Beyond Beauty: Native Spring Wildflowers, Plants and Anishinaabe Tradition
26 May 2019
Through the lens of Anishinaabe belief and practice, the beauty of native spring wildflower and plant species goes far beyond their blossoms.
“Our native landscape is our home… It speaks of the distant past and carries our life into tomorrow.” - Jens Jensen (1860-1951)
By Holly N. Wright | National Park Enthusiast
The beauty of native spring wildflower species and plants goes far beyond their colorful, graceful blossoms and elegant foliage; these plants are history living and key to a bountiful future for human and non-human species alike.
Many northern Michiganders care deeply about these plants; and the presence of these species is needed by all. Through the ages, native plants evolved in tandem with local insects, resulting in a great ability to support insect populations, which in turn support birds, fish, and other complex forms of life; native species provide sustenance to people and ground us in a sense of home, wellbeing, and place in the family of nature. Wildflowers support pollinator insects, critical for the success of agriculture. Artist, illustrator and musician Glenn Wolff expresses, “It’s embedded; it’s part of your DNA… When you see a white pine, there’s just endorphins.” Lucy Stopher, member of Plant it Wild, also experiences an ingrained connection to native plants and wildflowers, a legacy inspired by her grandmother’s teachings; Stopher says, “She got me started at a very young age…it’s in my blood. Wildflowers are my passion.”
For thousands of years, Native Americans have understood with great depth the importance of native habitat. Holly T. Bird, an indigenous woman, tribal supreme court judge and attorney who practices Native American law and family law, outlines a few uses of native plants by ancestors: “Native plants were used in everything. In absolutely every way you can imagine. Medicine, ointments, food, tea; shelter, canoes, recreation, to feed animals; even the padding for babies’ diapers. There is a huge amount of use for local plant life.” Bird, a member of a women’s healing group, Mindimooyenh (“Women Who Hold Society Together”), explains that she approaches all aspects of life with a mindset of healing; and that “…part of that involves being aware of plants and flowers, and our traditions and medicines.”
ANISHINAABE and MEDICINAL USES of NATIVE PLANTS
In our region and extending to Canada, Anishinaabe people (“Anishinaabe” refers to a large group of several individual, unique tribes with shared culture and language, including Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa) and Pottawatomi Nations) continue to protect and utilize native plants. Nathan Wright, member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, sustainably gathers native plants and practices traditional herbal knowledge which has been “handed down for generations with the traditions and stories behind them”. Based on ancestral knowledge, he produces “natural/organic skin care, pain relief and medicinal teas products using natural/organic and wildharvested herbs or mushroom ingredients”, sold through his business, the Herbal Lodge.
Wright states that some spring wildflower species, like Trout Lily, have medicinal qualities; “If you put a leaf between your sock and your foot and walk around for a day, it can help extract toxins from your body.” Wright explains, “Ojibwe are strong believers in plant signatures”; that plants (like Bloodroot) resemble the body parts that they heal.
Note: Wright cautions, if you are interested in using native plants medicinally, you should seek out a medicine person. Using plants improperly can have ill effects and should not be attempted without expert guidance.
Anishinaabe concepts, though difficult to translate, in general hold that humans have a responsibility to care for nature. Wright explains, “In our creation stories, essentially (because those stories are very long), that when we were created and earth was created, all the things we needed for our life were created; air, water, plants, mushrooms, etc.; an agreement was made, that humans need to take care of these things. To some extent, a lot of cultures share this view, but it is very prominent within First Nations cultures. Caring for the land is very important. It’s a responsibility, an agreement, our duty.”
A way to honor this agreement is by practicing reciprocity with nature. When gathering plants, many First Nations people leave tobacco leaves; and do not take too much, so that plant communities can regenerate. On spreading pitcher plant seeds, Wright says, “I throw the seeds around, it’s almost like a dance. I don’t get anything financial out of it; I want this species to continue living.” Wight adds, “You don’t have to be native to reciprocate to nature. Give something back in exchange for what you’ve taken.”
In a way, native plants, including wildflowers, are part of Anishinaabe identity, both collectively and individually. Wright feels that certain plants may call to a person, and that instinct must be trusted. “When you walk out into the woods, my belief is that when a tree makes a noise (like a creak), you should go over there and look around that tree. There is a good chance that there is something that will help you, or something you’re looking for, near that tree.” Plants may “call” to an individual as personal medicines through dreams. Wright once dreamed of goldenrod: “It was a lot taller than the other plants. This plant is good for allergies; I suffer from allergies, and when I started to take goldenrod, it helped me.” Anishinaabe people may wear the plants of their personal medicines as floral designs or on moccasins, a reflection of their deep spiritual connection to these species.
THINKING OF THE FUTURE
Vast acres of quality habitat have been lost to development and human activity country-wide; global warming and the presence of invasive species pose a threat to the continued existence of these most vital natural communities. Artist Kristin Hurlin, whose work so lovingly and masterfully depicts native wildflowers and natural communities, states, “Many of our showy native wildflowers are under pressure from habitat loss and people cutting or digging them up. Once a patch of, say, Yellow Lady's Slippers, is dug up, the soil micro-organisms change, the disturbed area fills in with non-native invasives, and the patch can never come back - like in the little wood near the Lake Michigan Overlook parking lot”; “when Trillium flowers are picked with the leaves, the bulb will die, unable to make nutrients for the year.”
Nathan Wright asserts that it is imperative to keep these species alive; in addition to their known ecological, cultural and medicinal importance, native plants may have important medical qualities that have not yet been discovered.
Holly T. Bird explains, “We believe it’s our duty to protect Earth and to teach others to live with her in the right way; we are at a time right now where our prophecies tell us that humanity needs to make a decision now to choose whether to live appropriately with the earth or to ignore it.” Wright expresses, “All indigenous cultures must start sharing their knowledge, because there’s a lot now that needs to be protected.”
While visiting the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, please enjoy the beauty of wildflowers and other plants, recalling their importance; bring them home only in memory, in photograph, or depicted in visual art.
RECOMMENDED WILDFLOWER SIGHTING LOCATIONS
- Free woodlands and dunes wildflower guides can be downloaded via the Grand Traverse Nature Conservancy website
- Recommended book: “Michigan’s Wildflowers in Color” by Harry C. Lund
- Further reading: “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas W. Tallamy
- To learn more about Anishinaabe culture and history, visit the Eyaawing (“Who We Are”) Museum and Cultural Center in Peshawbestown