Čhaŋíčaȟpehu: Nettles in early June

Čhaŋíčaȟpehu, Urtica dioica, Stinging nettles. They grow in shaded, damp areas.

Many people today avoid them or even wear thick gloves to pull them out for fear of the sting.

But on Standing Rock, the knowledge that they are actually a powerful medicinal plant, and that the stingers can help with pain and inflammation, is coming back to the people. Now, nettle patches in public or accessible areas are becoming more popular, as people seek out the fresh nettles to do “whipping treatments,” whipping the stinging hairs against inflamed joints or other painful spots.

This knowledge is spreading through Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Ethnobotany classes at Sitting Bull College, through word of mouth, and through the Tribal Health Department’s educational activities, such as the Awáŋič’iglaka Pain Summit, where they presented this plant as one alternative to opiate prescription medications. Many people have personal testimonies of dramatic transformations in their pain and mobility as a result of this plant.

I returned to this nettle patch a week later. (I will not disclose the location, as it is already pretty well-known around the rez, and over-harvesting could damage it.) I found that someone, or perhaps a group or family, had cut off the tops of many plants, probably for medicinal use or food.

While this meant that I was unable to harvest that day, it does not actually damage the plant irreversibly, as long as someone doesn’t rip up the whole plant by the roots. Harvesting just the tips is fine — nettles are resilient and will continue to generate new growth tips (which are delicious when steamed or sautéed in melted butter, and also a very nutritious food).

Nettles propagate by either root or seed, so this plant can withstand some human harvesting for food or medicine. Hopefully, as more people come to know about the healing properties of this plant, we will start to encourage it to grow in more places.

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