Pottery shards from northeastern Michigan reveal ancient herbs Native American villagers used for food, medicine and woven goods.
Artifacts from a bog reveal ancient herbs Native American villagers used for food, medicine and woven goods.
The fiery morning sun bathed the pine trees in a misty glow as a single shadowy figure moved silently from the village down toward the bog. Deer drinking nearby didn’t even look up as he passed. He knelt on the ground and gently caressed the leaves of a small green plant, then plucked it from the ground and placed it in his leather medicine bag. The Native American herbalist had spent most of his life learning the mysteries of the bog, his knowledge of its plants providing medicine and food for his people. Before the village awakened from its summer night’s slumber, he had finished his morning’s search for plants.
He placed an offering—a small amount of tobacco and some shards of pottery—by the side of the water to thank the spirit, or manitou, of the bog for its generous gifts. Then he headed back to his people as the sun rose over the trees.
That’s the scene that crept into my imagination as I carefully removed the pottery shards from the northeastern Michigan muck. Immersed in and protected by the anaerobic conditions of the earth in the bog, these shards had been lying here for perhaps as long as 1300 years. Their style showed me that they were of the Late Woodland period, and I christened the site “Pot-Shard Bog”.
The bog is located about 100 yards east of Old Van Etten Creek in Oscoda, Michigan, near the north end of Saginaw Bay. Another 130 yards east of the creek’s present banks is evidence of older banks which indicate that the water level has been much higher in the past. On one of those older banks, my wife and son and I have excavated extensive remains of the Native American village whose people once depended upon the abundant plants around the bog. Though housing construction is beginning to encroach on the area, a portion of the land over the now-buried village site and much of the surrounding area (including the bog) have remained in their natural state since the village was occupied many centuries ago.
During our early investigation of the site, we became fascinated by the abundance of luxuriant plants growing in and around the bog. In reading about these plants, we learned that almost all of them would have been used by the Woodland people for food or medicine. The more deeply we have investigated the plants and artifacts in and around this ancient village, the more we have come to admire the tenacity and ingenuity of the ancient people who derived their entire livelihood from this area.
Many Michigan archaeologists have expressed the belief that these people struggled to survive during the winter, and that entire groups often starved before the spring thaw came. However, after experiencing the year-round abundance at Pot-Shard Bog and Old Van Etten Creek, examining archaeological evidence, and reading the detailed writings of the Jesuits and other Europeans who first came to this area, we disagree. Trash deposits that we have unearthed indicate that, at that time, tremendous quantities of freshwater clams, turtles, and fish were available from the river for direct consumption and preservation, and the records of early European contact contain evidence of abundant deer and other wildlife. This, combined with the evidence of extensive, at times ingenious use of the herbs and plants of the area, make it hard to believe that these people could have starved here. Malnutrition became a problem only when, under the influence of European colonists, the natives became obsessed with alcohol.
The Woodland people of that era lived in relative peace, threatened only by occasional warring tribes, and they maintained harmony with Mother Earth amid the pine forests of what is now northeastern Michigan. They foraged for their daily sustenance and the materials to make their homes, implements, and utensils, and they cultivated plants which they needed but which didn’t grow in sufficient abundance in the wild. They held great respect for the balance of Nature: when they took something from it, they made sure it would be replaced. For example, a medicine man in search of a specific kind of plant might pass by three or four individuals of that kind before taking one.
During the Late Woodland period in this region there existed a sacred secret society of medicine men called the Mi-day-wi-win (pronounced mid-dee-WEE-wun). The first Europeans to enter the Great Lakes area named this order the Grand Medicine Society. Although there is no evidence of direct contact between Europeans and the Woodland group living at Pot-Shard Bog, the Mi-day-wi-win dominated medicinal practices throughout the Great Lakes region during the Middle to Late Woodland period. Birch-bark scrolls inscribed with symbols and human shapes served as combined text and prayer books for the Mi-day-wi-win. A few examples of these scrolls are available for viewing in museums, but the meanings of the inscriptions are still well-kept secrets.
One day along the old creek bank, we dug a test hole which happened to be on the perimeter of a campfire hearth. At a depth of about 20 inches, I uncovered an incised pendant of lightweight, buff-colored stone. One side of the pendant looked like a human skull; on the other side, a natural hole had been crudely countersunk, and radiating lines were incised in a starburst pattern around it. The latter design matches symbols contained in the sacred birch-bark scrolls of the Mi-day-wi-win, which leads me to conclude that the pendant belonged to a shaman, or medicine man, who lived near Pot-Shard Bog.
Knowledge about medicinal herb plants was the shaman’s strength, and his secrets were precious possessions; they kept his position in life just a bit above everyone else’s. Thus, we have been able to learn only sketchily the uses of medicinal plants in Woodland society.
This strict secrecy also prevents us from understanding the rituals carried out by medicine men in preparing for a collecting expedition. However, clues from other sources suggest that for a day or more before a collecting trip, the medicine man would prepare the baskets, bags, and wrappings that were to hold the medicine. These would be sprinkled with tobacco and left to stand overnight. Little bags and bundles of sacred tobacco, arrowheads, beads, quilled bands, and broken tools and pottery would be prepared for use as sacrifices to the spirits of the plants. Early the next morning, the medicine man would face the rising sun and pray. Then he would set out in his search for medicine.
Through contact with Jesuit missionaries, the Mi-day-wi-win traditions were diluted by Christian practices and attitudes toward healing. Today, a distillation of the original Mi-day-wi-win society still exists and guides Native American medicinal herbalism in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is still very much a secret society, with herbal knowledge passed down by oral tradition.
Early writings of Jesuit missionaries confirm that cattail (Typha sp.) was useful as a food plant and in many other ways. The young male flower spike—the distinctive part from which the plant got its name—was eaten as a vegetable just after it emerged from its leafy sheath in middle to late spring. The same spikes, left to mature, produced a yellowish pollen that was used like flour, and the rhizomes were collected year round and processed into a flour-like substance. The leaves were woven into baskets, sandals, and mats.
One of the crops the Woodland people cultivated, and one that was particularly important to the men, was tobacco. The type they grew was called “black tobacco”, which quickly became a favorite of early European arrivals. The Woodland people blended a variety of smoking mixtures from this tobacco and/or several wild herbs.
Nearly every man in the village had a pipe, and we have found the remains of many of them in our digs. Smoking has been well documented as an important part of religious and social ceremony and custom in virtually all North American native tribes, and pipes were made with care and fine craftsmanship. One lesser-known role of smoking was as solace and pacification during hard times, as described by the explorer Henry R. Schoolcraft in his book The American Indians: Their History (1851).
Let it not be supposed, however, that the Indian’s life while on wintering grounds is a round of feasting. Quite contrary, his feasts can be followed by long periods of fasting. Smoking parties are frequently formed when there is a scarcity of food and the temper is rendered sour. On these occasions, the entertainer sends a message to this effect: “Come smoke with me. I have no food, but we can pass away the evening very well without it.” All acknowledge their lives to the Great Spirit, feel a conviction that all comes from him, and that although he allows them to suffer, their pipe and tobacco make the suffering easier.
Walking near Pot-Shard Bog in summer and fall, you may see tall stalks of turtlehead (Chelone glabra), whose double-lipped white or pinkish flowers look remarkably like a turtle’s head. The plant is also known as snakehead or balmony. The Woodland people made a laxative tea from the leaves or crushed them as a poultice to reduce swelling.
Poison ivy is abundant in the woods at Pot-Shard Bog, and it has occasionally been the scourge of my digging. But the bog also offers relief: a root decoction of Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum commutatum) has relieved my itching as it did for the native people over 1000 years ago. The Woodland people also cooked and ate the roots and young shoots of this plant.
The bog also provides another kind of relief: tansy (Tanacetum sp.) of a type similar to wild yarrow grows in thick, heavy stands. Whenever we’ve forgotten our commercial insect repellent, we just crush a few fresh leaves and stick them in our shirt pockets. The strong, spicy odor is not unpleasant and seems to discourage flies and mosquitoes.
Besides its use for scrolls and canoes, the attractive bark of white birch (probably Betula papyrifera) was used for all manner of fancy containers. By sewing pieces together and sealing the lapped joints with pine pitch, the Woodland people made containers that could be used for carrying water and catching maple sap. It is probable that the pain-relieving qualities of salicin-related, found in the inner bark of white birch and several other trees, were well known to these early natives.
We have found the seeds of blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) among what apparently are trash deposits. It should come as no surprise that these as well as other sweet plant parts were gathered in quantity. Pot-Shard Bog now teems with blueberry shrubs, some as tall as 5 feet, and apparently did so 1300 years ago as well. The blueberries were of course eaten raw; the remains of many earthenware cooking pots are heavily stained with berry juices, and the Jesuit missionaries who arrived somewhat later recorded that the berries were also being dried and stored for winter use. Tea made from blueberry leaves probably was used, as it was by other tribes in the region, as a remedy for diarrhea.
I was surprised at the proliferation of strawberry plants (Fragaria sp.) at the bog. I’ve often found the small plants creeping out over moss-covered logs that jut into the water, and we have found strawberry seeds in soil samples we have excavated. These Woodland people enjoyed many beverages, and among them was tea made from strawberry leaves, which they collected all year and dried for later use. We find that leaves picked when the plant is flowering have the best flavor.
The natives also made a tea out of the rusty red fruits of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), which grows profusely near the bog. The fruit clusters can be collected at almost any time of year, though in summer, new berries are replacing the old, and the rains of spring wash away the desirable acidity. The tea is at its best in fall and winter. We surmise that this tea was used to treat intestinal disorders and irritation of mucous membranes.
Cranberry plants (Vaccinium macrocarpon), though not currently abundant, grew profusely at the bog in times past. The low, spreading vines bear small, tough, evergreen leaves; the flowers, which develop in late summer on shoots, are a lovely shade of pink. The large, dark red cranberries, which were collected in late fall after the first hard frost, are very astringent but make an excellent diuretic, and we assume the Woodland people valued it for this property.
Along the transition from the lower elevation of the bog to the village, we’ve encountered many grapevines (Vitis riparia), which climb as high as 25 feet into the trees and produce wonderful, dark purple clusters in the early fall. This species is native to eastern North America, and the sweet taste of the fruit is sufficient explanation for the abundant grape seeds that we have found at Old Van Etten Creek. The Indians also ate the leaves.
Various mints (Mentha spp.) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) which grow near the bog were used as flavorings and as the basis for teas. Mint leaves are high in vitamins A and C, and wintergreen tea would have soothed the nerves and relieved pain. We often have drunk wintergreen tea around our own small campfires.
One of the tastier plants available to the people of Pot-Shard Bog was common milkweed (Asclepias sp.). Each plant bears only a few pale green, rough-skinned fruits, wide at the base and tapering to a point. The Woodland people collected young shoots from late April to mid-June and young pods in June and July. The latter are less than 2 inches long and quite firm, and when picked have a very bitter taste. However, repeated boiling, each time in fresh water, removes most of the bitterness. Alternatively, the pods were dried, coarsely ground, and placed in a reed bowl or sieve. Boiling water was repeatedly poured over the meal, and this process leached away the bitter components. Acorns were treated in the same way.
Other plants, collected solely for medicinal purposes and therefore under the supervision of the Mi-day-wi-win, included boneset, spikenard, apple roots, hickory bark, sassafras, mandrake, prickly ash, calamus, wintergreen, cranesbill, maidenhair fern, dock, witch hazel, and Oswego tea. It is impossible to say exactly how these plants were used.
From historical documents, I have compiled a partial list of the common plant remedies that were used at sites such as Old Van Etten Creek. Because of the secrecy of the Mi-day-wi-win, we cannot say for certain that a given practice was used at this particular site. Specific information on how the native tribes of the previous millenium prepared these plants is also difficult to find.
• Basswood root, white oak bark or root, or young pine bark was boiled and applied to burns.
• Young pine bark or white oak bark, root, or leaf was boiled and applied to wounds.
• Blackberry roots were used as an astringent.
• The root of the sarsaparillas Aralia hispida and A. nudicaulis was applied to sores or cuts.
• Sumac tea (berry or root) was used to treat loose bowels.
• Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) root bark and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) root were taken together for stomach problems.
• Solomon’s-seal rhizome was pulverized with sand, white ashes, or clay and ingested for stomach problems.
• Mucilage of the slippery elm, prepared with wintergreen, was given to children for stomach ailments.
• The branches of very young pines were boiled and the decoction used to treat of venereal disease.
• The natives of Old Van Etten Creek made balms of bear grease and pitch into which chopped herbs or minerals were mixed.
• The root bark of the cherry tree was chewed and held a long time against the gums to treat trench mouth.
Dennis Morrison of Greenbush, Michigan, is a freelance writer, photographer, and archaeologist who has published extensively on Native American history and prehistory.