Napé Oílekiyapi Wíkȟaŋ — Dogbane Cordage

This is another one in my waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ (winter projects) series: making cordage out of dogbane harvested on the prairie outside of Fort Yates. This thin piece was the first one I ever made, a few years ago. Despite being kind of lumpy and uneven, it was surprisingly strong, and was the perfect thickness for a necklace.

This cordage is made out of Dogbane — napé oílekiyapi in Lakȟól’iyapi, and Apocynum cannabinum in Latin. Both names have stories behind them, but I’ll be able to tell the story of the Lakota name better once I get a good picture of the plant in late summer.

There are several great fiber-producing plants in the Dakotas. The ones I have personal experience with are Dogbane, Milkweed, and Nettles. Thick ropes made from the fibrous stems of these plants can be quite strong. They have many traditional uses across North America — just about anything you might need string or rope for.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Dogbane patch in the Santa Rosa area of California, which is traditional Pomo territory. Pomo people, such as Edward Redbird Willie, care for this patch today, and harvest from it for traditional fishing nets and other things. (There is a great episode of the Native Seed Pod podcast about Willie and the dogbane patch.) While the dogbane they have out there is technically the same species, the plants are slightly different. One thing I noticed is that the fiber had a reddish, coppery tinge to it. The Dogbane in the Dakotas is more of a brown color.

Depending on what kind of final product you are hoping for with your cordage, you might make different decisions about which stalks of dogbane to harvest. I’ll make a follow-up post with some harvest pics. But for now, I’ll say that if you want a sturdier, but rougher cord/string, you’ll pick the newer stalks — and if you want a softer, more wearable, but less sturdy string, you’ll go for the stalks that died at least a year ago, and spent a winter exposed to the elements. The cord in the picture above was made from the stalk of a plant that had sat out in the prairie for at least 1 winter.

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