Processing Dried-out Čhaŋšáša

I let the čhaŋšáša dry out — again.
Have you ever gotten so busy that you just didn’t get to processing the čhaŋšáša you harvested before the bark got all dried out? Or maybe you just forgot about a piece, and discovered the poor, dried-up stick in a corner somewhere, months later?

I’ve done this more times than I care to admit. But even though it will take more work to process when I’m starting with a dried-out stick, I believe it’s important not to waste this gift, and to honor the shrub that gave up a limb for me. So “just compost it and try to pay more attention next time” is not an option for me.

In case anybody else finds themselves in this predicament, I want to share what’s worked for me. Through trial and error, I’ve improved my methods over, well, more than a couple times that I’ve found myself in this situation. But I am by no means an expert, and if anybody has better ways of doing this, I would love to hear them! Please feel free to comment here or contact me.

Step 1 for processing dried-out čhaŋšáša is always going to be soaking it in water (see pic above).

I haven’t found much difference between soaking it overnight and just soaking for an hour or so. But once it’s been dried, it seems to return to its dried-out state much faster than a fresh piece would normally dry out while you’re working on it. So I keep returning it to the water, even in the middle of shaving/peeling it, to rehydrate and make the process easier — as you can see, 2 of the 4 sticks in the pic above are in the middle of being peeled, but needed to go back into the water for an additional soak.

Different pieces seem to rehydrate differently. Some regain their vibrant red color. others stay darker red. Some, like this piece, become mottled:

Step 2 is going to be peeling off the outer red bark, as you usually would. Some pieces will come off easily, like they do for fresh čhaŋšáša, and others will take more work. You can see that some of the pieces have jagged edges, which I’ve never seen when working with the fresh plant, as long as you have a sharp enough knife*:

(*and you don’t need a fancy knife. I found the red one pictured above sticking out of the soil in the garden plot behind my place after the previous tenant moved out. A little soap, water, and sharpening, and I’ve been using it for my čhaŋšáša ever since.)

Step 3 would be to continue rehydrating as necessary.

Step 4: peel off the inner bark. This may also come off differently than it does when it’s fresh — and the way it peels can be different from one stick to the next, even if they’re the same age and came from the same bush. But with persistence and repeated soaking, it should come off! The above pic is from several dried-out branches I processed over the weekend.

In the end, the water I’d been soaking it in was the same color as the tea you make from the red outer bark of the čhaŋšáša. I drank it, and it tasted the same, too, and had a bit of that energizing effect. So I may have inadvertently found a passive method of making a cold-brew čhaŋšáša tea!

Another thing I noticed this time around is that it’s easy enough, if you’re careful, to hollow out the pithy/foamy-looking white inside of the stems to create a hollow tube, which can be used for wooden beads, among other things (not pictured).

Pȟežíȟota kiŋ Hinápȟa: Spring sage, and Sage Tea

A shot from last spring: The first spring shoots of Pȟežíȟota (ceremonial sage, Artemisia ludoviciana) emerging in on the prairies of Standing Rock in late April 2018.

Working with this plant over the years, I have noticed that there are certain times of the year that are better to pick it for certain uses. The more mature the plant gets, the stronger the aromatic oils in it become. Early spring sage like this is not very good for smudging, as it will smell more like smoke than like sage — but its delicate flavor makes it perfect for tea.

Sage tea is a great cold remedy. You can make it from all the above-ground parts of the plant. (I don’t know if you can use the roots — I’ve always been taught never to pull them up when harvesting. This is a perennial plant that relies on its roots to regenerate each year, and also propagates by roots.) I’ve made sage tea with just the stems after using the leaves for smudging, with just leaves, with a mix of stems and leaves, and occasionally with flowers/buds.

Sage tea works best as an infusion, not a decoction. For an infusion, you boil water, and pour it over the plant material in a cup or pot, and let it steep. (With a decoction, you put the plant into boiling water for awhile to let its cell walls break down and release the medicine. Decoctions are a more typical preparation for woody stems and roots.) You can use more mature sage, harvested later in the season, for tea — but you need to be careful not to use too much of it, because it can get too strong.

I knew a guy in college who wanted to make this traditional medicine, which he remembered his uŋčí giving him as a child, to help his sick boyfriend. He was very concerned about this guy, who had come down with a really awful cold, and he cared about him a lot, so he wanted to do everything he could to make him better. So, filled with concern and good intentions, he gathered up as much sage as he could find, and put it in a big pot with some water. He boiled it for a long time, to make the medicine really strong. Finally, he gave a cup to his boyfriend. It was extremely bitter. His boyfriend was from another territory, and had never tasted our sage tea, so he didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like — so he drank it anyway. And the poor guy got even sicker. If I am remembering correctly, that extremely potent sage tea gave him bad stomach troubles, on top of the horrible cold.

So, stick with an infusion, not a decoction — and be careful not to overdose on this medicine!

I wouldn’t pick the first new leaves of a wild sage plant, because I’d want to give it a chance to grow and replenish itself after the winter — but in town in Fort Yates, sage grows on a lot of people’s front lawns. When I lived in that part of town, when I heard the tribe’s lawnmowers coming, I would get out there with my clippers and a canvas bag. I’d harvest as much spring sage as I could, knowing it’d otherwise be eaten by the lawnmower. I was amazed by how quickly the plants would grow back after each haircut, again and again — when it’s healthy, this kind of sage is a very resilient plant.

Early spring Cattail Fluff

It’s early spring, and the new green shoots of this year’s cattails are just getting started underwater, and aren’t yet visible. But the remains of last autumn’s cattail crop still stand, poking out of the cold water. Weathered by the winter, the cattails turn to fluff in my hands.

You can only get the fluff during certain times of the year. The brown, fuzzy cattail is the flower and seedhead for the cattail plant. During different times in the plant’s lifecycle, it takes different forms: producing pollen, and eventually maturing into fluff, that releases itself to plant more seeds, and eventually biodegrades. Cattail fluff is a fall and early-spring occurrence.

I have never personally worked with cattail fluff. It is soft and absorbent, and I know that traditionally, people use it for diapers and menstrual pads, among other things.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer has a great description of introducing her students to a cattail marsh, describing it as a superstore supplying all our needs, from shelter to food.

You can’t usually get everything a cattail stand has to offer all on the same day, due to the seasonality of each of the plant parts. But over the course of a growing season, this plant will supply many of our needs. As the fluff biodegrades and falls away, the next offering of the cattail plant emerges: the tender, young edible bamboo-like cattail shoots of early spring.

Ȟaŋté Ačháȟšlaya – Ice-covered Juniper

Photo taken in Shoshone-Bannock territory, at Massacre Rocks State Park in Idaho. Covered in ice and snow after an early-spring storm in mid-March 2019.

There are so many juniper (ȟaŋté) species in North America, and I have yet to learn them all. This one is a little bit thicker, bluer, and more resinous than the one we have on Standing Rock (Juniperus virginiana). Ours is thinner, more of a dark green, and the needles are more delicate.

The berries on this species are also quite different from the ones we have on the prairies. Ours have a much smaller seed, and a much fleshier, softer fruit. These have a larger fruit that is hard, has spikes coming off of it, and have a large(r), hard seed inside. Our prairie junipers produce berries that are good to incorporate into food or medicine, but I’m not sure how edible the juniper berries out in Sho-Ban territory are.

Botanical note: Cedar (Thuja species) and Juniper (Juniperus species) are both evergreen trees. While many people call them both “Cedar” in English, they are different trees, and have different medicinal properties, so I would not recommend using them interchangeably.

If any readers in Sho-Ban territory want to share more information about this tree and your relationship with it, I would love to learn, and get to know it better.

Wamákȟaškaŋ: Finding Food in Winter

A coworker of mine in another city, who grew up in the tropics, reacted with shock when I sent her a picture of a bison standing in deep snow, digging to get to the grasses below for a meal.

“Don’t they hibernate during the cold months?” she asked.

I won’t get into the biology of which animals do or don’t hibernate, and why. But I do want to talk about the amount of food resources that are still out there, even even the landscape is covered with a thick layer of white snow. Many animals neither hibernate nor migrate, but find enough plant and other food resources to make it through the winter in the Dakotas.

Pheasants eating crabapples outside the Catholic Church in Fort Yates:

(Pheasants are actually not indigenous to North America. Most crabapples aren’t, either, although I have heard from Linda Black Elk that this variety resembles a type that is.)

I didn’t get any more good photos of animals eating this winter, but some small birds are also active:

And also feral cats (left – not native) and rabbits (right – native species).The herbivores find enough wild plant resources to get through the winter. And the cats and other carnivores…well, they will go for most of the herbivores mentioned above. 

On Čhaŋšáša and Traditional Tobacco

Winter projects, continued: Peeling the red outer bark away to reveal the green cambium layer on a fresh čhaŋšáša branch.

Another, more abstract waníyetu wóečhuŋ: reflecting on what “traditional tobacco” means.

If you are wondering about ceremonial uses of čhaŋšáša and would like to know more about the traditional teachings around it, there are a few good resources available online. A student from the University of Minnesota who read this blog and recently contacted me for an interview shared some of the other sources she had found with me. In particular, “Use of Sacred Tobacco,”a 7-page PDF from Find Your Power (a South Dakota-based campaign against commercial tobacco) may be of interest. This one, “Sacred Willow,” from Keep it Sacred, is a good 36-page PDF on the same topic that cites elders from across Lakota & Dakota country. There is also a good PBS video, “Reclaiming Sacred Tobacco,” on the topic.

One thing I disagree with some of these sources on is what constitutes “traditional tobacco.” Many sources state or imply that tobacco (Nicotiana species) is not native to North America. They say it is all imported from the Caribbean, and that Native North American peoples have never traditionally used any tobacco (i.e. any Nicotiana species) in our ceremonies. The PBS video makes this claim, all the while showing footage of Native people cultivating a plant that is clearly Nicotiana rustica, i.e. native North American tobacco. These sources’ perspective is that real “tobacco” for Native peoples is čhaŋšáša.

But this does not reflect my experience — I have grown many types of tobacco over years, and I believe the above perspective oversimplifies the issue. Nicotiana tabacum, which originated in the Caribbean, is very different from our native North American tobaccos, which are (mostly) Nicotiana rustica. (I have cultivated both, and can attest firsthand that there are major differences — I may write about that in a future post.) Many tribes have cultivated their own distinct local varieties of N. rustica, which are adapted to their particular climates and needs. Plenty of tribes and indigenous seedkeepers have continued to grow their people’s N. rustica tobacco varieties in an unbroken lineage for many generations. As far as I can tell, we have used our traditional tobaccos (N. rustica varieties), in addition to čhaŋšáša, for a very long time.

Some of this may be a translation issue, where the English word “tobacco” is used to represent several very different plants. This is one reason why I like to include Latin (botanical) names for plants — unlike English, where many plants may share a name, each plant has its own unique botanical name.
The plants I have heard called “tobacco” in English:
-Cornus sericea (čhaŋšáša, red willow)
-Nicotiana tabacum (Caribbean tobacco, čhaŋlí in Lakota)
-Nicotiana rustica (North American indigenous ceremonial tobacco, , čhaŋlí in Lakota)
-Arctostaphylos uva ursi (Bearberry or kinnikinnick, the latter being a Cree word that also has its name applied to a large number of plants, or waȟpé čhaŋlí in Lakota)
There are probably more names, but those are the ones that come to mind at the moment.Another contributing factor here is the fact that with so many different Indigenous Nations across Turtle Island, there is a huge diversity of traditions and practices. People (including me) often want an easy, simple answer about what is “traditional” or what is “the right way” to do things. But the reality is that these answers are as diverse as the original peoples of this land are — and, arguably, even more diverse, since individual families within tribes sometimes may have different ways of doing things. I am no authority on things, and can only report what I have observed and been taught myself. I don’t want to present the ways I have been taught as the right ways or the only ways — and if I accidentally do so anywhere in this blog, I would offer my apologies and ask readers to kindly point it out so I can correct myself. In my experience, the people who present their teachings on any topic as “the one and only true way” are fundamentalists, so I try to avoid them.Oops, I think I accidentally delved into theology for a minute there. Back to plants. The shorter version of this is that there is no one right/true/correct answer about traditional North American relationships with the many plants that we call “tobacco” in English.

For readers who aren’t satisfied with the ambiguity in this answer, my best advice is to go find the trusted and respected knowledge-keepers in your own community. And ask them, according to your own protocols (whether that means making a tobacco offering, or something else), for their help and guidance in understanding the relationships that your people have with these plants. And if nothing else, go ask these plants themselves. The answers may surprise you.

Wild Grape Juice – Čhuŋwíyapehe Iyúwi Haŋpí

Wild grapes. Čhuŋwíyapehe iyúwi. Vitis riparia.

I like wild grapes so much better than the domestic ones. They’re the perfect mix of tart and sweet, and there’s also the element of appreciating something you have to work for, since (at least on Standing Rock) harvesting wild grapes involves a trip into the woods, and usually at least a few minor brushes with poison ivy.

Wild grapes are much tarter than the domestic ones, and it takes a lot more of them to make a good grape juice. But my Anishinaabe friend makes and freezes a bunch each year, for use throughout the winter. This picture was fresh out of the freezer in late February. She mixes in a bit of sweetener (honey, perhaps? I don’t remember.) so it is not too sour.

I’m don’t drink juice often enough to try this at home, so I don’t have any wild grape juice recipes to share. But I do appreciate the occasional cup when I visit her. When I drink domestic grape juice from the store, the intense sweetness burns my throat. But with this wild grape juice, it when you drink it, it feels healthy and good.