Medicinal power of plants connects Ojibwe tribe's past with future

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Minnesota's history is rich in Native American culture, the Anishinaabe made our state their home more than 500 years ago. With them, they brought the ancestral knowledge of the medicinal power of plants.

Linda Black Elk is an ethno-botanist, as she puts it, a fancy word for people who teach people how to use native plants for food and medicine in an era of fast food and pharmacies.

“I specifically focus on plants used by our people, native people for food and medicine,” said Black Elk. “So I’m going to show you some of the really amazing plants that are here on Mille Lacs today that the Ojibwe have used for that purpose forever.”

She “plant-walks” all over the United States, sharing generational knowledge of the relationship between indigenous people and the forests and fields where they once forged a subsistence living. She points out the trees and plants that fed and healed Native Americans for thousands of years. Some long forgotten, but others are still in plain sight.

“Acorns make a beautiful food source,” said Black Elk. “They are a nut, so just like you might eat a chestnut, a walnut or a pecan, you crack this. You can dry the seeds inside, keep them for winter. You can boil them down and them grind them into flour.”

While some plants can create life-sustaining food, other plants provide life-saving medicine. 

“The pharmacopeia that the Ojibwe people have right, that’s sort of the living pharmacy that you guys have out here,” she said. “It’s surrounding you all of the time. Everything that we need is out here. And that’s not to say we have to shun Western medicine, but a lot of Western medicine is based on traditional knowledge. It’s based on the knowledge of native people.”

One such plant is called the plantain. It’s not the banana-like fruit, but a weed that grows wild everywhere.

“Actually people call it a weed because it will grow in the cracks of their sidewalk, in the cracks of their driveway, it’ll grow in their lawn,” she said.

The same invaluable plant is often intentionally sprayed out of lawns.

“And I always think that’s such a shame because it’s an incredible medicine,” explained Black Elk. “All you do is you take the leaf, you crush it up and you apply it to any burn on the skin and it will get rid of it in a matter of minutes. That also goes for bee stings any sort of insect bites, even mosquito bites. You can take the pain and itch away from mosquito bites just by crushing a little plantain and rubbing it on there.”

She says another misunderstood plant is the stinging nettle, which causes a stinging sensation if touched barehanded.

“I was always taught by my elders that if I pick it barehanded, I’ll never get arthritis in my hands and that’s actually what nettle is used for,” she said. “You’ll see elders sitting on their front porches or in their homes whipping their arthritic joints with a nettle branch in order to reduce inflammation.”

When it comes to first aid, Black Elk says the green leaves of the yarrow plant could be of service.

“This is really an amazing medicine,” said Black Elk. “The nice thing about yarrow leaf is that it contains a really powerful blood coagulant. That means it will thicken blood, clot blood and stop bleeding of wounds almost immediately. I’ve seen people get really bad cuts, we simply take some yarrow and perhaps the person who has the cut will chew up the yarrow and then put it as a paste onto their wound and it will immediately stop bleeding.”

As for when best to harvest a plant for its medicine, it varies.

“Because plants all have a cycle, right? And some plants are best harvested in the early spring,” said Black Elk. “Some plants are best harvested in the summer, but even [in fall] there’s still a plethora of food and medicine that we can gather.”

For example, Black Elk says autumn is a good time to pick roots.

“When they’re young and green and up on the top, they’re sending all of their medicine and all of their energy up to the top in order to produce a flower and perpetuate their populations,” she said. “So when I’m getting root medicine, I like to wait until it’s already gone to seed and it’s pulling all of that medicine back down into the root system. So this is a perfect time to get a lot of those roots.”

Plant walks, like Black Elks’, are more than just reminding Native Americans how their ancestors lived and survived. It has a more immediate impact of affecting the declining health of indigenous people in a modern era.

“Right now we’re seeing Native American rates of diabetes at almost one out of every three people you meet,” said Black Elk. “It’s horrendous, but we’re also now seeing this incredible food sovereignty movement. This move back towards traditional foods and just how we can rebuild a traditional cuisine.”

That awakening to the healing ways of their ancestors is evident all around the tables at one of Black Elk’s hands-on seminars. An event in Hinckley was full of eager participants make soothing teas, elixirs and other healing recipes with the main ingredients all found in the wild. The items’ proven effectiveness have been passed down for generations.

Among those attending was Carol Hernandez an Ojibwe elder, who has followed Black Elk on several plant walks. Memories of her grandmother inspired Hernandez to learn more and pass along her plant knowledge to the next generation.

“My grandmother was a medicine woman and when we grew up - and this was a place that we were never supposed to play by - in the wood piles,” said Hernandez. “We were not supposed to climb in the wood and well of course we did and we’d get scrapes. We always saw grandma put her weeds, sticks, you know, that type of thing on us. Things healed up immediately without scars. We never thought much of it as kids. It was just a way of life back in the day and our children don’t have that.”

Much has changed for indigenous people in the last two centuries, but bridging the past with the present may also be the key to their future.

“I really believe being out here surrounded by our plant relatives, even our animal relatives, is so vitally important to who we are as indigenous people and so important to who we are going to be and rebuilding our future in a positive way,” said Black Elk.

Black Elk is collaborating with other Mille Lacs Band Tribal members are working on publishing a book, detailing all the traditional cures and recipes passed down through the generations.