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Plants in Lakota Folklore Descriptive Essay

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Updated: Jun 21st, 2021

For the Lakota people, as for other Native American population groups, plants were seamlessly integrated into the sacredness of every element of the world around them.

The well-known Native American view of the universe accorded to each and every created thing, whether mountain, river, animal, plant, weather event, or celestial body, a quality of the holy, simply because it was created. In Lakota mythology, the creator deity, Inyan, brought all things into being and imbued all things with a mysterious power, a sacred essence, called, by the Lakota, Wakan (Bissette, 2010). Their folklore reflects this underlying world view.

A variety of the constituents of their surrounding world appear in their folklore, myths, legends and traditional wisdom, either as actors, objects of action, or aids to action. Among these created items which appear in the Lakota tales are the many plants which were indigenous to the geographic regions and ecosystems the Lakota occupied and exploited (Cochran-Dirksen, 2008).

What are these stories, and why should the colorful tales of folklore even be a subject of interest?

By definition, these are almost never an accurate reflection of either science or history. Folklore, mythology, and legends are all narratives told and re-told, usually orally, over time. This category of narrative, in contrast to the plain vanilla recounting of the day’s activities, for example, can be thought of as gossip on steroids; stories, with varying basis in fact, which keep coming back the way the seasons do, and last forever the way a really tough fruitcake does (The Psychology or Social Significance of Folktales, Myths and Legends, 2010).

Folklore among the Lakota serves many of the same purposes that it does among other Native American peoples, and among other indigenous, pre-literate peoples around the world. Lakota folklore and mythology address large themes of creation, origin of group identity, explanation for specific traditional behaviors, and explanation for the natural history of the species and geographic features of the world around them. They may also offer normative directions for correct behavior and values, and help in the preservation of past history, all of which concerns are found in mythology and folktales from many cultures (O’Flaherty).

Examples from the Judeo-Christian tradition of plants used in myth, legend, and folklore could include the following, among many others. The first created people, Adam and Eve, are ejected from the Garden of Eden for having disobeyed the specific injunction against eating a particular fruit.

The type of fruit is never truly identified in the narrative, but was empowered to give the man and woman the knowledge of good and evil, and Eve and Adam’s disobedience resulted in humankind’s separation from a daily companionship with the divine presence (Genesis 3, 2009). Another appearance of crucial plants is found in the story of the murder by Cain (clearly the agriculturalist) of his brother Abel (just as clearly the hunter and herder). The fruit and grains that Cain offered to his God were less pleasing than the animal sacrifices that his brother brought, and the jealousy engendered by this distinction precipitated the fatal attack.

This tale, which could describe innumerable dysfunctional families, explains, for the faithful, the origin of human conflict, the persistent difficulty of eking out a living from the earth, the separation of human populations into different groups with differing relationships to their environment, to their fellows and to their creator, and, as a subtle sub-text, recapitulates neatly the early and continuing friction between the hunter gathering, herding, nomadic life-way, and the life-way of settled farmers (Myths and Legends of the World, 2010), (Genesis), (Genesis 4, 2009). In a more mundane tale, the Israelites complained to Moses in the desert, quite vociferously, that escaping their captivity in Egypt deprived them of the savory condiments and plant foodstuffs such as melons, leeks, onions and garlic which had made their enslavement a more pleasant burden (Numbers 11, 2009).

From a very different culture, Greek mythology attributes the recurrence of winter to the consumption of a few pomegranate seeds by Persephone when she was carried off by the dark lord of the underworld; Hades or Pluto. Both the unwillingness of the soil to bring forth food in winter, as well as the dreariness of the world at that season, are explained by Persephone’s mother’s loneliness and grieving for her lost daughter (Atsma).

Of course there are a number of other Greek myths in which the world is explained by tales in which humans or demigods are turned into a plant; for example, women or nymphs into trees, or a vain Narcissus into a self-regarding flower (Ovid, Ovid Metamorphoses (3rd Book), translated by Brookes More), or retain some mark of the miraculous, such as the riverside rushes that ever after repeated the servant’s gossip regarding King Midas’ shameful donkey ears (Ovid, Ovid Metamorphoses (11th book), translated by Brookes More).

For the Lakota, myths and folktales explain their universe as well. For example, to explicate the problem of evil and hardship in the world, paralleling to some extent the myths noted previously, there were several deity figures that were responsible for many human sorrows and vices. These misfortunes and vices included cheating ( embodied by the figure of Taku Skanskan, or the master of the cardinal points winds), conflict, suicide and homicide (engendered by Tatankan Gnaskiyan, known as Crazy Buffalo), chaos, and perversity (double-faced Heyoka), adverse luck (Yum), and prevarication (the snake figure Zuzeca) (Bissette, 2010).

Lakota folklore, mythology and traditional healing practices also include regular references to plant materials; sometimes directly and centrally, and sometimes in casual, glancing fashion.

As an instance of how plants are incorporated into Lakota folktales and mythology, one Lakota creation myth recounts how the Creating Power, after a previous world no longer existed, (as a result of misbehavior of the created beings, and intriguingly paralleling the Biblical story of the Flood), first drowned the world with rain from his song.

Then he set out to craft a new world with only Kangi (the crow) surviving from among the land animals and people. With the help of underwater-living animals to bring him mud, he built up new dry land and created rivers and lakes with his tears. He re-populated the new earth with creatures taken from his sacred pipe bag, an object which contains a traditionally important plant meant to be smoked.

The Creating Power gave to the people he molded out of the sacred colored earths (red, white, black, and yellow) the sacred pipe to live by. He enjoined them to seek to exist in harmony, and avoid the sins of the earlier folk who were destroyed (Native American Legends: Lakota Creation Myth).

Notice that the source of the creatures that he placed on the earth is his sacred pipe bag, and the symbol of interpersonal harmony and harmony with all of creation is the sacred pipe. What plant matter is used in this sacred pipe? Tobacco is usually thought of when Native American sacred pipes are discussed.

Tobacco is, indeed, indigenous to the North American continent, and is a critical plant material for many North American native peoples. It has been popularly supposed to have been used as a central ceremonial and pharmacological element in discussions, undertakings, deliberations, and negotiations (as in the colloquially, and largely inaccurately termed “peace pipe”) and it also was supposed by Europeans to have served as medicine for physical ills.

However, the actual identity of the “tobacco” used in the sacred pipe of the Lakota, specifically, is subject to argument. Some of the Lakota themselves now assert that the plant material smoked in the sacred pipe was the bark of the red willow tree and not tobacco as known commercially today. They mention, as part of their contention that tobacco is not traditional to the Lakota, their observation that tobacco does not grow easily in the Lakota lands of South Dakota.

The traditional herb or herbs smoked in the sacred pipe are thought by modern day Lakota people to have been non-addictive, since they are remembered as not causing a pleasurable sensation or addiction in the way that tobacco does (Steen). The sacred pipe was usually smoked not for recreation but in the ratification of critical decisions or agreements or to mark important moments in the life cycle of the individual or community (Nyerges, 2009).

The word often used for the sacred tobacco is Kinnikinnik, and this word may be related to an Algonquin word meaning “mixed” (Kinnikinnik, 2010). It may also refer to the Bearberry; Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Bearberry, 2010). The specific constituents do not hew to a hard and fast list, and may very well have varied over time and location.

Also called Cancasa (sometimes written as Chanshasha), Red Willow Bark is reported to have been used in the sacred pipe, either by itself or blended with other herbs such as Uva-ursi and Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsis). Contemporary smoking mixtures assembled for sale, sometimes with the aim of reducing the negative health impacts on current Native American populations of smoking commercially prepared and processed tobacco, include all or some of the following herbs, all of which are, indeed, indigenous to this continent: Bearberry Leaves (Arctostaphylus uva-ursi), Lovage Mint, Red Sumac Bark, Red Willow Bark (Taos Herb Company).

One of the ingredients suggested as having been used is Mullein (Verbascum thapsis), is described by contemporary smokers, not necessarily Native American ones, however, as mildly euphoric. Other herbs used today in an attempt to reproduce the sacred tobacco mixture of old are Eyebright and Yerba Santa (Traditional Native American Ceremonials).

Other ingredients offered as constituents of contemporary commercially available sacred pipe smoking mixtures are Sumac leaves, one or more varieties of Manzanita leaves, Cedar shavings, and White Sage (Nyerges, 2009), as well as Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata), Hops Flower (Humulus lupuius), Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnate), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonurus), Damian (Turnera diffusa), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), and Spearmint (Mentha spicata) (Smoking Blends). The accuracy of these choices in reproducing traditional mixtures cannot be determined in this context.

So, did the sacred pipe herbs as used by Lakota in the pre-contact period, indeed, not generate some positive sensation or effect, for example, the relaxation of inhibitions, or a sense of oneness with others and all creation, or a loss of personal boundaries, or increased focus and concentration, or suppression of pain or hunger, or alteration of time perception? Any of these pharmacological results, sometimes sought when ingesting known psychoactive agents, could be very helpful in achieving insights, or reaching group consensus.

In the absence of an effect of such altered states of consciousness, it is challenging to visualize what the appeal was of the sacred pipe ingredient(s), and how the plant material used in the pipe furthered the traditionally expressed goals of prayer, healing, reflection, and interpersonal harmony, and thereby retained such a central place in Lakota folkways and folklore. In fact, some of the ingredients listed above can cause what sound like some rather unpleasant effects when smoked.

One clue to this puzzle is that it is reported that the sacred pipe smoke was not inhaled in the fashion that addicted modern smokers do, but used almost as an incense censer to create a special atmosphere, set apart from the quotidian. The purpose was to waft the prayers and thoughts of the participants skyward to the spirit world (Native Americans: Lakota: Sage, Sweetgrass, and Tobacco, 2010).

It is also tempting to speculate that the active ingredient in the sacred pipe contents was indeed its Wakan, or mysterious sacred essence, and not any chemical constituent intrinsic to the herb or herbs. Perhaps this was an instance of placebo effect on a grand scale.

The importance of the sacred pipe, and its herbal contents, constituting together the main fetish object of the Lakota people, is reinforced in another myth that explains the traditional source of the seven rites involving the sacred pipe. This myth involves a culture goddess figure who appears nowhere else; White Buffalo Woman.

The tale goes roughly as follows: Tradition holds that an estimated 2000 years ago, she appeared out of nowhere to two Lakota youth in the Black Hills of South Dakota, materializing from a shining cloud that took on the shape of a white buffalo calf. One of the two, an evil minded youth, was consumed by a sort of holy fire for trying to possess her sexually without her consent.

This seems like the opposite of the holy flame that burns but does not consume the “burning bush” in the Biblical story of Moses receiving his call to serve God and lead his people out of Egypt (Exodus 33, 2009). The other youth knelt and chanted prayers to her and thereby survived this terrifying contact with immanent divinity. She identified herself as a representative of the Buffalo nation, and therefore of the four legged creatures that constituted the Lakota’s main food source, as they were hunters rather than agriculturalists.

She directed the Lakota to gather together in a specially built tipi, in which she addressed them and gave them instruction in the first of the seven (or, later, eight) ceremonial rites which employ the sacred pipe and its herbal contents. White Buffalo Woman enjoined the Lakotas to live in harmony, with the promise that the buffalo would be plentiful if they did so (Eddy, 2009).

Tobacco (this is the name often used, whatever the specific plant variety that was actually smoked), as well as sage, and sweet grass appear over and over again in these seven or eight) rites. The rites may be summarized as follows:

Nagi Gluhapi – keeping the soul – a funerary rite that releases the spirit of the deceased, as well as the family to transformation and renewal.

Inipi – the sweat lodge ceremony, undertaken whenever some portentous action or event is in the offing. It is constructed of willow trees set in a circle with animal hides on top.

Hanbehayap – the vision quest, which takes the individual out of the community to seek communion with the spirit world.

Wiwanyap Wachipi or sun dance – this dramatic multi-day ceremony is meant to restore harmony to the world.

Hunkapi – creating relatives – this ceremony bonds people in the ties of family, no matter their prior relationship.

Ishna Ta Awi Cha Lowan – a puberty rite of passage for young girls.

Tapa Wanka Yap – a women’s ceremony involving a symbolically decorated ball thrown in the four directions, which reminds participants of the relationship of the creating power and the Lakota.

Yuwipi – Healing ceremony

In each of these important ceremonies, the sacred pipe is smoked and sage is burnt, as well as sweet grass. The smoke from all three herbs and/or herb mixtures carries the thoughts of the user to the world of the spirit and creates an atmosphere that fosters awareness of the divine. They seem to have somewhat overlapping functions. Their smoke sets a mood, and purifies whatever needs it, whether person or object or activity.

Sage (sometimes described as silver leaf, and sometimes as white) gives a bittersweet smoke and is used in the form of smudge sticks. It is credited with keeping evil at bay. During the Sun Dance ceremony (called the Wiwanyap Wachipi), Sage might be chewed by participants to allay thirst and increase endurance of pain and fatigue as the dancers push themselves to the limits of their capacity (White Buffalo Woman Brings the Seven Rites, 2010).

Perhaps related to this property of increasing bodily power and endurance is the tale that Tate, a wind deity who is the son of Skan, a sky deity, derives his immense strength from Sage. In South Dakota, there is not much that is stronger than the wind, so this is really quite a recommendation for the powers of the Sage plant (Native Americans: Lakota: Sage, Sweetgrass, and Tobacco, 2010).

Sweet grass is also known as Buffalo Grass, Vanilla Grass, Holy Grass, and the hair of Mother Earth (Sweetgrass: the Hair of Mother Earth: Buffalo Spirit, 2010). It was traditionally considered by the Lakota to have been a gift to their people by the south wind, Okaga. It has a very sweet odor when burned.

Here is a contemporary summary of the spiritual function of sweet grass:

“It is used to honor the Wakan Tanka and bring blessings to those in prayer, while at the same time sending prayers above on the rising smoke, as the Great Spirit understands this language better than words. In addition to prayer it can be used for purification and for healing (Native Americans: Lakota: Sage, Sweetgrass, and Tobacco, 2010).

There is another, long, complicated legend of a foundling boy who grows with supernatural swiftness and possesses powers beyond those of mere humans. He is found by an elderly couple lying on red grass, a plant which is described as holy. When he reaches manhood his adoptive grandfather crafts a bow for him from chokecherry, a shrubby tree not prized today commercially for much of anything.

After many adventures, and an introduction to the nations of the various bird species, this foundling hero’s own son rescues him using a nest crafted of willow (Deloria). This hero reminds the reader of the hidden heroes of other cultures: King Arthur, Theseus, Moses, and Harry Potter come to mind (Ovid, Ovid, the Life of Theseus, translated by Bernadotte Perrin).

Another legend describes the way the gift of corn and the knowledge of an effective way of storing provisions safely were vouchsafed to the indigenous peoples. A Hermit living far from others receives a mysterious invisible visitor who invites him to come to his home. After several attempts to locate the visitor, the Hermit shoots at the spot where the visitor’s arm should be, and thereby punctures a bag of corn, the trail of which leads him to a buried cache of dried turnips, cherries, and corn.

The Hermit spreads this useful knowledge of food preservation among his people, thus ensuring their survival when travelling and in lean times (Welker, The Hermit, or the Gift of Corn, 1996-2110) and (Welker, The Lakota Sioux: The Gift of Corn).

It is interesting that the three plant foods mentioned nearly exhaust the types of plant foods in their scope. A grain, a root vegetable, and a tree fruit; these represent quite a full range of food sources. The food type that seems to be missing is nuts. Perhaps nuts are too appealing to squirrels to survive even a buried storage spot.

Corn was identified with a goddess figure, a maiden or mother, and was critical to survival. This is a Lakota myth regarding the bringing of corn to them:

“The Lakota Plains Indians say that a white she-buffalo brought their first corn. A beautiful woman appeared on the plain one day. When hunters approached her, she told them to prepare to welcome her. They built a lodge for the woman and waited for her to reappear.

When she came, she gave four drops of her milk and told them to plant them, explaining that they would grow into corn. The woman then changed into a buffalo and disappeared.” (Corn, 2010).

There are several things the strike the reader about this. The first is the similarity to the myth of the bringing of the sacred pipe. However, this particular white buffalo woman has no name. The second is that her own breast milk is the source of the corn; suggesting the absolutely primal importance of corn as a food source; literally mother’s milk to the Lakota people.

Any mother would know that the very survival of an infant depends on a mother or a wet nurse being available, in a simpler technological society. Corn is thus as precious to the gods as to humans, and is as precious as mother’s nursing her infant.

Thirdly, as in the myth of the sacred pipe, the whole community is directed to come together and hear and receive the gift and the instruction. It is so different from the myths of the Bible, wherein Moses receives the tablets of the Ten Commandments all alone on a mountaintop, and then passes this knowledge on to his waiting people (Exodus 33, 2009).

It is also very different from the solitary revelations that came to the Buddha, seated in meditation apart from others (Norman). In the Lakota story, the gift of corn is a group revelation, to be heard and shared by all. This difference reflects the way that the Lakota and other Native American peoples publicly aspire to make decisions; communally.

There is another legend that asserts that the lowly muskrat led the Lakota to find their useful medicinal plants (Ixtlan: Earth Gift: Hornet Nests and Little-Known Zithers: Earth Gift Evokes Lakota Spirit and America’s Lost Resonances, 2002). A number of these vitally important medicinal plant species were identified by a Fr. Eugene Buechel in the early decades of the 20th century.

More recently, a project is underway at a South Dakota school to build on this earlier research, and test traditionally utilized species for physiologically active chemical constituents, and thereby preserve the traditional knowledge of the Lakota.

A number of the species that have been documented are familiar to fans of herbal healing, wild food, or natural cosmetics. These would include such plants as Echinacea, Yucca, and Acorus Calamus (Cochran-Dirksen, 2008). An electronic resource that describes these plants appears to be under development

Lakota folktales, legends, myths and traditional wisdom all parallel those of other pre-literate peoples in preserving important knowledge or guidance gained painfully over generations. Plants, whether for food, for fuel, for weapons, for healing or for sacred purposes, appear in many of these tales. Some, like corn, are literally the staff of life.

Others, such as sage, sweet grass and tobacco (whatever its specific species or mixture of species) enable the creation of an ambiance that fosters an appreciation of, and communication with, the sacred and the divine, as well as reflection and deliberation by the group. Still others are used as medicine for the body. Others form the weapons that bring in animal foods or defend the groups against others.

And finally, there are plants that build homes and carry items in the nomadic life way of the Lakota; fiber and construction materials. All these items appear in folktales, legends, myths, and these tales mirror the espoused values of the Lakota people closely. There is a consistency of perspective among the tales, and the plants fit congruently into them, reflecting the deep respect for the natural world around them, and the Wakan, or sacred essence belonging to every created thing.

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