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There is a lot of modern interest in "Native plant medicines" both from big drug companies and from people who want simple treatments, inexpensive, and without the harmful side-effects that are sometimes manifested in chemical or synthesized medicines. These pages may occasionally mention traditional medicinal values of certain plants, but in general plant medicines is not a topic I'm going to go into here, for several reasons.

1. It can be dangerous. If you are a city person, or for that matter a reservation resident ignorant of plants, and go out hunting and trying to use "medicines" you can make yourself or others very sick, even die. Plants are not in and of themselves "healthy" or even necessarily safe. There are very powerful plant poisons, and some of the most powerful chemical poisons were originally developed from those of plants. There is also a consideration of how the plant parts must be processed or treated proprly, what parts to use, what proportions, and what mixtures.

2. Another reason to avoid this subject is that a sacred or religious aspect is involved in much Native plant medicine, of most kinds, and for most tribes. The principal repository of medical lore for Anishnabeg peoples is Midè an untranslatable word, usualy translated as Grand Medicine Society. One of the principal teachings of Midè is that every plant has a use -- but not necessarily as a medicine or food! All the uses have to be learned, which was part of the instructional lifeways of traditional upbringing -- now almsot entirely lost. The Midè initiate (usually someone who was sick and needed to be cured that way) used to be taught a sort of general medical course, general health. Other medicines were held by individuals, and most knew only a few. Ojibwe medicines tended to be complex, mixtures of many kinds of different parts of plants (almost always roots, though), gathered and treated at different times of year, mixed in specific proportions, and administered in scheduled doses of particular size and dilution. This was never public knowledge, and much of it was learned only by apprenticing to a particular doctor to learn his or her particular medicines.

True doctors were all specialists: they knew a few remedies, and those with different problems had to find the right specialist. This means -- for now -- that any old person who claims to be an "elder who knows all about all plants" is inevitably a fake, a charlatan usually involved with New Agers who want to believe everything is easy.

3. All native people who really know anything about uncultivated ("wild") plants know that prayers and thanks are to be given to the Great Mystery who provides and reveals their proper uses by people. Usually an offering is made of tobacco, sometimes silver is buried by the "chief plant" of a group, representing the spirit of those particular plants. This isn't just a gabble of some formulaic "prayer". All of this is part of an attitude, a culture, a religious outlook, a local society, and a history which it does not seem to me can or should be acquired on this medium. I will here present and discuss only foods and flavorings -- an adjunct to a cookbook. As in the wild rice section (a sacred gift), I will often try to show some of the history, feelings, etc., from my own experiences. I.e. our involvement with traditional foods shouldn't be like opening a can or microwave package. (but there's the practical aspect of feeding a family or lots of people.) But I'm no anthro, to talk of rituals and ceremonies. Discussions of history, etc., are likely to include accounts of arrests and harassments of Native people, bad laws and land thefts, environmental pollutions, destruction of Native lands and waters in respect of ability to survive from their natural gifts.

4. for city dwellers, in most major cities of the U.S. and some in Canada, there are health foods stores -- co-ops, usually -- where many herbal products are carried. Rarely, if ever, are these provided by Native people. There is a whole little industry of herb growers, gatherers, and distributors who provide quality, reliable, clean-processed non-standard plant products for these stores. It has occurred to me that this is an ideal mini-enterprise for some tribal people, including youth during summers. To learn the locally-available plants thoroughly, perhaps to garden larger supplies of some of them, to process and package them and connect with some of these co-ops and co-op product distributors. Such an enterprise would involve youth working with and learning from knowledgeable elders. In the sales and distribution of local herbs, youth would learn practical business methods too.

Users of traditional plants for flavorings, teas, and tonics should be aware that all of them definitely have a certain general health value: nutritional, vitamins and minerals. People of the north did not have green vegetables, fresh fruits, etc. available during hte long winters. Fruits and gardened vegetables such as corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, were dried, but these do not supply the full range of vitamins and minerals (although drying usually preserves what they do contain better than any other method). Anishnaabeg people mostly drank teas, rather than water, and these contained vitamin and mineral components not available to them during winters from other parts of stored or hunted food. So some of these can be thought of as vitamin/mineral supplements. Unfortunately, scientists usually haven't gotten around to analyzing such wild plants for nutrient content, unless they have become of economic interest to white people or businesses. (What we do know is that unless it were a general starvation winter, Native people didn't suffer from scurvy or any of the other deficiency diseases. They were getting quality nutrition when fresh plant foods were unavailable for many months.)

This is something that the Herb Research Foundation (associated with the American Botannical Council) may be able to help Native groups with. Read their mission statement, reports, and some ongoing projects on their pages.


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NOTES for the incomplete ones: remove as individual pages are completed.

3. Chokecherry and other cherry twigs Ikwemusk (women's medicine). No pix. I can scan a drawing.

7. Sarsaparilla Wabos odjibik. Rabbit root, Auralia naudicallis

8. Sassafrass.

9. Dried leaves of strawberry, Odeminidjibik, raspberry Miskominaga wunj, blackberry. Odatagago minaga wunj

10. Arborvitae (spruce, Thuja occidentalis). Gijikandug

11. Pine needles. Jingwauk

13. Goldenrod. Adidjidabowano, giizisko mushkiki (when it's medicine) , Solidago aromatic, single pannicle of flowers, more pointed leaves, leaves smell sweet. Dry upside down.

15. Wintergreen Winisibugons, Gaultheria procumbens. Ferment leaves and berries in glass or pottery in warm place for several days. Then strain. Do not try to extract with hot water.

16. Slippery elm Gawakomisk, Ulmus fulva, a foof more than a drink. Good food (powdered, jelly-like) for people so gut-sick they can't hold down much else.

Get names, amounts, and try to find pix of each wild plant. All except swamp tea and the other one are sold in health food co-ops for around $20-$30/lb (so city dwellers can try them) and it would make a nice summer business for a few tribal kids, find, dry, package, and get co-op distribution.


Copyright 1995, Paula Giese

Last Updated: Saturday, December 30, 1995 - 11:17:34 AM