Linda Black Elk

The seventh annual Florida Herbal Conference was hosted February 2018 in unceded Timucua territory on the ancient Lake Wales Ridge in Central Florida, with keynote speakers Linda and Luke Black Elk. With a focus on the healing flora of Florida, our conference seeks to not only educate but to advocate for the conservation and preservation of our bioregional ecology. Together, we gather to begin the process of healing ourselves and each other as we also heal the planet. Videos of Linda and Luke’s presentations can be found at www.floridaherbalconference.org.

Thank you all for being here tonight,

I’m Linda Black Elk, you’ll see my family here tonight and I’m really thankful for that. You know? I was never taught to look at plants as a source of food or even really sources of medicine. As an indigenous person I was taught to look at plants as my friends, as my allies, as my relatives. I think probably because of that I actually have a gift for connecting people with plants. I can meet someone and get to know them a little bit and I can visualize a particular plant that I know would provide some healing for them. Whether it’s emotional, mental, physical or spiritual. It’s a really cool gift to have. Sometimes I’ll leave and i’ll have a dream or a vision about a person or a plant and I know i’m suppose to connect those two spirits together for some greater good. I’ve always been really thankful for that and I know i’ve done a pretty good job of being that advocate. So, it didn’t surprise me when a friend of mine, that i’ve helped quite a bit with connecting her with a plant that’s helped her a lot, came to me and said “you know what? You should totally start a herbal Tinder app. You should get people to upload profiles that tell about themselves and then you can hook them up with a plant”. All I could picture is people looking at their phone like “ouuu enchanter’s nightshade… swipe right” or “skunk cabbage… swipe left” (laughs). 

It sounded really silly to me but it got me to thinking about that fact that the relationships we have with human beings are actually really similar to the relationships we have with plants or the relationships we TRY to have with plants. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to anthropomorphize. I do not believe that plants have to have human qualities in order for us to consider them sacred or in order for us to consider them sentient. But if you think about it a lot of the strategies that we employ in healthy human to human relationships are probably the same strategies that we are employing to build relationships with our plant relatives. You want to be a good communicator when you’re working with plants or people, right? You want to be respective, you want to compromise. If a plant doesn’t want you to pull it up by their roots, you don’t pull it up by their roots; you figure out another way. Right? You apologize when you do something wrong. You give space and make each other feel safe. And you trust each other.

I can’t think of a better way to exemplify these ideas of relationship building and thinking of plants as our relatives then by telling you some of my absolute favourite plant stories. These are traditional stories of multiple indigenous groups, the Lakota, the Catawba, the Duka all sorts of nations, about relationships between human beings and their plant relatives that have been built up and then built upon over thousands of years. These are stories that are really important to me so it’s important to me to share them. It’s also really important for you to take them in a good way because i want you to see the incredible benefits of building a supporting, loving, caring relationships with our plant relatives. And I want you to take action, I want you to stand up for these plant relatives just as you do your human relatives. I want you to defend them. Above all, I hope these stories will help you to see the consequences of what happens when we neglect our relationships. I want you to see the consequences of that because our lives really do depend on our relatives, whether they are human or plants, and they depend on us too.

The first story is about the buffaloberry. If you’ve ever tried the argentia buffaloberry you’d know that it is like nothing else you have ever tried. The reason why not many people have tried it, is because this only grows in a particular area of the northern great plains. So that’s North Dakota, South Dakota, a little bit in Wyoming and Montana and that’s pretty much it. It should be on your bucket list to try a buffaloberry at least once in your life! They are insanely delicious. It’s indescribable. They have this fresh berry flavor and it’s amazing. But they’re also a little tricky to harvest. There are short thorn-like spurs all over the plant protecting the berries. So when you go to harvest them it protects itself. It might be saying “don’t take too many of me” or “okay i’m sacrificing for you? you’re gonna sacrifice a little too”. I remember this elder telling me this story of when he six years old. The first time he had a slice of buffaloberry pie, that his sister had made. He said he obsessed over it. He said he literally waited an entire year until he was 7 years old and he went to his sister and he said “I want buffaloberry pie!” Right at the season when they’re ready. The prime time to harvest them is actually after the first frost, you want it to freeze a little bit and for the sugars to condense. Before that first frost they’re a little too tarty but after the first frost they are sweet and delicious.

So he waited that whole time and remembered the whole year where they were and she told him “you know, it’s really tough to get enough buffaloberry to make a pie!” She said, “But if you go out and you fill this milk jug with enough buffaloberry, i’ll make a pie for you!” So, he went out and 6 hours later, he had filled the jug and he came back in with these scrapes and bloody wounds all over his tiny little 7 year old hands. He said it was all worth it! She made the most amazing pie! So, two days later when two elders came to his door and asked him to help them pick buffaloberry, he was torn. They had 5 gallon buckets with them. They said “we’ll make pie, if you help us come pick buffaloberry!” He was hesitant but said alright. So he went out with them to pick buffaloberry, trying his hardest not to hit those thorns because his hands hadn’t even healed yet. But then one of the elderly women did something a little weird. She took a bedsheet and she spreaded it out under the buffaloberry shrub and she got a broom out of her car and she just went *wack* on the buffaloberry bush. Then 5 gallons of buffaloberry fell onto the sheet in about 60 seconds. He just stood there and he couldn’t even be happy! He was pissed off! He said he went home and got really mad at his sister and told her “now you’re making a pie with these berries, because you never told me!” So, it’s what we learn, right? When we get to know our plant relatives they tell us these kinds of things. Like the best ways to harvest them for the benefit of both of us, they let us know this stuff.

Another one my favourite plant stories is something that I think is just amazing. Many years ago, an elder told me that when you pick sand cherries (Prunus pumila or aunyeyapi in the lakota language) you have to approach them from downwind.  Otherwise, they’ll smell you and they’ll turn bitter. I kind of giggled about it. I was trained as a western scientist so I was always like, oh okay, they “smell” me. For many years, I wondered why some of the sand cherries i was picking were sweet and some were bitter. It always bugged me. What the elders said rang in the back of my head, because they know. They have built these relationships over thousands of years through this data that’s been passed down from our ancestors, getting to know these plants getting to know the land so perfectly and so intimately. And I was a fool to just sort of laugh off what they told me, but I was young. So, we did some research and we found that sand cherries actually have breathing pores (stomata) that open up and close and they do indeed pick up on our pheromones to protect themselves from humans and the deer eating too many of them. They pick up on our pheromones and produce bitter alkaloids when they smell us coming. Right? Plants are smart and elders are smart. They are intelligent! If i had learned to respect my relatives, get to know them better and understand the experience of my elders, I would have saved myself a lot of bitter sand cherries.

So, this is Timpsila, in english some people call it breadroot, breadroot skurvpe, indian turnip or indian prarier. I’ve heard it called a lot of things. This is probably one of the most important foods of great plains people. It’s a complex carbohydrate and absolutely delicious. I’ve always thought that turnip was a weird name for it because they don’t taste like turnip. They do have that earthy, sort of root flavour but the texture is totally different. They have a meaty texture and is able to pick up that buffalo broth (or vegetable broth) when you cook them. I always tell my students that if we could stop eating those white foods, (the colour of the food not food brought by white people, but those too!)– If we stopped eating things like potatoes, rice and pasta and replaced it with these, we would really save ourselves a lot of the diabetes epidemic because this is really a carbohydrate. It fills you up, it burns slow and is also really delicious.

Through a long time of really getting to know this plant and talking to people and community members, when you harvest timpsila you stick the shovel in the ground, pop the shovel up and the root will pop up with the plant still attached. So you pull the root off of the plant and you always stick the plant without the root back into the ground standing up. You leave them standing up because the seeds, even after taking the root off, will still mature. The plant will dry up, roll away and they’ll disperse the seeds later. Over thousands of years of our relatives getting to know this plant, they’ve listened to this plant about the best ways to harvest it. In order to make sure that we are helping perpetuate these populations.

Additionally, these are chokecherries, the traditional way to harvest chokecherries is to harvest them and then mash them with a stone, pit and all. The pits contain really important fido-nutrients, proteins and complex carbohydrates. In fact, elders will tell you that it is really important to eat the pit because that is where the medicine is. A traditional chokecherry dish is chokecherry patties, where we’ve taken our chokecherries put them into a hamburger patty and let them dry in the sun. Later on we reconstitute those patties add a bit of water and that’s chokecherry pudding. We call it wojabi.

I can see some of you getting a bit uncomfortable because we know that chokecherry pits contain cyanide. We actually did some research and found that one chokecherry patty would be enough to kill a 250Ibs man. So how is it that we have turned this into absolutely one of the most vital food sources that we ate today? What happens is, during the crushing and drying process, we are actually breaking the bond between the cyanide and the carbohydrate that it’s attached to. As it dries, the cyanide dissipates as a gas, so you’re only left with all of the nutrition. It’s native science. That is something that we have come to learn and understand over thousands of years of developing these relationships with these plants. I always hate when people try to reduce indigenous knowledge to trial and error. It’s so much more than that; it’s not trial and error. We are scientists. We are the original scientists. We experiment, we learn and we observe over thousands of years with this relationship with our relatives.

This next plant is one of my favourite plants, lavender hyssop. It helps us develop loving relationships. When people want to kiss their sweetheart or develop those relationships, they’ll chew on these leaves to freshen their breath. This is  the first breath fresheners. It taste like black licorice. It’s so good! We love it. The Lakota name is “wahpe’ yata’pi” which actually means “the leaf that you chew.” My grandmother told me this story: she had been dating my grandfather for a long time and had decided she was ready to kiss him. That was a big step back in the day. She didn’t want to seem too forward, you know? But she wanted to make sure she was ready. So she stuck some wahpe’ yata’pi in her purse and when they went on their date she chewed some of it. After a while, he kissed her and left a big smooch on her. She reacted with a gasp and said “how dare you!” and he responded “psshh i smelt that wahpe’ yata’pi on your breath! I knew what was going on.” So this is a plant we’ve gotten to know because it brings people together.

Above: Sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata

Next is sweetgrass, one of my favourites. It has actually taught us how it loves to be harvested. So many plants, I have to tell my students do not pull that plant up by the roots, if you leave the roots in the ground it will actually send up new plants for the next year. Sweetgrass isn’t like that. When you harvest sweetgrass you actually do want to pull it up by their roots to help thin it out. Sweetgrass is a ceremonial plant. Up until i was four years old our spiritual practices and religion were illegal and we were not allowed to grow any of our native ceremonial plants. We found that in the areas that we were unable to plant sweetgrass, they choked themselves out. They died because there was no one to thin their roots for them. It always hurts me to talk about that because i always think, gosh, i had a responsibility that i was unable to fill.

I remember an elder, Helmina Makes Him First, telling me that she remembers when she was little riding on Standing Rock and taking her horse and carriage. They loaded it up and rode it all the way from Little Eagle, South Dakota (the southern side of the reservation) all the way to where Cannonball and the Missouri river meets. So, the place where the Dakota Access Pipeline camps were set up has always been a very important gathering place for native people. A place where we would go to harvest plants and get to know these plants. Helmina said she remembers being so young and riding in a horse and buggy all the way up to Cannonball and camping there with 5 or 6 other families. They would spend days, eating singing and laughing together around fires, all harvesting sweetgrass from the sweetgrass beds there. In the 1950’s and 60’s through something called the Pick Sloan project, they built a series of dams all along the Missouri River that drowned all the sweetgrass in those areas. I remember Helmina telling me that back when she was little, they would go there and they’d harvest all of the sweetgrass, putting them in bundles so lovingly. Once they were packed in the back of the carriage, she remembers riding back in beds of sweetgrass and smelling it all the way home. When they got home, they spent weeks braiding sweetgrass and hanging it all throughout the house and to share with the community. She said that for months the house smelt like sweetgrass. They would sing songs and certain prayers to the sweetgrass. It’s always really difficult for me to talk about this because my kids will never know what that’s like. Because of the Pick–Sloan Program my kids do not sing those songs and they don’t know the prayers. We have nowhere to harvest sweetgrass on Standing Rock. I have nowhere to take them to do that. They  have no idea what it’s like to have those braids hanging through the house for months and smelling the sweetgrass. To them, sweetgrass is something we have to buy in a store and braids from people. These are the kind of relationships that we’ve built with these plants– even because of things that are not our fault, we have still neglected our relationship with these plants, and that harms usNot just because we don’t have access to that plant but because we no longer have that relationship.

I guess i do have a few favourite plants, this is one of them. I’ve heard it called “hog peanut”; we call it “mouse bean” in English and in Lakota we call it Makhatomnica which means “earth bean.” That’s because it develops two kinds of beans. There are these little small unpalatable pods above ground on the plant but then below ground it actually develops these beans. Some of the pods will twist their way into the ground to develop below ground and they grow to be delicious, meaty and larger than lima beans.. It actually has more protein than any other legume in existence. These large beans are a really important food source for two organisms. The first organism is the meadow mouse, who will tunnel into the ground to collect beans from the plant and then cache them in these grapefruit-sized caches all throughout the cottonwood forest. (Those same cottonwood forest were adjacent to where the sweetgrass once grew. These forests no longer exist, again because of the Pick-Sloan program.) The caches would sit on the surface of the soil and are difficult to see if you don’t have project.

Before the 50’s and 60’s, this bean was also one of the most important food sources for the Lakota, Dakota people and all the people along the river. A lot of the elders and women that I worked with remember the time when they were little before the Pick-Sloan program made this plant go locally extinct. They would walk with their grandmother(s?) through those cottonwood forests, which were so thick the path was like a tunnel.They would watch their grandmother, she carried a stick, she would be able to stick her stick into the cache, move it around a tiny bit without disturbing it and know exactly what bean was inside. Can you image getting to know these things that well? So, after finding one with mouse beans, they didn’t dig into the ground. These beans are difficult to harvest. They let the mice do the work for them. They would remove the top of the cache and take some or all of the beans. Then, they’d reach into a pouch on their waist and replace the beans with berries, animal fats or dried corn. As they walked behind their grandmothers, they remembered their grandmothers singing to the mice. The song was so beautiful it would echo off the cottonwood canopy. They’d sing to the mice saying thank you. Thank you for harvesting this amazing food for my children and I promise you that I will not let your children go hungry. They recognized that reciprocal relationship. Everyone thinks of the Lakotas and Dakotas as these great hunters of the mighty buffalo and having this relationship with the buffalo and that’s true! But they also had relationship with the tiny little meadow mice as well. My children will never know this experience or hear their grandmothers’ songs to the mice because these relationships have been broken.

Something I remind myself is that just like human relationships can mend, these relationships that we have with the plants and these stories can continue. My kids may have missed out but my grandchildren do not have to. We can mend these relationships and help perpetuate them. We have to remember that our relatives depend on us and we depend on them. Not just for medicine, we depend on them mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

So, I’ve shared these stories with you, stories that in order to save and share i have sacrificed a lot. Two years since standing rock i have been tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets and escaped arrest. Now, I am sharing that with you. You can take these as fun stories,I just hope that you will take these and think of them as a responsibility that you have too have these plants. If you are going to live on this stolen land then i ask you to take action and stand next to me when i am fighting for these relatives. Don’t just go to the store and buy them and not consider how they got there. Think about them. Think about those people who are fighting for their relatives. Fighting for your relatives everyday. It’s not just the plants too, it’s the water. I hear people say that the momentum for Standing Rock is over. That’s not true! People are still fighting. I have friends who are still fighting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. Indigenous people are standing up for their plant relatives. They are fighting for their wild rice relatives.There are people sacrificing their blood, sweat, and tears for wild rice that you probably buy online. Stand next to them. If you can’t be in Minnesota to support them, find other ways. Our plant relatives need us. They depend on us.

Above (click for more):  parts of Makhatomnica, mouse bean, Amphicarpaea bracteata. 

Next is sweetgrass, one of my favourites. It has actually taught us how it loves to be harvested. So many plants, I have to tell my students do not pull that plant up by the roots, if you leave the roots in the ground it will actually send up new plants for the next year. Sweetgrass isn’t like that. When you harvest sweetgrass you actually do want to pull it up by their roots to help thin it out. Sweetgrass is a ceremonial plant. Up until i was four years old our spiritual practices and religion were illegal and we were not allowed to grow any of our native ceremonial plants. We found that in the areas that we were unable to plant sweetgrass, they choked themselves out. They died because there was no one to thin their roots for them. It always hurts me to talk about that because i always think, gosh, i had a responsibility that i was unable to fill.

I remember an elder, Helmina Makes Him First, telling me that she remembers when she was little riding on Standing Rock and taking her horse and carriage. They loaded it up and rode it all the way from Little Eagle, South Dakota (the southern side of the reservation) all the way to where Cannonball and the Missouri river meets. So, the place where the Dakota Access Pipeline camps were set up has always been a very important gathering place for native people. A place where we would go to harvest plants and get to know these plants. Helmina said she remembers being so young and riding in a horse and buggy all the way up to Cannonball and camping there with 5 or 6 other families. They would spend days, eating singing and laughing together around fires, all harvesting sweetgrass from the sweetgrass beds there. In the 1950’s and 60’s through something called the Pick Sloan project, they built a series of dams all along the Missouri River that drowned all the sweetgrass in those areas. I remember Helmina telling me that back when she was little, they would go there and they’d harvest all of the sweetgrass, putting them in bundles so lovingly. Once they were packed in the back of the carriage, she remembers riding back in beds of sweetgrass and smelling it all the way home. When they got home, they spent weeks braiding sweetgrass and hanging it all throughout the house and to share with the community. She said that for months the house smelt like sweetgrass. They would sing songs and certain prayers to the sweetgrass. It’s always really difficult for me to talk about this because my kids will never know what that’s like. Because of the Pick–Sloan Program my kids do not sing those songs and they don’t know the prayers. We have nowhere to harvest sweetgrass on Standing Rock. I have nowhere to take them to do that. They  have no idea what it’s like to have those braids hanging through the house for months and smelling the sweetgrass. To them, sweetgrass is something we have to buy in a store and braids from people. These are the kind of relationships that we’ve built with these plants– even because of things that are not our fault, we have still neglected our relationship with these plants, and that harms usNot just because we don’t have access to that plant but because we no longer have that relationship.

I guess i do have a few favourite plants, this is one of them. I’ve heard it called “hog peanut”; we call it “mouse bean” in English and in Lakota we call it Makhatomnica which means “earth bean.” That’s because it develops two kinds of beans. There are these little small unpalatable pods above ground on the plant but then below ground it actually develops these beans. Some of the pods will twist their way into the ground to develop below ground and they grow to be delicious, meaty and larger than lima beans.. It actually has more protein than any other legume in existence. These large beans are a really important food source for two organisms. The first organism is the meadow mouse, who will tunnel into the ground to collect beans from the plant and then cache them in these grapefruit-sized caches all throughout the cottonwood forest. (Those same cottonwood forest were adjacent to where the sweetgrass once grew. These forests no longer exist, again because of the Pick-Sloan program.) The caches would sit on the surface of the soil and are difficult to see if you don’t have project.

Before the 50’s and 60’s, this bean was also one of the most important food sources for the Lakota, Dakota people and all the people along the river. A lot of the elders and women that I worked with remember the time when they were little before the Pick-Sloan program made this plant go locally extinct. They would walk with their grandmother(s?) through those cottonwood forests, which were so thick the path was like a tunnel.They would watch their grandmother, she carried a stick, she would be able to stick her stick into the cache, move it around a tiny bit without disturbing it and know exactly what bean was inside. Can you image getting to know these things that well? So, after finding one with mouse beans, they didn’t dig into the ground. These beans are difficult to harvest. They let the mice do the work for them. They would remove the top of the cache and take some or all of the beans. Then, they’d reach into a pouch on their waist and replace the beans with berries, animal fats or dried corn. As they walked behind their grandmothers, they remembered their grandmothers singing to the mice. The song was so beautiful it would echo off the cottonwood canopy. They’d sing to the mice saying thank you. Thank you for harvesting this amazing food for my children and I promise you that I will not let your children go hungry. They recognized that reciprocal relationship. Everyone thinks of the Lakotas and Dakotas as these great hunters of the mighty buffalo and having this relationship with the buffalo and that’s true! But they also had relationship with the tiny little meadow mice as well. My children will never know this experience or hear their grandmothers’ songs to the mice because these relationships have been broken.

Something I remind myself is that just like human relationships can mend, these relationships that we have with the plants and these stories can continue. My kids may have missed out but my grandchildren do not have to. We can mend these relationships and help perpetuate them. We have to remember that our relatives depend on us and we depend on them. Not just for medicine, we depend on them mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

So, I’ve shared these stories with you, stories that in order to save and share i have sacrificed a lot. Two years since standing rock i have been tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets and escaped arrest. Now, I am sharing that with you. You can take these as fun stories,I just hope that you will take these and think of them as a responsibility that you have too have these plants. If you are going to live on this stolen land then i ask you to take action and stand next to me when i am fighting for these relatives. Don’t just go to the store and buy them and not consider how they got there. Think about them. Think about those people who are fighting for their relatives. Fighting for your relatives everyday. It’s not just the plants too, it’s the water. I hear people say that the momentum for Standing Rock is over. That’s not true! People are still fighting. I have friends who are still fighting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. Indigenous people are standing up for their plant relatives. They are fighting for their wild rice relatives.There are people sacrificing their blood, sweat, and tears for wild rice that you probably buy online. Stand next to them. If you can’t be in Minnesota to support them, find other ways. Our plant relatives need us. They depend on us.

Linda Black Elk

Linda Black Elk

(Catawba Nation) is an ethnobotanist specializing in teaching about culturally important plants and their uses as food and medicine. Linda works to build curriculum and ways of thinking that will promote and protect food sovereignty, traditional plant knowledge, and environmental quality as an extension of the fight against hydraulic fracturing and the fossil fuels industry. She has written for numerous publications, and is the author of “Watoto Unyutapi”, a field guide to edible wild plants of the Dakota people. Linda is the mother to three Hunkpapa Lakota boys and is a lecturer at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Since 2001, she has taught many courses from English, Math and Native American Studies, to Science Education and Ethnobotany. Linda also serves as the Director of Traditional Medicine at the Mni Wiconi Clinic, which is a fully integrative clinic focusing on decolonized medicine that will soon be opening on the Standing Rock Reservation.