Sowing seeds of recovery: Fort Belknap’s transformation through community gardening and youth empowerment

“Thank you for your generosity and confidence in supporting NAEDC’s work and impact in the Fort Belknap communities.” – Josie Cliff, Fort Belknap Community Economic Development Corporation

Following unprecedented flooding in Montana in June 2022, the Fort Belknap Reservation, home of the Nakoda and Aaniiih nations with a tribal membership of 7,000, faced a multitude of challenges, from washed-out roads and damage to the water infrastructure to flood waters bringing chemicals and soot from 2021 wildfires into community gardens. The impact of the flooding disrupted food sovereignty and youth leadership efforts.

In response to the immediate need for clean water, the Tribe’s Disaster Emergency Services swiftly provided bottled water. As supplies dwindled, CDP intervened, linking the Fort Belknap Tribe with Feeding America and the Montana Food Bank for additional assistance.

CDP visited the reservation in August 2022 and was deeply inspired by the Nakoda Aaniih community’s resilience and determination. Seeing the community’s efforts for food security, community gardening, youth education, cultural preservation and language immersion first-hand left a lasting impression on the CDP team.

In November 2022, CDP awarded a grant from the Midwest Early Recovery Fund to the Fort Belknap Economic Development Corporation, also known as Nakoda Aaniih Economic Development Corporation (NAEDC), to enhance its capacity in response to the floods. The flexible funding enabled the Nakoda Aaniih community to address its most pressing needs, including fostering food sovereignty and youth leadership.

To support food sovereignty, the grant allowed NAEDC to maintain and expand operations at the community garden in Lodge Pole, Montana. NAEDC purchased new tools and equipment, eliminating dependence on borrowed equipment, expanded the garden to include honey harvesting, and improved lawn and orchard maintenance. These efforts reinforced the garden’s role as a learning and cultural continuity center and boosted community pride. NAEDC is also in the process of building a geothermal greenhouse to grow food all year round.

Hays Community Garden. Photo credit: Cari Cullen

The funding also supported supplies, equipment and food for three summer cultural camps on the Fort Belknap Reservation that enhanced cultural identity and leadership skills among Aaniiih and Nakoda youth. In addition to learning about their heritage, these camps also instilled participants with a deep respect and passion for preserving their culture. The success of these camps created anticipation and enthusiasm for future programs, offering ongoing benefits to youth and the community.

Providing communities with flexibility and agility to meet emerging needs, this grant demonstrated the effectiveness of trust-based, flexible grantmaking to address the unique challenges of reservation isolation. Community gardening and language preservation were essential for this community’s recovery, and CDP is proud to partner with NAEDC to help address these unique needs.

Story by Juanicia Crump

Photo: Hays Community Garden. Credit: Cari Cullen