First Nations' Herbs

The North American natives hold deeply rooted herbal practices.

| August/September 2001

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.

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