Michelle Sockyma added to this observation, pointing out that one such plant comes out right around Easter, and that the Hopi use it to create very tasty egg gravy.
Dandelion serves not only as a spinach, but also a healing tea. Homewytewa told of a neighbor’s amusement when she collected dandelions that he’d pulled from his yard. Later, he came to Homewytewa for help with his daughter who was running a fever.
“Here’s your dandelion that you threw away,” Homewytewa told him.
Homewytewa and Sockyma also spoke of the benefits of peppermint, creosote, mistletoe and other plants that could be used for various purposes including the cleansing of the blood system, healing sore and strep throat, and drying up athlete’s foot. Another herb is valuable for diabetes, others for spiritual protection.
But Homewytewa provided a caution. “Our body types are all different. What’s good for one person might not be good for you, so you must work with an herbalist or medicine person, Homewytewa said. Further, some herbs do interact with western medicine, therefore any medications that a person has been prescribed should be shared with that practitioner.
One plant, which Homewytewa described as the “Queen Medicine,” is the Juniper.
“There are no side effects to the drinker. If you need to clean yourself out, boil it and drink it. I guarantee it will clean you out good, so use it on the weekend,” she laughed.
Back to roots
Jill Dedera, the assistant director of the AERA, is a 33-year resident of Flagstaff, who recognizes that her family once farmed, has a closer relationship to plants than her mother did—whose form of foraging was driving along the road behind a potato truck and urging her children out of the car to get the tubers that fell. Dedera described this as an embarrassing experience.
“We felt that it wasn’t worthy,” Dedera explained. “We saw members of our family who still collected plants and herbs, and we would make fun of them. ‘There’s aunt so and so—she’s a witch.’ But the midwife who delivered my mother was paid a sack of potatoes. I tell people she was of the potato clan.”
But as an adult, Dedera began a dedicated relationship with the plant world, both through the planting and cultivation of home gardens to the collection of wild plants.
With her, she brought several trays of well-washed plants that she’d collected as samples for conference attendees. These trays made the rounds as Dedera talked of plants right here in Flagstaff that can be steamed, added to salads, that provide important nutrients including calcium, Omega 3 and Omega 6, and that can stabilize blood sugars. Others are mood stabilizers, others prevent stroke.
One of her favorite plants is commonly known as “cheese weed,” referring to the small round seeds that resemble little Gouda cheeses.
“These were grown by the Romans,” Dedera said. You can eat these, or suck on them for a sore throat. It is good for soothing internal mucus membranes. The leaves (which are edible, but Dedera cautions against eating too many) can be used as a hair rinse, or included in a pesto.”
John Munk, of Thunderfoot Earthworks, examines how cultures arise, and how they are defined by cultural resources passed on as a body of wisdom.
”This knowledge becomes the basis of the culture,” Munk explained.
Herbal and plant knowledge is one aspect of culture.
Munk told listeners that he has learned a lot of amazing lessons by just coming to the plants.
“If you are hungry, you can ask for food. If you are ill, you can ask for healing.”
Munk spent a great deal of time examining the virtues of osha, or bear root. Bears utilize this plant when they come out of hibernation. Munk has watched them chew the root and rub it on their coats.
“This root has saved my life several times,” Munk said. “It gives eliminates parasites, gives energy and strength. You can use it to help yourself adapt to climate changes, or other changes in your life such as moving into a new home. It gives me the gift of reducing my suffering.”
Munk described many kinds of herbs, and advises people to never throw away apricot seeds.
“These should be cracked and consumed. They contain B-17, a cyanide that won’t damage healthy cells, and is therefore important in preventing and combating cancer,” Munk said. “I use these in cookies and bread, and it really enhances the flavor. It’s there, so why not use it?”
The collection and cultivation of indigenous plants is nothing new. Wendy Hodgen of the Desert Botanical Gardens has conducted an extensive study of the agave plant, of which there are between 130 and 150 species. Though all are not edible, the agave is a very important plant.
Though it has long been believed that the agave were not cultivated, Hodgen conducted extensive research that not only discovered new species of agave, but also proved beyond a doubt that these plants had been cultivated by Hohokam people as early as 900 a.d. She was able to identify five such species.
“The agave is a living archaeological feature. Archaeologists and botanists have worked separately for too long. The days of the lone researcher are over. Now the National Forest Service and National Park Service is supporting this work; we now see the landscape not only as natural, but cultural as well,” she said.
Collect with care
Several presenters spoke of the ethics of plant and herb collection, advising that many are becoming quite rare.
Sockyma and Homewytewa spoke of this, “You don’t tell where you got it, because when you wake up the next morning, it will be all gone.”
Sockyma said that part of the respectful relationship with the plant world includes using them for the purpose they were provided for.
“Plants are spiritual too, and they want to be used. I recently went to a place where I usually picked one of the spinaches, and they were no longer there. If people stop using them, they stop growing,” she said.
Dedera advised people not to collect an entire plant
Munk suggested that harvesters leave a precious gift offering when collecting plants.
“This can be coins, corn pollen, meat, or water—whatever you have that is precious.”
Munk shared a song that he sings when he is harvesting plants.
He also told of his efforts to replace what he has taken, using osha as an example, pointing out the many “tops” studding a very large osha root.
”One plant makes many tops, which can be replanted to help reestablish this plant,” Munk said. “One can plant 20 tops from one root. One should take care of each collection spot as though it is your own garden—because it is.”
Osha is one of the important plants with the very real potential of being eradicated from the earth.
The sharing of this knowledge is important not only to indigenous cultures, but to those who have come after. Indeed, taste for some of these foods need be developed, as modern palates have become accustomed to other fare. But it can be done.
“You look at the Native American food here and say, ‘they eat this?’ We look at you the same way when you go out there and eat sushi or frog legs,” Homewytewa said. “We’ve learned from you—now some Hopi use a Teflon grill to make piki bread, but the magic is gone. The flavor is gone, and the men know the difference.”