Thíŋpsiŋla Sú: Prairie Turnip Seed

When I was harvesting Thíŋpsiŋla / Thíŋpsiŋna / Prairie turnip / Pediomelum esculentum last year, this adorable little seed fell out in my hand:

It fell out of the fuzzy flowerhead, and resembles a very small bean.

When people dig thíŋpsiŋla, we pay special attention to what we do with the green, non-edible part of the plant after we take the root. The idea is that you replant the green part, so it can either grow into a new plant, or allow the seeds for the next generation of plants to have the best chance at success.

Everybody’s family has their own teachings and traditions about what to do with the green top of the plant:

A) Some families plant the green top right back into the hole that they dug the root out of, so it looks just the way they found it.

B) Some families put it back into the hole — but upside down, so the flower head (and any seeds) are now inside the soil, and have a better chance of germinating.

C) Some families drop the green tops on the ground, and letting them roll across the prairie, being taken to their new homes by the wind.

Which method is best? Well, I don’t want to disrespect any family’s tried and true methods. My mentor, Linda Black Elk, another Native person who is not originally from the Northern Great Plains, explains that she respects the protocol and teachings of whatever family she’s harvesting with. If they stick the greens back in the hole, she does the same. If they let the wind blow them across the prairie, she does, too. So I’ve followed Linda’s lead on this, and always done it the way my hosts do it. (You need access to land to dig thíŋpsiŋla. So, not having land of my own, I always go out digging with someone who does.)

But a few years back, an Environmental Science student at Sitting Bull college asked the same question. She designed a research study to determine which method was most successful in encouraging new plants to grow. After a long period of observation, going out harvesting with different community members and documenting their harvest methods, collecting data, and returning to the same patches of land to survey the plants the next year, she found a clear winner. She determined that Method C (as described above) was most effective in encouraging new thíŋpsiŋla plants to grow.

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t bring the seed home — I left it out on the prairie, to be blown by the wind until it finds its new home and, hopefully, germinates to become a new plant.

Turning Weeds into Cough Medicine: Siberian Elm bark & root bark

These pictures have been sitting in my “Drafts” folder for a few years, and now seemed like an ideal time to turn them into a post.

If you live in Western North Dakota, you know Siberian Elm trees (Ulmus pumila). Even if you don’t know the name, you probably know those annoying, papery, dime-sized seeds that float down from each Siberian Elm tree by the thousands each May, landing in your garden and immediately trying to turn your tomato bed into a small forest. And you almost definitely have seen these fast-growing trees colonizing any available space, quickly growing up and out, squeezing out the competition — sometimes breaking apart trailers and other buildings in the process.

This is a small one — the leaves will probably look familiar to many North Dakotans:

You can try cutting them down at the base, but they have a strong root system, and will grow right back. This picture (above) is actually a fairly old tree. In the time I’ve watched it, a local landscaper beheads it several times a year, and a month or two later, it pops right back up.

At my old place in Akíčita Háŋska, one of these sprouted in the garden bed behind our home. I tolerated it because the kids liked it — but within three years, I watched this cute, seemingly harmless tree grow two stories high. It took up more and more space in my garden bed — and also started growing down into our water main. It was time for it to go.

I knew from my mentor Linda Black Elk that Siberian Elm shares many of the medicinal virtues of its indigenous North American cousin, Ulmus rubra (Slippery elm), but it is seemingly less susceptible to Dutch Elm disease. I’ve tried eating the baby leaves in the spring (too fuzzy to eat raw, but they make a decent addition to a sauté), but hadn’t yet worked with the bark — and Elm is known for the medicine in its bark.

I was too focused on saving our water main from this fast-growing tree that I forgot to take pictures. But picture this: a human-sized hole in the garden bed, me with a shovel down in it, slowly tracing each root to its end point, and unearthing it. (My friend Larissa, who saw me when she came by to pick up some plants, remarked, “You look like a badger.” Maybe it’s a good thing that there aren’t any pictures.)

I saved as much of the bark from the branches and roots as I could, and dried them in bags and boxes.

As I was peeling the bark, it didn’t seem much different than any other bark that I had stripped off a tree branch or root. But an interesting thing happened when I washed my hands under the hose, after peeling all the bark. The water turned to gel in my hands. It looked like I had clear snot running between my fingers, and coating my hands. This, my friends, is a demulcent in action.

“Demulcent” is a term that herbalists use to describe a plant that gets slippery and slimy (one teacher of mine calls demulcent herbs “slimers”), and soothes inflamed tissues in the body. They add moisture to the body. Demulcents can be great for soothing mucus membranes in the throat and calming coughs.

Since I knew this plant was a good cough medicine, I had used it to make a cough tea. But when boiled in hot water, the bark didn’t have much demulcent action at all. So the hose moment was an interesting discovery, and a reminder of something I have been taught before: not all plant medicines are best extracted in hot water. Some, especially demulcents, extract best in cold water. If you are trying to get the demulcent action from this plant, try a long cold infusion (6-12 hours, possibly overnight). You can add in other herbs, too.

So if there are any Siberian elms invading your home, yard, or community, do yourself a favor and pull them out before they get too big. (Don’t worry about taking too many — this tree is classified as an invasive species everywhere in North America, and even a noxious weed in some places. Even if you tried, you could never eradicate all of them!) And while you’re pulling them out, save and dry the bark from the branches and roots — having good demulcent medicines around is going to be extra important this year.

Herbal Resilience Guide & PDF

We are happy to share this Herbal Guide to Collective Protection and Healing During COVID-19 with you. This was developed for the Sitting Bull College community earlier this week by community members, herbalists, and herbalism students. This is our gift to the community. Please feel free to share it.

Linda Black Elk, one of the primary contributors to this guide, has reviewed and approved it. Wóphila tȟáŋka to everyone who contributed!

Also, if you plan to distribute or share our guide, please include this additional safety note from another herbalist who just reviewed our guide:

“St John’s Wort is a powerful anti-viral and it heavily interacts with a lot of medications, especially but not limited to some anti-depressants. Rue is a powerful abortifacient so people who may be pregnant or wanting to be should avoid it, and it can be toxic in higher doses when taken internally.”

Not every plant medicine is suitable for every person. Please use your discretion, and pay attention to any contraindications that may apply to you. This guide is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional.

Click this link to download the PDF of our guide: 

Herbal Resilience Guide

Now, below, here are the JPEGs for the guide. We hope this will help you and your communities to stay strong and resilient in the coming months.

The land has always been our pharmacy, and we encourage people to look into their locally available plant medicines. The guide we published focuses on indigenous plants from the Northern Great Plains. Other territories have other fantastic plant medicines. If you are not in the Dakotas, we encourage you to get to know the medicines that grow in your area. Offer tobacco to elders and knowledge-keepers to learn about plants, their traditional uses, and harvesting protocols.

As always, if you are harvesting wild plants, please do so sustainably and respectfully, and please follow the local protocols for harvesting in your area.

Taŋyáŋ úŋ wo, taŋyáŋ úŋ we — be well!

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Wínakapo — Hops

A common request I get, as someone who works with the plant medicines from the Dakotas, is for help managing sleeplessness or anxiety – but not with anything that will knock the patient out too long, leave them woozy, or be addictive.

The flowers of this plant are my best solution.

Wínakapo (Wild hops, Humulus lupus) is a vine that’s indigenous to North America as well as Eurasia. And yes, it’s the same plant that’s used to produce beer, although brewers do not harvest it wild – they have developed particular strains of it that they farm domestically to suit their needs.

The way I use this plant for insomnia is to make a tea from some flowers. It has a very yeasty smell (or cheesy, according to some people), and a somewhat bitter taste. So it is not the most delicious remedy, from an olfactory or gustatory standpoint – but it is certainly effective. You can mix it with more aromatic plants or flowers (such as lavender), and/or add honey, if that helps make it go down more easily. In my experience, it will allow you a good night’s restful sleep, without leaving you groggy in the morning.

This picture was taken in the early spring, during a maple sugaring trip. You can see a few of the flowers, which look a bit like shaggy pine cones, clinging to dead hops vine that grows up between the branches.

While there may still be some medicine in these dried flowers, spring is not the ideal time to harvest – at this point, it has been exposed to the elements too long, and with all of the water and sunlight that has filtered through it, these flowers have lost a lot of their medicinal value. The best time to harvest wínakapo is the fall.

A note about anxiety: My mentor, Linda Black Elk, has suggested this plant medicine tea for people with anxiety. I have not personally used it this way, so I am not qualified to give advice on dosage or effectiveness – but she reports that she has seen positive results.

Omníča Kačháŋ: Bean Winnowing

This is another waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ, or winter project. In a lot of ways, it’s pretty similar to corn winnowing (wagmíza kačháŋ).

After harvesting the last of the dry beans for the season, I bring them inside to finish drying out. I usually put them in a basket. (You have to be careful where you place them, though – unlike corn braids, which can hang high on a wall or a ceiling, a bean basket on a shelf can be an invitation for hungry mice.)

Beans dry out pretty quickly, so it’s not actually necessary to wait until winter to husk and winnow them. But in the fall, a time when harvests come in so quickly that I sometimes can’t keep up, this is one project that can be deferred to a less busy time, provided the beans are stored carefully, so they won’t mold or get eaten by the mice.

Once the beans have been separated from their dried-out pods, there will be some flakes of seed coat, as well as other random debris. The best way to separate this out from the beans is by winnowing. I do this by pouring the beans from one basket to another, outdoors, at a time when there is a light wind to carry away anything that’s lighter than a bean.

These two particular kinds of beans are actually two cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) varieties with very different histories. Cowpeas all originated in Africa, but these two took very different paths.

Winter is also a good time for telling stories, so I will tell the stories I know for these two seeds.

The dark gray one is called a Tetapeche cowpea. I got the seeds as a gift from Dusty Hintz, a farmer with the Experimental Farm Network in New Jersey. I’m not sure how long Dusty had them, but originally, he got his seeds from Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the traditional indigenous food crops of the American Southwest. According to this organization’s website, they first encountered these cowpeas at a market in Sonora, Mexico. I’m not sure how many generations the people of Sonora have grown them, or how and when they arrived there from Africa, or where else they may have stopped along the way.

Although this bean is praised for its hardiness and ability to thrive where other species cannot grow, including a drought-hardiness and an adaptability to poor soil, most of the plants failed to thrive in my garden. However, I later found out that the patch of ground where I planted most of them may have been where the former inhabitant would dump mop-water filled with bleach and other chemicals. (Only a few sunflowers, an amazing plant species known for remediating contaminated soils, successfully grew in that spot.)

The white seed is a black-eyed pea called Fagiolina del Trasimeno which originates from Umbria, Italy. These seeds were a gift from my Italian-American seedkeeper friend Owen Taylor of True Love Seeds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he first put the seeds in my hand, I was charmed by their diminutive size (much smaller than the average cowpea) and their story.

These are a rare, threatened crop that has been recognized by Slow Food Italy as an important traditional food to conserve. I am not sure how long Owen has been growing them, but he is part of a movement of revitalize this cowpea. They are reputed to have an excellent flavor, but I’m not going to eat them – my goal at this point is to plant as many as I can, and build up to the point where I have enough to plant and share, and hopefully eventually, enough to try them. When you’re conserving a rare plant, even one that’s famous for its taste, actually getting to try eating it it is often pretty far down the list of priorities. Their leaves are also supposed to be a delicious pot-herb – but again, when my priority is to encourage seed production, I can’t justify eating the foliage. Maybe in a few years.

Although my 2-ounce bean harvest looks a bit pathetic, I started with probably a dozen seeds of each, so I’m doing pretty well. I’m not sure how long it’ll take to build up enough of a population that I can eat some, but I will report back when I do.

I suppose winnowing beans is not hugely important if you’re keeping them for seed, rather than food – but I winnowed my food beans, too, so why not?

From Africa to Europe and Mesoamerica, and from there to Arizona and Philadelphia and New Jersey and Minnesota, to my little garden on Standing Rock – these amazing little seeds are world travelers with incredible stories to tell. They landed in my hands, and in my garden, as a gift, but also a responsibility: to be part of the next generation of humans that continues the tradition of bringing forth the next generation of seeds. I had one season of success with these little ones, and hope we can continue this way in the future.

Winter Projects: Wagmíza Yukpáŋ

This was one of my waníyetu wíčhoȟ’aŋ, or winter projects, last year.

After the flour corn has hung in braids inside my home for a few months, dried out by time and the heaters that parch everyone and everything indoors during these Northern Great Plains winters, it’s ready to be made into cornmeal.

First, a note on language: wagméza is a southern Lakota word for corn. On Standing Rock, wamgíza is more common. The Dakota word I know for it is wamnáheza.

In my understanding, the best Lakota word for the action of grinding corn is yukpáŋ. Yukpáŋ means that somebody grinds something, especially dry materials. It has to do with grinding something fine, or pulverizing it. The product is wókpaŋpi – or in English, cornmeal.

Both oŋ these words have their roots in kpáŋ, which refers to something that is “ground fine[ly]” or , something that is “of fine grain quality” (source: New Lakota Dictionary). There are 11 words related to kpáŋ in the dictionary, depending on whether someone is grinding something with a tool, a hand, or a foot – and even whether the thing being ground is wet or dry. The one I’m most familiar with is okpáŋla (crumbs, scraps, or bits), which is the word I hear on Standing Rock to refer to corn chips or potato chips.

The corn that I was grinding in this picture comes from the garden behind one of the Indian Health Service buildings in Fort Yates. They grow a traditional garden there each year, and a friend of mine who was an IHS worker gifted me a few cobs from their harvest. So it was ultra-local.

There are a few intermediate steps before you get to grinding your corn: removing the kernels from the cobs (I don’t know the Lakota verb for this action) and winnowing them (kačháŋ), which is the subject of another post.

One disclaimer, before I discuss my process:
I do not grind corn in a traditional way. A few years ago, I attended a corn-processing workshop taught by Kevin Finney, a knowledge-keeper from Potawatomi territory, and participated as he walked us through the traditional process that they use there. But while I incorporate a few things from his method, I do not know the traditional ways that this is done in the Great Plains, either for Lakota people or for my own tribe. So what I am about to describe is in no way traditional. This is just one person’s trial-and-error method for turning dried corn into flour – often with a lot more error, than anything else.

The tools I use for this process (which may change) are currently:
-a granite mortar & pestle. (Holds about 500cc; great find at a Korean grocery store in Denver.)
-a fine wire sieve to filter out big kernel pieces that need more grinding
-a bowl to catch the sieved cornmeal
-a canning funnel to transfer the cornmeal into a jar
-a glass storage jar for the finished cornmeal
-a heavy cloth “skirt” for the mortar (I will explain).

The first thing I noticed when I tried to grind corn is that as soon as I applied any pressure, the pieces of corn kernel started jumping out of the mortar and flying through the air. I thought back to Kevin’s workshop: not only was his mortar (or bootagan, as the Anishinaabe and Potawatomi people I know call it) much deeper, but it also wore a skirt.

The bootagan skirt was a heavy piece of leather, weighted down on the edges, that goes over the top of the mortar. There is a narrow slit cut in the leather to put the mortar through, with no room for the corn kernels to fly out. Since I didn’t have a good piece of leather, I improvised and did the best I could with heavy cloth, tied around the mortar and the pestle. (I will try it with the leather option, once I have a good piece I can use.)

Another disclaimer:
I am certain that there are many Potawatomi traditional teachings around the bootagan skirt that I don’t know, so I am only describing the functional aspects of it here. However, if anyone reading this feels this is inappropriate for me to share, or inappropriate language for me to use, please reach out to me and I will correct myself accordingly.

The second thing I noticed, once I figured out how to make the corn stay in the mortar, is that grinding corn by hand is hard work. The first few times I tried it, I grew sore and tired quickly. I was only grinding a small amount for ceremonial use. I am in awe of our ancestors, who ground quantities of corn that I can’t even imagine for daily food use – and with a skill and speed beyond what I could probably ever reach, even if I did this every day. Much respect, Ancestors.

When most of the corn in the mortar was starting to look like flour, I poured it through my fine wire sieve into a bowl. I returned the remaining large bits of corn kernel into the mortar, and pounded them again. I repeated the process several times until almost all of the kernel pieces were fine enough to fit through the sieve. (The remainders, I put outside as offerings for any hungry creatures trying to survive the harsh winter.)

I also learned that the best way to do this is a little at a time. If you put too much into the mortar at a time, it is harder to hit any individual kernel enough times to pulverize it, and it takes much longer.

When I’ve been in a hurry, I have also tried to grind up corn in a coffee grinder. Some coffee grinders do this better than others. One grinder I’ve used worked pretty well (though you still have to re-grind the large chunks). Another wound up shooting powdery gusts of corn flour out the sides, like little puffs of smoke, each time I tried it – so that was not productive! I also tried grinding corn in a meat grinder, but even on the finest setting, all it did was break the kernels in half.

One of our local elders and famed wasná makers, Loretta Bad Heart Bull, grinds corn in her blender. I’ve seen her do it, and was pretty impressed with the speed and even texture of her cornmeal. But I have not had similar success with my own blender. So while it is certainly possible to use a kitchen appliance to grind your corn at home, I prefer using my mortar and pestle. I also find a kind of satisfaction in the physical work.

Due to the greater surface are exposed to oxygen, cornmeal degrades more quickly than corn kernels –therefore, I’ve found that it is better to wait until right before you plan to use the cornmeal, to grind up your corn.

People who have tried the wasná and cornbread that I have made from our local indigenous corn varieties have commented on their superior taste to store-bought corn, and the fact that it feels more nourishing when they eat it. I have heard (most recently, from the North Circle Seeds podcast) that indigenous North American flour corns have twice as much protein on average (~15%) as commercial GMO varieties (~7-8%).

As you may be gathering from these waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ posts, winter work is not easy, sedentary, or idle work. And these hours of grinding corn are not only connecting me more closely to my food, but they are giving me so much respect for the ancestors, mine and other people’s, who engaged in this work daily, without commenting or blogging about it, to survive. While I still have so much to learn, I am filled with gratitude for those ancestors for all the knowledge and traditions they passed on to me.

Wáǧačhaŋ Wičháȟpi: Cottonwood Star

When I am introducing someone to the wáǧačhaŋ (cottonwood, or Populus deltoides) and its medicine for the first time, I love surprising them with the star.

If you’re just using your hands to break the twigs you find on the ground, without a precise cutting tool, it might take a few attempts to find a perfect star. But it’s always there: inside every cottonwood branch or twig, no matter how big or how small, there is a star. It is at the cross-section of every limb of a cottonwood tree.

There are old Lakota stories associating the wáǧačhaŋ and the wičháȟpi (stars), which explain how and why the star got there, but they are not my stories to tell. Whether you know the stories or not, though, it’s always a happy event when you get to see these stars.

Pápa (Bapa) Waháŋpi

This is one of my favorite traditional foods. Pápa (or Bapa, as it’s often called around here) is dried meat, usually wild game — and waháŋpi means “soup.”

The main plant ingredients are sliced thíŋpsiŋla (Pediomelum esculentum) and waštúŋkala (dried sweet corn, Zea mays).

This is a hearty, nourishing winter soup. I had this bowl as part of a wintertime soup and stew cook-off contest at Sitting Bull College. The contest took place during a handgame tournament that we hosted, which attracted competitive teams from 4 states. People got pretty creative, cooking everything from pickle soup to tȟaníǧa. I don’t recall who won, but I definitely voted for this one.

Winter Wormwood

Wormwood. Pȟežíȟota swúla. Artemisia absinthium.

This plant, introduced here from Eurasia, is one of the hardiest members of the sage (Artemisia) family. I took this picture in late winter, when the snow was starting to melt, but no other plants had emerged yet. It must have a lot of antifreeze in its leaves, because the temperatures were still below freezing a lot of the time.

I have seen wormwood growing in the dead of winter many times. I remember once, during the winter when we had Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp, I needed this medicine. It was one of the harshest winters we’ve had for a long time. But in February, when there was 2 feet of snow on the ground almost everywhere, I found a few tiny wormwood plants growing up around a propane tank.

Since then, I have seen small wormwood plants growing in the shadow of propane tanks in the dead of winter in lots of other places. It seems that the large stalks of the plant die off during the early freezes of autumn. But then, as the season wears on, small leaflets of new growth start to appear around the base of the plant. While they don’t seem to be able to get too big in the winter, the harsh temperatures don’t seem to deter it from growing.

These pictures were  taken in December. This plant is very resilient, always coming back even after many frosts!

There’s only one other plant that I’ve seen growing green during this time of year, when everything not blanketed in white snow and ice is showing the brown and yellow hues of dead leaves. The other winter-survivalist plant is Wormwood’s cousin, another Artemisia: pȟežíhota waštémna (Artemisia frigida, women’s sage, or fringed sage). The form that plant takes in the winter is small, tight little green balls. The Artemisia family winter survival strategy seems to grow small and close to the ground.

The brushier Artemisia family members, such as pȟežíȟota apé blaská (Artemisia ludoviciana, ceremonial sage) seem to stay dormant during the winter Perhaps their characteristics are not conducive to winter survival. So during this season, when no other plants can brave the elements to grow, these two Artemisia cousins are the only living green that I see around, besides the evergreen trees. What an amazing survival adaptation!

Cleaning Buffalo Berries

Harvesting maštíŋča phuté (Buffalo berries, Soap berries, or Shepherdia argentea) is messy business. Due to the thorns on the shrubs, and the difficulty of picking them, the traditional harvesting method on the prairies is to lay a dropcloth underneath the plant, and (gently) beat a branch to shake loose any ripe berries.

As you can imagine, this method also shakes loose a number of other things: dead branches, old leaves, bugs, and dirt.

So cleaning your buffaloberries is a pretty crucial step.

My St’át’imc relatives in British Columbia, who call this plant Xusum or xusem, take the baskets of their harvest down to the river, and submerge it in the water. They let the current carry away everything that floats to the top. This is the quickest and most efficient cleaning method I can imagine.

In Lakota territory, where our rivers are unfortunately more contaminated, I haven’t been able to try this method. I simulate it the best I can with tapwater and a basin.

Pro tip: If a berry floats to the top, throw it out. Don’t think, “Well, this one still looks good,” and try to eat it — unless you like biting into worms. I’ve slowly learned this the hard way, after too many attempts. Learn from my mistakes: toss the floaters.

After a few good skims and rinses, you should be left with a beautiful crop of Buffaloberries. I’ll leave the uses of these berries for a future post, but here are my freshly-rinsed berries, getting ready to go into the dehydrator.