Root Picking

In Writing by nativesinamericaLeave a Comment

By Abaki Beck

Memory #1:

I am ten years old. I’m hunched in the sun on the side of a mountain, a screwdriver in hand. Cars and RVs of tourists heading to Glacier National Park whiz by on the road weaving below me. I’m annoyed at the dirt blowing in my eyes and the fact that my cowboy boots are two sizes too big. I use the screwdriver to coax blueroot out of the ground. Once you find it’s small, silvery green leaves, you can just lightly tug and a galaxy of roots emerge on their own. The root itself is a cream color, but if you lightly scrape it with your fingernails, it’s blue in the center.

I scoot down the mountain following the roots, trying to see  how long I can go before the root breaks, or I rip it out, impatient. Later, my mother, sister and I will drive back to my grandmother’s house, where she will clean, dry, and hang the roots. Eventually it will become the tea that soothes my aunties arthritic joints. My family has used these roots as medicine for thousands of years.

Memory #2:

My huge extended family is at a Christmas party at my great-grandmother’s house. We line up the buffet on her washer and dryer, which are crammed into her kitchen. We eat bison (but usually beef) and potato stew, Dorritos, Spanish rice, fruit salad with whipped cream, red hot dogs, bite size frozen pizza, and fry bread – a food that is said to have been created by Native women to feed their families with government rations of lard and flour, all they had.

My great-grandmother was born in 1914, ten years before Native Americans were legally citizens in our own nation. She grew up with her grandparents, the last of the “buffalo Indians,” and learned Blackfeet language, culture, and medicinals from them. She went to a government run boarding school meant to strip her of her language and culture, but in her old age she had not lost either.

Testimony #1

Histories of colonialism and indigenous people are tied to the environment. In settler-colonial nations like the United States or Canada, the goal of colonists was not just exploitation of resources, but the acquisition of land. The government has spent generations attempting to remove Natives from our land and the land’s knowledge – either literally, through war, relocation and commercial exploitation of our the land we retain, or psychologically, through boarding school and the banning of Native American religious practices.

Today, tribal communities and Indigenous individuals have the radical potential to restructure our food systems. Not only our diets, but how food is delivered within tribal communities. Introduce traditional food gardens or seed banks. Sell locally hunted meat and traditionally harvested foods at tribal grocery stores. Make these foods available to all community members by ensuring that they are available in homes for the elderly, in emergency food shelves, and in schools. On an intimate level, we gather more of our own foods and medicine, or find traditional foods and herbs in grocery stores. Something as simple as changing how we eat and heal can empower individuals, communities, and nations. 

Testimony #2

Historically, my tribe used over 200 types plants for medicine, food and material goods. Through conversations while picking or around a kitchen table, my mom, aunties and grandmothers have passed some of this knowledge to me. Now I will pass it onto you. These tea making instructions can be used for roots or leaves. Though the Blackfeet used many teas for medicine, I focus on plants that help with health issues that society deems unseemly: mental health and menstrual cycle regulation. Áípahtsíkaimo (valerian root) can be dried and used in a tea. It is both anti-anxiety and addresses sleep issues. To assist with menstrual cycle regulation, you can use dried otohtoksiin (raspberry) leaves. It is an antioxidant and a muscle and blood vessel relaxant.

These health issues are associated with women and queer people and are thus demonized. But for the Blackfeet, these medicines were not looked down upon. They were part of a broad repertoire to ensure everyone in our communities were healthy and strong.

  1. Ethics: Collect plants selectively. Select a few adult plants at each area and move to another area to avoid over picking. Do not pick the entire plant. If you’d like, place tobacco to thank and honor the plant you are collecting.
  2. Tips for picking: When picking valerian root, use a screwdriver or stick to help you pry it out of the soil without tearing it too much. Most roots can be easily pulled out of the ground if they are being picked at the right time. If picking raspberry leaves, bring shears to cut bits of branch, instead of picking each leaf by hand. You can remove the leaves later.
  3. Cleaning: Clean your roots or leaves with water and dry them. Make sure you clean off dirt or extra plants bits.
  4. Drying: The valerian roots can be hung from a pole off the ceiling. The leaves can be easily dried in a flat pan or on canvas cloth. Once they are dry, they can last months or years before use if they are stored in an airtight container, such as a jar.
  5. Making tea: Boil the water before placing the root or leaf in and let it steep for about half an hour. If you add the root before letting the water boil, the medicine will be weaker.

Testimony #3

Decolonization is not about reverting to how our communities were pre-colonization, but using our ancestors knowledge and land connection to empower people of today and heal from contemporary violences. Restructuring our tribal food systems can revitalize our cultures, address health disparities, and create climate change resilient communities. According to the U.S. government, this knowledge and our connection to the land was meant to disappear. Yet we have not.

Being healthy and alive – as individuals and as tribal nations – is the ultimate form of resistance.