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Feeding Hundreds of Water Protectors Daily

Oceti Sakowin Camp head cook Winona Kasto (Cheyenne River Sioux) dices squash to be added to buffalo stew.

OCETI SAKOWIN CAMP, N.D. – Among the tents, tarps and tipis sits the Oceti Sakowin Camp kitchen, which feeds about 1,000 people each day. The people are here at the Sacred Stone Camp protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The kitchen sits under colored tarps at the main tent area. Walking toward it, you can hear firewood being chopped, knives on cutting boards, dishes clanging, and a whole lot of laughter seconds before the aroma of bison stew reaches your nose. Everyone here works together.

Like a typical family gathering, there’s always that one woman who is in charge. At camp, she’s known as the “mother of the kitchen.” She cooks for 500 to 1,000 mouths each day. She directs, assigns and makes sure all of her water protectors and their families are fed before she will sit down and feed herself.

Her name is Winona Kasto (Cheyenne River Sioux).

Water protectors from Bellingham, Washington cook 80 fresh salmon for dinner.
Kasto lives in North Dakota but has a connection to Arizona. She attended Cook College and Theological School in Tempe. She also has ties to churches in Scottsdale and has several friends around the Valley. She now finds herself living at the camp as winter nears. Kasto has been asked to stay through the winter. She has been given an RV and a tipi in recognition of her contribution to the camp.

“I always offer my tobacco to the fire before I start my day, and everything goes good,” said Kasto. “I came here when this camp first started. There was a need to cook; there was a sacred fire and it was a sacred time. I came, I started helping in the kitchen, we all started working together, and I’m still here. I’ve been here from day one.”

The kitchen receives food donations from across the world. Trucks, semi-trailer trucks and visitors are constantly bringing food. Kasto and several others sort the food; each item has its own section and is worked by a volunteer who is constantly trying to keep the kitchen organized. Some foods are stored in coolers and some are non-perishable. Bison meat and fresh traditional foods are a delicacy.

“Every day we get food donations,” Kasto said. “If it’s not a rancher, it’s a truck that’s bringing food. Some people will bring their own food and we’ll all cook together.”

Water protectors and their families line up in the tent, waiting for dinner to be served.
The kitchen is full of laughter and conversation among the volunteer cooks, who are constantly cutting meat and vegetables, preparing a day in advance. Huge pots are full of bison stew. Plastic ice chests hold popovers, frybread and bannock. Women from various tribes show each other how they make dough and bread. Conversation about who made the best frybread at camp lingers beyond the kitchen.

“We have fire keepers, fire watchers, fire starters—we have all these people that come and help,” Kasto said. “There’s always someone that wants to eat. If the kids are hungry, the parents will come and we’ll give them snacks.”

If tribes bring ingredients for their traditional dishes, Kasto usually asks how to prepare them if the tribes aren’t able to cook their own traditional foods. Dinner on recent autumn day included bison stew, popovers, fresh salmon from Bellingham, Wash., a beet salad, potato salad and fresh fruit.

Fresh fruit, a fresh beet salad, potato salad and fresh salmon prepared by the cooks for dinner.
“When we prepare food for a lot of people, you have to have a real good heart,” Kasto said. “All the love and compassion goes into that food. You’re feeding the people, so you take your time.”

The kitchen can always use helpers. If you visit the camp, feel free to help wash dishes, grab a knife to help chop veggies, or grab the flour and perhaps make popovers to give the water protectors a taste of O’odham/Piipaash cooking.