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2017 THE GREAT LAKES BOTANIST
Mary Siisip Geniusz. 2015. Plants have so much to give us, all we have to do is ask: Anishinaabe botanical teachings.(EditedbyWendyMakoonsGeniusz, Illustrations byAnnmarie Geniusz).University ofMinnesota Press,372 pp., paperback.ISBN 978-0-8166-9676-5. $22.95.
This book presents a refreshing examination of plants and the people that have learnedfrom the plants for countless generations in the GreatLakes region, the Anishinaabeg. The culture, self-identified as Anishinaabe (plural Anishinaabeg), consists of the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and often the Cree and Menominee tribes. The author, editor, and illustrator each are Anishinaabe women, and the author in particular was both a teaching assistant and an apprentice to the late Ojibwe Anishinaabe medicine woman Keewaydinoquay Peschel, from whom most of the botanical and cultural teachings originated.The goal of this book is to present a decolonized, authentically Anishinaabe, perspective of how people can learn about traditional plant knowledge both from apprenticing with experts and from the plants directly. In doing so, this book is an essential contribution to the ethnobotany of the Great Lakes.
The introduction, which explains how the author wrote this book to fulfil an obligation to her elder and teacher, drew me into this book and reminded me of my own personal path with plants and the Anishinaabeg people. This book is a testament to the most authentic kind of ethnobotany, apprenticing with the elders, the great ones, the teachers, who are the bridges between past and future. The table of contents was thoughtful, using Anishinaabe names first, English common names for those reading them, and scientific names for making connections, providing authentic taxonomy of both folk and scientific methodologies. The layout of chapters unfolded into a story of how people learned in the old days and can still learn today.
Chapter 1, entitled “Traditional Anishinaabe Teaching About Plants” begins with a story of how things came to be using an Aadizookan, or traditional story, about the rose, rabbit, respect, balance, and acknowledgement of one’s part in an unintended catastrophe and ends up with the traditional orator’s closing. This storyis used to explain the role played by each component ofthe earth, referring to them as brothers and proposing, as many traditions of indigenous wisdom or traditional knowledge do, that humans are the youngest brother, most vulnerable and dependent on the rest of our relations. This interconnectedness is authenticallyAnishinaabeg andindigenous toNorthAmerica orTurtle Island.The author draws connections between the Anishinaabeg worldview and that of advanced scientific disciplines, invoking, for example, quantum mechanics and the findings of modern physics that subatomic particles respond to the actions of researchers studying them, concluding that the actions and thoughts of a person can change reality, both for the actor and for all of reality.
This book explores some of the more complex issues in medical botany and
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ethnobotany, including how medicine men and women of the past acquired their knowledgeandhonedtheircraft.Theexamples givenandthehypothesesthat are discredited by the author, for example, the doctrine of signatures, are in accord with what is taught by leading ethnobotanists today.The author wisely compares the apprenticeship model of traditional medicine people with that of medical doctors in their residency. They even acknowledge the Midewiwin role in apprenticeship as corresponding to the accreditation of the American MedicalAssociation. The Midewiwin is an ancient society of medicine men, women, and knowledge passed on through Mide’ lodges which remain intact across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario. In a section in Chapter 1 entitled “Talking to Plants,” the author explains why it is important to honor rocks and plants by talking to them and acknowledging their value and role in helping us, putting this into the context of the spiritual and physical roles that each species plays on earth.
The authors express an indigenous philosophy that is rarely acknowledged, but is nevertheless needed in the environmental and natural resources communities, including those comprised of botanists and ecologists. This approach deals with what is here, not with judging whether something is indigenous or not. It is concernedinstead with whether aplant is useful or not andhow we can use them in new ways. The stories in this book bring both ethnobotany and Keewaydino- quay alive.
Chapter 2 is an elegant retelling of the creation stories of grandma cedar, Thuja occidentalis,andbearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi,involvingthe ancient Anishinaabeg as well as the otter, the black bear, the beaver, and the busy body, or grouse. It shows readers howAnishinaabeg families teach how living species came to be, why they look the way they do, and why they have the special uses and cultural roles that they do. It is worth the read in my opinion!The deep reverence and respect for cedars is captured in Geniusz’s words “my grandmother cedar.” This book, which is about the relationship between people and plants, will instruct readers how they can tap into the sacred and practical aspects of plants such as Thuja or grandma cedar. The practical uses essential to survival and good life in the Great Lakes region are discussed in a style that brings these items to life visually. Line drawings accompany vivid descriptions and oral stories that enliven the text by setting the reader in an intimate talking circle or campfire session with the author and her teacher, Keewaydinoquay. Some of the stories are fantastical, focusing on the cultural hero and demigod Nanaboozoo, usinghis misdeeds and overreachingfor fame as away ofteachinglessons to the people. This book delves into traditional medicine at a basic level. It stresses caution and respect for plants and describes how they were used for ailments of the past as well as for modern illnesses like cancer.The practical uses of balsam fir, Abies balsamea, reminds me of my own ethnobotany classes, in which, like Keewaydinoquay, I encourage students to talk to the trees, pop balsam blisters growing on the bark for both the medicine and the fun of the exploding resin, among other uses.
The third chapter, focusing on conifers, begins with a story of why some trees lose their leaves (what we call deciduous trees) and why others keep them through the winter (evergreen trees).This story explains the current forest struc
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ture as a product of the way different trees treated a small bird with a broken wing during “the way back time” of oral tradition. For through theAnishinaabeg lens all organisms have voice, personality, and the will to do as they choose, and theconsequencesofthe actionsof ancientplantsandanimalsshapetheworldwe nowlive in.Aniceshort ethnobotany-styledtreatment of each ofthepines found in the Great Lakes region is followedby a description of the medicinal virtues of that pine, based on personal experiences, then by similar short sections on each of the spruces, tamarack, hemlock, and each of the junipers.
Chapter4highlightsthree culturallyimportantfoodplants: cattails, Typha lat- ifolia and T. angustifolia, swamp tea or Labrador tea, Rhododendron groenlandicum, and Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. The quadruple food harvest potential of cattails is explained in a seasonal approach to which plant parts are available to eat and which are not worth one’s time (such as the starchy roots and rhizomes), and a discussion of how to prepare them, including a description of a cattail pollen and tern egg pancake. The author describes in detail many uses of cattails and their plant parts, citing historical ethnobotanists such as Huron Smith, who worked for the Milwaukee Public Museum in the 1920s and 1930s and whose manuscripts and ethnographic collections are still curated by the museum. The history of swamp tea, which used to be classified as a Ledum, now a species of Rhododendron, but always known as mashkiigobag to theAnishinaabeg, and its relationship toAsian black tea is very informative. As a result of the unavailability of tea from the warring regions of the South Pacific duringWorldWar II, swamp tea became the only acceptable substitute for many northerners, including both colonial settlers and the Anishinaabeg. The chapter concludeswiththeplantknowntodayassunchokes,sun tubers, or Jerusalemartichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), a lesser-known relative of the sunflower (Helianthus annuus).The illustration anddescription ofthis plantclearly enables the reader to identify this species and instills a desire to go plant some Helianthus tuberosus and to harvest the inulin-rich tubers after first frost.
Chapter 5, entitled “FourTraditional Plants in theAnishinaabegCulture,” and Chapter 6, entitled “Medicinal Plants” highlight plants the author thought readers should be aware of, using stories to connect readers to the knowledge keepers ofthe past, especiallythe lateethnobotanist andAnishinaabe tradition bearer, Keewaydinoquay, referred to as Kee by her close friends, which includes the author of this book.The following passage, from page 280, is illuminating:
She [Kee] said that before the Europeans came and diagnosed people as having diabetes mellitus, the Anishinaabeg knew about the problem. They called it “the trouble with sugar in their water” or “the slow death when ants come to their urine,” meaning that the sugar in one’s urine attracted ants. Bearberry made it possible for many people to live long enough to bear and raise children. Nodjimahkwe urged Kee to begin daily usage of bearberry tea as a young woman to ward off the development of diabetes. When I knew Kee as an old woman she was still drinking it daily in a tea mixed with white or yellow sweet clover. She would make a gallon of the tea at a time and refrigerate it. She drank it all day long. She said that she could occasionally miss a day or two of using bearberry, but that her body would remind her to keep using it if she skipped the tea for a week or more.
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The book concludes with several recipes that will be quite useful to those readers who like to experiment with natural products such as salves, soaps, tinctures, liniments, some foods (including the cattail pollen pancakes, jams, and Jerusalem artichoke chiffon pie). These are followed by a very useful “Ojibwe Word Glossary” and an “Ojibwe Plant Name Glossary,” both compiled by Wendy Makoons Geniusz, that will help readers interpret and better understand theAnishinaabeg words used throughout the book. Students and learners of ethnobotany would be missing an essential gem in this book if they overlook these glossaries. Speaking as an ethnobotanist myself, I am considering all kinds of ways to get young and old students of plants, Native Americans, history, the Great Lakes, traditional knowledge, and ethnobotany to light some cedar or sweetgrass smudge and pick up and delve into this transformative book.
——Scott M. Herron Department of Biology Ferris State University Big Rapids, MI ScottHerron@ferris.edu