last year, we took bundles of hamburger and potatoes for the elders down there.  

We did some toiletries like hygiene supplies, cleaning supplies for elders in He Dog and the surrounding areas. We provided those same things to the veterans around Memorial Day. And just as, as people call mostly from the He Dog community, we've provided disposable diapers, wipes, formula, cleaning supplies, masks, gloves. And we also worked with Delta Roots from New Orleans, Louisiana. This is an organization that my friend Ann White Hat is involved in. They started making elderberry syrup and chest rub and hand sanitizer and fire cider. So they put together all these natural medicines there and they shipped them here and we delivered them to people we knew who were COVID positive or had been exposed and were in quarantine. We didn't get any names from the tribe or the hospital. It was just kind of word of mouth. You know, people talking well so-and-so is infected and he has to stay home for a month.  

So we do the contactless delivery. We'd put it in a bag and just leave it on the front door and then call them and say your medicine’s there. And most of it went to elders and they were really appreciative of this, the elderberry syrup, because that's like, um, kinda like cough syrup with, um, a little bit, lot of other things in there to help you breathe better. The chest robe is like Vicks. She developed this tube. It's like a push-up tube. You know, those push-up, um, ice cream sherbet things, you just push it up and then you can rub it all over your, your chest. And it kind of works like Vicks and the fire cider kind of morphed into a bigger project. So we got some funding, some unsolicited funding, Lakota wellness society got some funding and Delta Roots got some funding. So we kind of came together to start this fire cider project. Fire cider is a drink that contains food.  

We used onions, garlic, jalapeno peppers, oranges, lemons, cinnamon, horseradish, peppercorns, cayenne pepper. Those were like the basic ingredients. So those going to, we bought these fifty-five gallon food drums, and we've got eight of those. We teamed up and bought those big drums. And now we have, I think, four, four drums brewing with the fire cider. So two of those, those are at the Food Sovereignty program in Mission. One is in Standing Rock and there's one in the Black Hills, and we have another one we delivered to the Milks Camp community for the Lakota Youth Development program. We have another one in Parmelee, but for right now, I think there's only four of them that are actually brewing a cider. On April 9th or 10th, I believe it was, we met at the REDCO building with some volunteers from the Keya Wakpala Garden and from the Lakota Youth development program.  

And we processed all the vegetables and fruits and loaded them into those and covered them with apple cider vinegar. And they've been sitting for a week, a month, today it's a month, four weeks. So we decided that we're going to process those in two weeks on May 20th. We're going to process those out to the REDCO building. We drain all the vinegar that has all the nutrients from the fruits and vegetables in the vinegar. We're going to drain it and squeeze it out of the, the ingredients and mix it with honey and put it in quart Mason jars and distribute it to whoever wants to try it. Now, this fire cider idea came from the Standing Rock camp. The, most of the people who were there used fire cider, they used other natural medicines to stay healthy while they were camped outside. Um, there was the, the, uh, DAPL cough. I think they talked about and the fire cider was used by a lot of people there. So I know the families that were at Standing Rock are really familiar with it, and we wanted to bring it here to Rosebud, to help our people become more aware of the natural medicines, the food as medicine, things that are out there that they can take advantage of. So that's where we're at Matte.  

Matte 00:10:23 Hmm. Definitely excited to see, um, the whole process from start to finish for the fire cider. Um, how much honey do we have to have for the, for each drum?  

Vi 00:10:34 Well, there was a pilot drum done in New Orleans by the Delta Roots people. I think they used, they didn't fill the barrel up all the way with the vinegar. It was maybe half or three quarters of the way. And it was a big process to strain all that. It was a learning process. And so I think we're probably going to go through that same learning process in a couple of weeks, but I would say thirty gallons of honey for each barrel. So I've got twenty-five gallons on the way, and we're going to have to find more for the other barrel, but we don't have to use a whole bunch of honey. It just kind of takes the bite out of it. So it's still a healthy drink. It's, it's hot. It's a hot drink.  

Matte 00:11:28 The next question is, what do you think are some of the most pressing, pressing issues facing the Oyate today? And then what do you think is the first step in working towards that change?  

Vi 00:11:39 Well, of course the most pressing issues facing our people is the pandemic. We are still in a pandemic. There are variants of COVID now that made their way into our state. There are still people testing positive, according to the reports that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe puts out, the numbers are really low, but people are still testing positive. There's the vaccine available now through IHS, but I think the last I knew there was probably 20 to 23 percent of the total population that were actually vaccinated. So I know it's a personal choice, but the more people who get vaccinated, I think the faster we can return to, um, being in larger crowds. Now, along with COVID, we also have other health disparities here, Matte, we have cancer, we have diabetes, we have heart disease. Those are the most prominent diseases that affect our, our population, our, our Native American population.  

And when, when I was a little kid, we, I don't remember people getting sick with cancer. I don't remember talking about being diabetic. Um, there was a few people who had the heart disease, but for the most part, our people were pretty healthy. Um, and I think in the most recent, maybe the last twenty, thirty years, there's been a rise of food that is available to us. That's processed, there's junk foods that our children want. And I believe that a lot of those processed foods, a lot of those, those junk foods like hot Cheetos, hot chips, whatever you want to call them. Those are contributing to our young people having, having health health issues at a young age, there are people twenty years younger than me, sometimes thirty years younger than me who are having gallbladder surgery now. And that doesn’t indicate a healthy population.  

And so we have to change our eating habits and the food sovereignty movement now is here to do that. So I believe that more of our people who are, who want to live healthy lives, who want to live long lives so they can enjoy their grandchildren or even their great-grandchildren. We have to change the way we eat Matte, it it’s, we have to. I go in the store now, and there's all these different varieties of chips. There's all these different varieties of candy bars and pastries and sweet snacks, sweet drinks, soda juice, um, the energy drinks. I know one energy drink is 84% sugar, and it's just not healthy. You risk you risk your, um, your older years when you eat, eat those kinds of foods. I've um, and I'm guilty. I buy the hot chips for my grandkids, but I try to do it in moderation because I really believe that there's something put in those processed salty snacks that is addictive.  

I really do. I believe that. And I think that's why our children want those things so much. They want the processed foods. There's something in there that's, that's, they're addicted to just like some of us are addicted to cigarettes or alcohol or other drugs. Our children are addicted to these unhealthy foods and there's, um, so much health problems with our young population now that they weren't there when I was a kid. So we have to turn ourselves around and go back to the way our ancestors fed themselves, a lot of game, deer, a lot of people that eat deer meat, there's elk available here. And, do make our meals with those kinds of food, Buffalo, we, um, there was a big herd now growing down in Mustang Meadows, the tribe has their herd, and sometimes you can buy meat when they have it on stock.  

So those kinds of things are really important. Now, if we want our young people to grow up healthy, to live beyond the standard, um, I'm not sure what you call it, but the hospital has this, we only live to be a certain age. It's like in your fifties, you know, we have a shorter lifespan than the other races. And I believe it's because of our diet. So gardening is one thing that, that we can do. And it's this, the time is now the season is now maybe in, uh, next week or the week after it'll be warm enough to actually put our starter plants in the ground and get those going and harvest some, some tomatoes and peppers and learn how to can and, and make those foods last all year round, because that's what our grandparents did. I watched my grandma can all her garden vegetables and make jelly out of it, of cherries and plums and buffalo berries. So it's something that we already know how to do. We just have to get back to trying to have a healthy nation, because we're not going to get any healthier if we keep eating hot chips and drinking Cokes.  

Matte 00:17:54 Definitely. And so by one of the, one of the questions that I always get asked, and I sometimes have a different response, um, throughout my time with the Food Sovereignty Initiative. Um, but it's been, what does food sovereignty mean to you?  

Vi 00:18:12 When I'm asked that question, Matte, the first thing I say is food sovereignty is feeding yourself without going to the store. And if you think about that answer, how do you feed yourself without going to the store? You have to grow your own food. You have to harvest the foods that are out there, like the, the wild fruits and the turnips, and learn how to hunt or teach. Have your children learn how to hunt or your grandchildren, the ones who are older and, or maybe the hunters could have their deer processed and donate it to the elders. I know some of them already do that, but maybe we could make a bigger effort to have all the deer that are shot during hunting season to actually go into, into an elder's home or a home with a lot of children who maybe doesn't have a lot of money.  

And we can also provide recipes on how to cook these foods to make them taste like they were made in a restaurant, just because it's wild food doesn't mean it, it doesn't have to be good food. We can add our own spices. We can add our garden vegetables to these foods and make them good, make them appealing to our children. So yeah, food sovereignty is feeding yourself without going to the store. I remember what I told these little boys that were in a group peeling turnips, and they were like, Whoa... you could just see the wheels turning in their head. Wow. What if there was no store? How am I going to eat? And we, we always have to prepare for the future because we've gone through a lot as Lakota people. And we just have to keep preparing for the future because, we want our tribe to live. And food, we can't live without food. So yeah, we've got to learn how to produce our own food and not run to the store every time we need something. I hope that makes sense.  

Matte 00:20:36 That definitely makes sense. And, you know, I love that response. I think the same way too. Um, yeah, I think I always have a different response every time, depending on who the audience is too. But yeah, I love that. I think we always got to prepare and, you know, sometimes there's going to be, there's probably going to be a time one day when the, the semis stop coming to the reservation. You know, we already kind of experienced it this past year where some of the shelves were empty and you know, the prices on the hamburger were really expensive. So definitely got to prepare and learn how to do that ourselves. So what advice do you have for others who are interested in learning more about medicinal plants and their uses?  

Vi 00:21:18 Well, a lot of us have cell phones now or computers. And the way I started was I just started researching. I bought a book that told of all the uses of these different plants and fruits, and that's where I started. I started looking at them and then I looked around and tried to find what grew locally, because we have a lot of medicine plants that grow here. And it took me all this time to learn about them. And we have all these mints that grow here. They grow in abundance every summer, they're already coming up. And so those are really important to make teas. You can put it in your salads and the turnips will be right here in a few weeks and we can go last year. I was really glad to see so many families out there digging their own turnips, families that never did it before they were out there harvesting.  

And I thought that was a really good thing because if, if we don't harvest these plants and wild foods and wild fruits, then they might not come back. Because I believe the plants and the trees and, and all of these are, they're living beings. And when we harvest our, our foods or plants, we approach them as, as they are living beings. Talk to them, say a prayer, ask them to forgive you for, for coming and taking them, but explain to them why you need them while I, I need your help. Say for Sage, for example, I need your help to purify myself, purify my home, to help me in the sweat lodge to help me in the ceremony. I'm asking you to come and help me and take an offering, take a little pinch of tobacco and, and give it to that plant and be careful not to over harvest in areas.  

So it's something that we can all do. The sage is going to be coming up here pretty soon. And I found that if you transplant sage, it grows really well. If you find a little spot where there's a big, big patch of sage, and it's not very, not very tall yet you can kind of pull out a square or like a, you know, how that sod is with the ready-made grass. They just roll it out. That's what I did. I found a little cliff alongside a road, and I just kind of dug a little square out of that sage patch and put it in a box and took it back to my house and planted it in my yard. And it just grew and grew and grew and it spread out and it's there so I can water it so I can have my own tall sage in the summertime, same thing with sweet grass. You can do that same thing with that. And, um, so yeah, just get out there and start harvesting.  

Matte 00:24:37 And finally, where can people find you and learn more about Lakota Wellness Society? 

Vi 00:24:43 The Wellness Society has a Facebook page that I try to stay pretty active on there. We also have a tobacco disparities grant from the state of South Dakota. That was another one of our first grants last year. COVID kind of put the skids on that, but there's been some radio ads. I know that smokers have heard on KOYA radio. So, but we've got a Facebook page. I think it's just called Lakota Society. And you can, it, you can message us there. My phone number is (605) 747-2037. We have a website actually is And I'm, I'm guilty of not updating that. So I hope to put some more updates there for y'all to see, but you can send a message through there. There's an email address on there and yeah, I just live in He Dog or you can call me any time, I can come and talk to you about what these plants can do for you and what your interests are.  

So I welcome phone calls, welcome visits to the Facebook or the website, and hope that everyone gets out and pick some sage this year, pick some cherries, grow some tomatoes and peppers and make yourselves a salsa, I know there's a big garden West of St. Francis. He makes a lot salsa, and I think the food sovereignty program also does some canning. So yeah, let's, let's get healthy. Let's, let's help our children to learn how to grow their own food so they can have their own gardens when they're our age. And maybe they can live a little bit longer than what the statistics tell us that we're going to live. So thank you.  

Matte 00:26:40 Yeah. Thank you Vi for coming and being on the show, we really appreciate it.  

Outro You’ve been listening to Food Revolution with the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative. Don't forget to follow us on Facebook at Sicangu Community Development Corporation, Instagram @Sicangucdc, and check out our website  at Thanks for tuning in and we'll catch you next time in two weeks. 

Produced by Mairi Creedon

Brought to you by Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative of Food Revolution