Native American Plant Use

Native Americans going into the forests for traditional gathering expeditions have found trees that their people have respectfully and carefully harvested bark and sap from for generations, girdled and killed. Well-intentioned but misinformed admirers of Indians, knowing that natives ate cambium or constructed containers from bark, but unaware of proper harvesting techniques, have often been responsible. Other native groups have gone to their traditional bitterroot or camas gathering sites to find that bulbs have been harvested out of season. These activities are insensitive to Native American culture. As a result, the trust and willingness of native peoples to share their knowledge with educational and scientific communities has suffered. Our actions must not contribute to this problem.

Native Americans and Plant Use Traditional
Native Americans have always been in touch with the Earth and its dynamics. Hunting and gathering are not simply activities done in order to make a living, they are a religion and a way of life. It is important to respect Native American beliefs within their cultural context. In the old days, the tribes and bands of the Blackfeet, Ktunaxa (Kootenai), and Salish were dependent upon plants and animals for their livelihood. They knew the habitat and uses of most plants in their territory. If they came upon an unfamiliar plant in their travels, it was subjected to scrutiny and experimentation. It was, after all, a new gift from the Creator.

Knowledge of traditional plant use has been passed from generation to generation. That knowledge base continues to grow today. If a skilled native botanist is not able to find a use for a plant in a relatively short time, it is assumed that a use will eventually be discovered. Plant uses are sometimes revealed to worthy individuals through visions, dreams or as a gift from a spirit guardian; but most uses are determined through observation and testing. Typically, a person known for powers as a medicine woman or medicine man will carefully test the properties of a plant. A new species of mint reveals a use to the sense of smell and taste. While nettles and thistles might have seemed a simple nuisance to the uninformed, upon observation of animals eating them and after testing, native botanists found uses for them as medicines, food, dyes and even material for fabric.

Sometimes Native Americans resort to an observational technique called the “doctrine of signatures” by early Europeans. This method of experimentation assumes that a plant resembling an ailing body part will be useful in healing its ailments. An eye wash prepared from a brown eyed Susan might be useful in treating sore eyes, or a tea made from the secretions of milk weed might induce the flow of milk for a new mother. While this method was suspect to many early peoples, coincidental or placebo cures sometimes led to the continued use of specific plants for specific remedies.

Plants used as medicines are most often used individually. However, several plants with related curative properties are sometimes used in combination. Indian tobacco, for instance, while a specific species of plant, is more commonly a combination of as many as 20 plants mixed to the taste of individual users. Many medicinal plants are burned and inhaled, cooked and used in the form of a poultice, or simply rubbed on the ailing portion of the body, but the great majority of medicines are boiled and consumed as a tea.

Many medicines are also food. Native Americans always believed that one must eat right to stay fit. Unbalanced or unhealthy diets were most often due to a scarcity of food rather than poor eating habits. Given the opportunity to gather in peace in a bountiful environment, the people enjoyed a rich and balanced diet.

Whether used for construction, medicine, food, or for all three (as the lodgepole pine was), living close to the Earth necessitated intimate involvement and understanding of plants. It is from such a point of view that we can attempt to appreciate Native American plant use. There is little doubt that Native people regard plants as having spirits; that they gather plants with social and religious ceremony; that they consume plants in a preservationist and prayerful manner; and that they thank the spirits for everything they are given.

While the early Blackfeet, the Ktunaxa, and the Salish peoples were all plant-dependent, the degree of dependence varied between cultures and locations. There was also variation in the extent to which bands and tribes gathered plants and traveled for trade within the area that is now the International Peace Park.

The Early Blackfeet
The Blackfeet prided themselves on being hunters living primarily off the large herds of buffalo roaming the plains, but they were as familiar with the plants in their environment as any other Native American tribe. The Blackfeet referred to meat as “natapi waksin” or “real food” and to anything else edible as “kistapi waksin” or “nothing foods”. Nonetheless, they made use of at least 185 species of plants for food, medicine, ceremonial, and construction purposes.

The Blackfeet tribes made extensive use of lodgepole pine, camas, bitterroot, serviceberries, chokecherries, sages, and many other plants. Some of the most desirable plants brought the Blackfeet into the present-day W-GIPP for gathering or trading.

Lodgepoles for tipis had to be replaced yearly. Lodgepole pine is thin, strong, straight and lightweight. The cambium can be eaten and the sap used medicinally. The Cut Bank Creek area was a favorite collection site for lodgepoles. Because the area also provided access to a major pass over the mountains into the Flathead Valley, the Blackfeet would come to replenish lodgepoles in late June and July when camas was also ready for harvesting. The mountains provided a respite from the summer heat on the prairie. The people would stay to gather huckleberries, hunt elk and mountain sheep, and attend social and ceremonial gatherings.

Because bitterroot was relatively rare east of the mountains, the Blackfeet often traveled across the passes to gather, trade, or raid for the precious plant. The Salish and Ktunaxa people were especially wary of attack during the seasons for gathering bitterroot and camas in the western valleys. Several of their traditional stories give accounts of Blackfeet raids during the harvest.

Before the coming of Europeans, agriculture was little known to the Plains and Plateau cultures. However, the cultivation of various smoking materials was so important to the tribes in the area that they ceremonially planted gardens to insure supplies of the sacred substances. Because the mountains were sacred to the spirits to whom the tobacco was offered, cool moist areas in the foothills were favorite spots to cultivate tobacco gardens. Important tobacco gardens reportedly existed near the foot of Lower St. Mary Lake, In the Waterton townsite, near present day East Glacier, in the Spotted Bear area, and along the North Fork of the Flathead River. Although the Blackfeet tribes were not exclusively dependent upon the area that is now Glacier National Park, it was a favorite forage area for plants.

The Early Ktunaxa (Kootenai)
More at home in the foothills and mountains than either the Blackfeet or Salish tribes, the Ktunaxa continued to make buffalo hunting excursions onto the plains even after the Blackfeet had asserted dominance there. However, buffalo were never the chosen game animal of the Ktunaxa. They preferred the hides and meat of mountain animals like big horn sheep, elk, moose, and woodland caribou. Known as the “fish trap people” or “the fish eaters” by neighboring tribes, the Ktunaxa balanced their diet of fish with red meat and vegetation. Their cultural stories abound with tribute to the Grizzly Bear, protector of berries and roots. One of their most important cultural heroes, Chief Yankekam, was responsible for bringing the gift of the all-important serviceberry to the people.

From the serviceberry, the Ktunaxa obtained a reliable and basic food and also the raw materials for arrows. From the western red cedar tree, they obtained material for bows, canoes, lodges, baskets, and containers. There were staple plants that the Ktunaxa used extensively and many others that played a lesser role in their culture. In addition to serviceberries, they were heavily dependent upon chokecherries, and huckleberries. Roots such as kouse or biscuit-root, blue camas, bitterroot, wild carrots or yampa, and an assortment of wild onions. The Ktunaxa considered black tree lichen to be a staple food and ate as much as 25 pounds per person per year in various mixtures.

The Ktunaxa also used lodgepole pine extensively for construction, food, and medicine. In the days before skin tipis, lodges were constructed from lodgepole, western red cedar, willow, birch, and tule or rushes. Ktunaxa canoes were made from cedar and birch. Various containers were woven and built from cedar roots and bark, birch bark, tules, and hemp. Many dyes were also prepared from plants.

The Ktunaxa planted tobacco gardens in the foothills. Proximity to the sacred mountains was an important part of the religious ceremonialism connected with sacred pipes and daily smoking rituals that assured constant connection with the Creator.

Early non-Indian visitors to the area that was to become Waterton Glacier International Peace Park frequently encountered the Ktunaxa in and around the mountains. Oral tradition and contemporary accounts of the traditional and ceremonial importance of WGIPP area are numerous. Archaeological evidence of the regular presence of Native peoples for hunting, gathering, and ceremonial purposes is well-established.

The Early Salish
The Salish were most at home in the intermountain valleys. Often allied with the Ktunaxa for mutual protection from the Blackfeet, the Salish and Ktunaxa shared hunting grounds. The allies also exchanged plant use knowledge and traded plant commodities. Before the horse made skin tipis portable, the Salish peoples used similar building materials and constructed lodges similar to those of the Ktunaxa. The Flathead Salish were not dependent upon fishing and built fewer canoes than their neighbors to the north. The Salish did build fish weirs and traps and did some cooperative fishing with the Ktunaxa.

The Salish had a well-balanced diet of plant foods and meat. They occasionally hunted in the mountains and spent time hunting buffalo on the plains. With slightly different emphasis in quantities, the Salish used the same plants as the Ktunaxa. The Salish resided mainly in the valleys and had access to such root crops as bitterroot, camas, biscuit root, wild carrots, and onions.

Good sources of smoking materials were universally important to people of Plains and Plateau cultures. Tobacco was given to the Salish by Amotkin, the creator, along with instructions for cultivation and ceremonial smoking. The Salish made a daily practice of offering prayer and tobacco to the great spirits.

Ceremonialism surrounding plant use was important to both Salish and Ktunaxa peoples. They practiced many of the same rituals at virtually the same time of the year. There were ceremonies to pray for a good harvest, a ritual before gathering the first bitterroot, and another before consuming the first bitterroot of the year. Similar elaborate ceremonies surrounded the use of camas, berries, and tobacco. In addition to a general giving of thanks ceremony at the end of the gathering season, important rituals were held in thanksgiving for “first fruits”. While both tribes were serious and devout in their ceremonials, Salish ceremonials were generally a bit more solemn and lasted longer than those of the Ktunaxa.

Salish oral tradition contains many stories of medicine trees with spirits that grant gifts, protection, and visions. These trees serve as shrines where offerings were left and spiritual guidance sought. There are also stories of tree people able to transform themselves as need dictated. There is clearly a strong awareness of the spirits associated with trees in Salish culture.

The early Salish people were able to integrate Christian religious practice with their own traditional beliefs. They were less opposed to cultivating the soil than other native peoples. Some even saw the plow as a more efficient way to gather roots until it became evident how quickly it depleted their traditional gathering places for the coming years. Symbolic of the Salish ability to assimilate elements of European culture, agriculture, and religion into their own culture is the practice of combining palms with cedar and sweetgrass to hang by the door on Palm Sunday.

The Salish made regular use of the W-GIPP area for passage to the plains for hunting, gathering, and for ceremonial and social purposes. The Nyack Valley, for instance, was so important to the Salish that it is specifically mentioned in traditional stories.

Among the important Salish stories is The Origin Of Bitterroot. Tobacco was important to all of the tribes and bands on both sides of the mountains. The Blackfeet have many tobacco stories. Nawak’osis: The Sacred Herb is included because it contains so many of the cultural values implicit in tobacco ceremonials. The west and east side stories are followed by a botanical account of the International Peace Park.

The Origin of Bitteroot
(A west side plant story)
Long ago, when the Salish people still lived to the south in the area that is now called the Bitterroot Valley, there was a time of severe famine. In those sad days there lived a righteous old woman, the wife of a medicine man. The old woman grieved for her children who were slowly starving. With no meat and no fish to eat, her sons were doing their best to get by on some old dried up shoots of balsamroot. Even those were nearly gone.

“My sons have nothing to eat and will soon be dead”, she sobbed. So she took herself down to the banks of the creek we call Little Bitterroot and laid herself down to mourn for her children. With her face to the ground and her old gray hair spread about her head she wept bitter tears as she wailed a song of death.

As The Sun rose up over the mountains and peered down into the valley, he was greatly sorrowed to hear the old woman’s death chant. The Sun called forth the guardian spirit of the woman and said, “Your daughter is in need. Go to her; give her comfort and bring forth food and beauty from that which is dead.”

Assuming the form of a beautiful red bird, the guardian spirit flew down to the old woman and gently spoke to her. “Your bitter tears have soaked the earth beneath you. Even now they are mingling with the dead vegetation below to form the roots of a new plant. Its fleshy leaves will lay upon the ground and a beautiful flower will rise up to the Sun. Its blossom will share the silver-white color of your hair and the rosy hue of my wings. Your children will dig the roots of our gift plant. Though they will find its taste as bitter as your tears have been, they will know that it is good food and they will grow to love it.

Each year, in the moon of deep water, they will see the return of the blossoms and say, “See, there is the silver hair of our mother upon the ground and there are the rosy wings of the spirit bird. The love and bitter tears of our mother have provided us with food for all generations.”

Nawak’osis, the Sacred Herb
(An east side plant story)
In the long ago there were four brothers with great spiritual power. They were chosen by the High Ones to bring tobacco, its pipes, prayers, songs, dances, and ceremonials to the people. When these things had been revealed to them by the spirits and after the brothers had found the sacred herb, made their pipes of bone, learned the proper songs, prayers, and dances; they sat down to smoke. The four medicine men prayed together, inhaled, exhaled, and watched the smoke rise up to the sky. The fragrant smell filled the lodge and surrounded them with calm and peace.

The oldest brother, feeling powerful, wise and clear-headed, said to his brothers: “This thing we will call nawak’osis. It is good. It is strong medicine. We will keep it to ourselves and we will have even greater power”. So the four of them formed a Tobacco Society. They crept off into the foothills to plant the sacred plant in a secret garden and they kept the sacred prayers, songs, and rituals to themselves.

The spirits had meant for the gift of tobacco to be shared with the people. Tobacco would encourage peace, calmness, control, unity, and prayerful life. Without it there was anger, war, discord, and impiety among the people.

In the same village there lived a just man named Bull by-Himself. He saw that the four medicine men had received a gift from the spirits and that they had refused to share. To his wife, Bull-by-Himself said, “This discord is a result of selfishness on the part of these men. We must find this plant called nawak’osis and we must learn the sacred ways so that we can share them with the people.”

The man and his wife took themselves to a sacred lake where they put up their lodge and began the search for the sacred herb. Everyday Bull-by-Himself went in search of nawak’osis and everyday he returned with plenty of game but no sacred herb.

One day, as his wife knelt by the tipi door scraping a hide, she heard beautiful music coming from the shore of the lake. She looked high and low for the source of the beautiful voices, but could find nothing until she came to the site of a beaver lodge. When her husband returned she took him to the lodge to hear the music but he could hear nothing.

In her frustration, the woman took her knife and cut into the side of the lodge. The couple peered in to see a family of beavers singing and performing a graceful dance.

“My brothers”, she called, do not keep this wonderful medicine to yourselves. Teach us to sing and to dance.”

“Close the hole. You are letting the cold in.” they replied. “We will come to visit you in your lodge.”

That very evening four beavers came to visit the worthy couple. Immediately upon entering the lodge they transformed themselves into four handsome young men. The oldest turned to Bull-by-Himself and asked, “Why have you come to this place?”

“I have come in search of the sacred herb nawak’osis and its ceremonies.”

“You have come to the right place worthy brother. Nawak’osis is water medicine and we are water people. We will give you the sacred herb and instruct you in the ways of its use.”

For many days the beaver people instructed the young couple in the rituals that surrounded tobacco. The husband hunted and his wife prepared the skins of all the water animals. “You must do this”, said the head beaver, “because these animals represent the life force of water. The Sun begets life, and water is the source of its growth.”

Every evening Bull-by-Himself and his wife practiced the ritual songs, prayers, and dances with the beavers. Together they prepared the Beaver Medicine bundle. On the final night of their instruction the beavers presented them with a plant that looked like a common weed. The stalk was topped with a bundle of tiny round seeds. The beavers placed the seeds into the medicine bundle that the woman had prepared.

“Now it is time to plant the seed”, said the beavers. “Do not touch these seeds until you are ready to place them in the ground. Locate your garden in a balance of shade and sun. Mix the soil in equal portions of brown and black and till it often. Then say the prayers that we have taught you.”

“When all this is in readiness, Bull-by-Himself, take the antler of a deer and make holes in the earth. You, woman, must use a buffalo-horn spoon to drop a single seed in each hole. As you plant, sing the songs we have taught you; dance the dance you have learned as you tamp the soil over the seeds. Then watch patiently and nawak’osis will come. Now you know all and it is time for us to go.” With that the four young men turned and as they trailed through the door of the lodge they resumed their beaver shapes.

Bull-by-Himself and his worthy wife cultivated their garden in a prayerful manner as they had been instructed. The four selfish medicine-men saw them at their work and wondered what they were doing. They listened to their songs and found them familiar. But they laughed to themselves, secure in the knowledge that only they possessed the sacred plant, knew the appropriate rituals and had the power that came from the spirits.

Just before the time arrived to harvest the sacred herb a terrible storm came in the night. Early the following morning the four brothers slipped away to their secret garden only to find that their crop had been devastated by hail. Not so much as a seed could be salvaged from the washed out remnants of their garden.

Dejected, the four selfish men returned to the village in time to see Bull-by-Himself and his wife presenting their gift to the village people. In disbelief they looked at the plants and were forced to acknowledge that this was indeed the sacred herb they had tried to keep to themselves.

This is the way in which Bull-by-Himself and his wife brought the gift of the beaver people to the tribes. Their ancestors have always shared the gift of nawak’osis and followed its rituals in a sacred manner.

The Plants of Waterton Glacier International Peace Park
There may have been human eyes watching the gradual unveiling of the land as valley glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. Archaeological evidence indicates that early people had migrated into North America in pursuit of animal herds as long as 40,000 years ago. An ancient site on Black Tail Ranch close to Wolf Creek, Montana, near the Old North Trail, makes unofficial claims to 32,000 year-old cultural artifacts.

Archaeologists from The Museum of the Rockies are currently excavating an extensive complex of early hearth sites along the Ruby River in southern Montana that have been confirmed to be 9,400 years old. Pollen and food remnants indicate that the plant resources used then are virtually identical to plants available in the area today. An archaeological survey of the immediate environs of Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks have confirmed a long and significant history of presence and use by the tribes that reside in the neighboring area today and by many other Native groups. There are over 450 sites. The oldest positively dated artifacts in the area are 10,500 years old and a great deal of evidence indicates high country usage by Native People as early as 8,500 years ago.

W-GIPP’s unique location, climate, and terrain provide an unmatched laboratory and gathering point for plant species and communities. Over 1400 plant species occur in the Park. Of those, forty-one species are rare in Montana and Alberta and twenty-eight species are not found anywhere else in the state or province. WGIPP‘s native flora are one measure of the high level of biodiversity present in this protected area. Due to unique interactions of elevation, moisture and prevailing temperatures, Glacier National Park contains the eastern most extension of a Pacific Coast forest community characterized by western red cedar and western hemlock. The North Fork prairies harbor an island of vegetation including Palouse grasses characteristic of grasslands to the south and west in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Plant communities characterized by aspen groves and Canadian and Great Plains prairie grasses reach no further west than the northeastern margins of Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks. Some of WGIPP’s alpine plant species occur in the central Rockies and range little further north than here, while some boreal tundra species reach their southern limits in the alpine environment.

A drive across Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road or a hike from passes through life zones that can only be duplicated by travelling 1800 miles north at a constant elevation. Naturally within this huge continuum of habitat there is also a great diversification of life forms. Although there are no two places in the Park which provide precisely the same habitat and resultant biotic communities, there are some general community types that can be examined at various elevations and locations throughout W-GIPP.

Forests Born of Fire
An important agent in forest succession is fire. The mosaic pattern of plant communities characteristic of W-GIPP and the surrounding ecosystem results from a succession of fire-related events that impact most northern Rocky Mountain forests over a cycle of 100-300 years. Some fires have less impact on a plant community than others, and the natural fire cycles have been altered and interrupted by human intervention.

Until recently, all fire was viewed as having predominantly negative effects upon the environment, but plant ecologists now realize that fire is an essential agent to healthy diversified plant communities. Park and forest managers are now studying and implementing prescribed burn and controlled burn policies in order to promote more natural patterns of plant succession and diversification.

Seeds of some plants survive in the soil for many years but germinate and bloom only after a major fire prepares the environment. Some species spread seed into an area year after year without successful germination. A fire clears away the forest canopy or the carpet of leaves and needles on the forest floor, allowing plants to grow where they could not previously survive. In fact, were it not for fire, certain seral species (plants which have an intermediate role in forest community succession) might completely disappear from an area. Species such as wild geranium, wild hollyhock, dragonhead, and snowbrush appear in a given area for a short period every 100-300 years if the fire cycle follows a natural course. One of the most ubiquitous and persistent colonizers in W-GIPP is the lodgepole pine. Lake bottom core samples indicate that lodgepole pine proliferated in the wake of receding Ice Age glaciers.

Plants on the Move
While we are aware of the ability of animals to move and adapt to changes in their environment, there is a tendency to think of plants as stationary organisms with little ability to adapt or move. In fact plants have evolved many devices and techniques for protection, proliferation, and transportation.

While trees do not get up and walk to a more hospitable location, looking at a record of botanical succession over time would make it clear that plants change locations based on climatic factors. A time lapse film set for a period of 2,000 years might show forests moving up and down the slopes of Logan Pass several times as climactic changes occurred. In fact evidence indicates that the dwarfed groves of trees at Logan Pass did extend higher up the mountains in the recent past. Currently they may be in the process of moving up the mountainside again.

Native American Influence
Before the European emigration to North America, Native Americans had relatively little long-lasting impact on the land. Generally migratory in their life style, they lived within the natural limits of their environment rather than altering it to suit their needs. Though they often set prairie and forest fires to clear pathways, herd game, and stimulate new growth, the impact was short-lived and of less significance than changes stimulated by today’s technological society.

The Future
The ecological importance of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park area for the future cannot be overemphasized. The surrounding areas and most of the country in general are under intensive management for the production of food, lumber, and mineral resources. Protected areas like national parks must continue to provide a refuge for plant and animal species and communities that can no longer flourish outside the area. In a time when the last remnants of native wilderness are quickly being absorbed by civilization, it is extremely important to preserve, protect, and restore W-GIPP and as much of the surrounding area as possible. The biological diversity of the W-GIPP ecosystem must be maintained for future generations.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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