Mother Earth Living

First Nations' Herbs

The North American natives hold deeply rooted herbal practices.
By Robert K. Henderson
August/September 2001


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After threading the dirt roads of eastern Washington’s dusty outback since before dawn, I stopped for a break on a hot June afternoon. I had flogged my tired old pickup to the top of Mount Spokane for a breath of cool air and an amazing view. At first, the state park appeared deserted, until I noticed a First Nations* couple mostly hidden in the brush fifty yards from my picnic table. They were digging some kind of root and stashing it in shopping bags. Their long black hair was tied back from their faces; the man’s topped by a battered cowboy hat with a feather in the band. Both wore faded tee shirts, worn jeans, and cowboy boots. Later, conversing in the parking area, I learned that they were Lakota of the Oglala hoop, South Dakota residents, and long-haul truckers.

After talking for a few minutes, the man lowered his voice and confided, “We’ve been digging bear-root.”

“I’m not familiar with that one,” I confessed. “Is it food?”

“Spiritual sustenance,” he corrected, holding his fingertips before his lips in the ancient sign for nourishment.

Present tense, not just the past

In my backcountry travels I frequently encounter evidence of traditional native activities. This is proof to those who often assume, perhaps, that these cultures no longer exist, that happily, natives are not just a people of the past. Sometimes it’s a bare tepee frame, or a drying rack, or a stand of cedar trees from which strips of bark have been torn in characteristic fashion. There is even a movement among some natives, such as the devout Oglalas I met on Mount Spokane, to reclaim their right to forage in parks, private holdings, and other lands declared off-limits by the dominant society. Whenever I am fortunate enough to meet First Nations herbalists, plying their timeless craft, I am privileged to learn something new and valuable.

Elias Yanovsky, an ethnobotanist writing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1930s, cataloged over a thousand plant species used as food by North American natives. While much of this knowledge has fallen into disuse, native people have kept many of their forebears’ practices alive. As custodians of their people’s vast herbal experience, they have unmatched expertise with local plants, many of which are little-known in the larger herbal culture.

Bear-root (Lomatium) is an excellent example of an herb still in daily use by the First Nations, but mostly unknown to non-natives. Many of the seventy members of the Lomatium genus, variously called ikmish, osha, husk-husk, kous, biscuit-root, and bear-root, are important food, medicinal, and ceremonial resources to western Native Americans. An umbellifer (member of the Umbelliferae, or carrot family), Lomatium is essential to the faith and culture of peoples far beyond its natural range, thanks to ancient trade routes that seamed the continent well before Columbus arrived.

Non-native herbalists are often confused over which of the many Lomatium species are medicinal or ceremonial (generically called bear-root), and which are merely culinary. The term “bear-root” is applied to several species by various tribes. In fact, the Navajo bear-root is not a Lomatium at all, but a closely-related Ligusticum species. But taxonomic distinctions don’t seem to bother natives. Further, the uses of a given species often change from culture to culture. Lomatium species judged purely medicinal by one group may be a foodstuff to its neighbors.

Bear-root’s antimicrobial properties, long appreciated by native healers to treat respiratory infections, have piqued the curiosity of commercial interests. Some native leaders worry that the resource could be exploited into oblivion, as wild ginseng has largely been. Many bear-root populations, once carefully cultivated by the First Nations via harvest controls and strategic firing (setting fire to defined grasslands according to a scientifically-determined schedule), have already been wiped out by bad land management practices of other communities. Today, maintaining bear-root stocks that the natives still have and regaining access to others, are critical issues.

Herbs in stir

First Nations herbs have grabbed national (Canadian and U.S.) headlines in recent years as native prisoners claim the right to practice their religions behind the walls. Herbs play a central role in native faiths, but until recently, sacred First Nations herbs were routinely banned from prisons as a matter of policy. Prohibited items include corn (meal, husks, and pollen), gourds, willow, bear-root, sage, cedar, juniper, tobacco, and sweetgrass. Most are used in smudging, the ceremonial “bathing” of believers in smoke from smoldering herbs, which is a primary element of native religious practice.

Tobacco, of course, is smoked, though not in the recreational sense most often associated with it today. Most sacred of all First Nations herbs, tobacco is a medium for prayer, and an offering that conveys respect for people and spiritual entities. Traditionally grown in special gardens, the liturgical protocols surrounding tobacco cultivation are so complex that in many cultures, a lifetime apprenticeship is necessary to produce a ritually pure crop. Christian communion and Judaism’s kosher dietary laws are both comparable to the native religious rituals involving tobacco. The herb is so vital to their religious expression that homeless natives have been known to collect cigarette butts from urban sidewalks in order to pray.

With the exception of tobacco, corn, and gourds, which are grown in ritually supervised gardens, sacred First Nations herbs must be gathered wild and brought to the prisoners by religious leaders. Sadly, these materials, and often the leaders themselves, are frequently barred at the gate. But there is a movement to change that; a series of decisions beginning in the late 1980s brought Canadian native prisoners the right to possess devotional materials, including sacred herbs.

Row over roe

A friend of mine in college was a Nootka from northern Vancouver Island. I never pressed for details about his family’s diet, but I did ask him what the Christmas meal was like at his family. When he replied, “Seaweed and fish oil,” I asked what particular kind of seaweed he was looking forward to eating. Though he didn’t know the English name, his description suggested sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). Handkerchief-sized ruffles of this bottle-green alga drape tidelands along North American coasts. As I’ve since learned it’s a tasty herb, and a favorite among North Pacific natives. Sea lettuce can be fried in fish oil and served in a bowl like spinach, as my friend’s grandmother did, or torn up and added to rice and soups. Dried sea lettuce is crumbled as a salty condiment for other foods.

Modern coastal nations gather and eat many macroalgae (seaweeds), including rockweed (Fucus) and laver (Porphyra). One has even been the focus of recent treaty-rights disputes. Since prehistoric times, tribes in British Columbia and Alaska have relished the dried blades of a kelp (Macrocystis) on which herring have laid their eggs, or roe. Though priced and revered like caviar in the traditional native economy, non-natives have largely been content to leave this delicacy to the indigenous population. Then the demand for roe-on-kelp, prized as a sushi ingredient, skyrocketed in Japan. Suddenly, kelp beds that had been managed for centuries by local peoples were rifled by profit-seeking newcomers.

Provincial and state authorities eventually stepped in and imposed stiff regulations on the harvest. British Columbia natives were granted guaranteed access to commercial stocks, valued at $18 million Canadian in 1997, in that province, while the Alaska government set some kelp beds aside for the exclusive use of the native subsistence fishery. Though the development of roe-on-kelp farms and the 1999 economic collapse in Asia have rendered the point moot for the moment, these events demonstrate yet again that First Nations herbal ways are still vibrant and alive.

A two-fold challenge

I’ve only scratched the surface. These are but a few high-profile First Nations herbs and practices, ones that have attracted media attention in the last few years. The native pharmacopoeia is monumental, and much of it is still in use, especially in remote native communities. Thankfully, there are still elders (elderly now indeed), who can draw an hour’s lecture from the herbs growing along just 50 feet of trail. The challenge for the future is twofold: to encourage younger tribal members to take up the baton, and to guarantee the First Nations the rights and resources they need to practice their skills in perpetuity.


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