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.

Subscribe today and save 58%

Subscribe to Mother Earth Living !

Mother Earth LivingWelcome to Mother Earth Living, the authority on green lifestyle and design. Each issue of Mother Earth Living features advice to create naturally healthy and nontoxic homes for yourself and your loved ones. With Mother Earth Living by your side, you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $19.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $24.95.

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds