Herbal Escape: Haskell Indian Nations University Herb Garden

Native American healing herbs tell of the past and look to the future.

| October/November 2009

An herb garden at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, tells of Haskell’s history and heartbreak, while offering hope for peace. Students who attend this unique intertribal college discover their roots in these plants; visitors find opportunities to appreciate indigenous ways.

Plants spill into one another with abandon. “It’s not a manicured garden,” says Lori Tapahonso, former head of the school’s cultural center. “We just let it grow as it would.”

People stop and pluck an herb or two. Milkweed’s a favorite, says Tapahonso, who once noticed a mother applying the herb’s sap to her child’s scraped knee. Many use sage and sweet grass for prayer.

“Elders who come here love it,” says Chuck Haines, a professor of biology at Haskell. “If they need [a plant], we dig it out for them.”

For thousands of years, Native Americans have used plants to mend body, mind and spirit. And herbs in this healing garden reflect that: Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosa) for insect bites and eczema; white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) for purification and sore throats; boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) for fevers and to induce vomiting; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) for bites and blood flow; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) for kidney stones and fainting. And that’s just for starters.

The garden was launched a decade ago with help from a grant from the Prairie Band Pottawatomie tribe as a way to promote health, particularly among native tribes. The students, who planted and tended it, also wanted the plot to serve as a reminder of Haskell’s early years, when children were taken from their homes to “educate and civilize” them into the European way of life. Many of the children suffered or died.

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