Decolonizing Regenerative Cattle Ranching | Civil Eats

When spring hits, Kelsey Scott finally breathes a sigh of relief. Come May, her 120 cows will be ready to birth calves, and as the weather warms, Scott knows the newest members of the herd will be able to grow strong before the arrival of another unforgiving South Dakota winter. While winters test the herd’s resilience, snow on the soil actually protects the soil’s microbes, small critters, and plant root systems that support the cattle’s larger ecosystem. As Scott says, she’s just as interested in the life above ground as she is in the life below it: A healthy soil biome underlies all farming.

Scott is deeply invested in maintaining healthy soil. She is the fourth generation of her family to ranch the land along the Missouri River east of the Cheyenne River Reservation, and the 125th generation of Lakota peoples to steward the land.

Everything on Scott’s ranch, DX Beef, is done a little bit more slowly than one might see on a conventional ranch: Cattle graze rotationally on 14 different permanent pastures across 7,000 acres of land. Because her cows aren’t treated with any antibiotics or chemicals, she and other ranch hands regularly check on the cow dung to make sure it looks healthy; If it doesn’t, cattle are removed from the herd and treated individually.

While some might praise regenerative agriculture as a new advent, the techniques are older than the US itself. These foodways are based on ancient movements now touted under new names: regenerative agriculture, permaculture, farm-to-table, and eating local. But the land theft that built ranching businesses is one of the main reasons Native peoples were killed, disenfranchised, and separated from traditional foodways in the first place.

It’s not lost on Scott that the ranchers get most of the credit for sustainable techniques are those newest to the land. Native farmers, who have long been pushed to the margins, want newcomers to the world of non-industrial food production to know there’s nothing about caring for the land that novels grows our food.

“It’s not a new discovery,” Scott says. “It’s just a late discovery for some that are a lot more confident in using it as a marketing approach.”

Colonialism via Cattle

Cattle, specifically, can help tell the story of colonization of Native peoples on Turtle Island. Ranching was one of the reasons settlers and colonizers began to claim land from Native peoples west of the Mississippi in the mid-1800s, according to Ryan Fischer, a assistant visiting professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, and the author of the book Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of California and Hawaii’i.

Fischer says there are no cattle native to this land. Spanish and English colonizers brought them to the US Bison, which are native to the US, maintained the Midwest’s rich ecologies and supported the diets and cultural practices of Scott’s Cheyenne ancestors. But bison nearly went extinct because of settlers’ desire to turn Native land into ranchland.

By the mid-1800s, the construction of railways and refrigerated train cars made beef more readily available and affordable. Later, federal officials found that unused fertilizer from WWII munitions could be used to boost corn production, which helped justify the creation of factory farms and introduced beef to an even broader market of consumers.

Around the same time, Scott’s ancestors were removed from their ancestral river with the signing of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program, which created dams as a means of “flood control.” Scott remembers being told stories of this from her grandparents and great-grandparents; the history of cattle colonialism is still recent.

But thanks to Scott’s work, the land, and the community, is healing.

So while Scott would like to raise bison, these animals need thousands of acres and many years to roam before being ready to slaughter. In today’s agricultural economy, she can’t make a living off them.