Restoring a traditional food plant promises a rich harvest

Published in Indian Country Today in 2009. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle...

Ethnobotanist Linda Different Cloud-Jones, Catawba, has begun the process of restoring stands of mouse bean plants on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where she lives with her Hunkpapa Lakota husband and their children. In times past, Lakota and Dakota women collected the much-loved traditional food by digging into the underground caches where mice had stored the small brown beans for the winter. As the women foraged, they sang special songs that thanked the mice and explained that they were leaving corn kernels in return.

“Elders told me they sang to the mice, ‘We will feed your children in return for you feeding ours’,” said Different Cloud-Jones, shown third from left with students from Sitting Bull College, Standing Rock’s community college, where Different Cloud-Jones teaches ethnobotany. Also called hog peanuts, the legume tastes like nutty limas when boiled in soup.

            Nowadays, few of the plants remain on Standing Rock, which covers more than 2 million acres in North and South Dakota. Different Cloud-Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and environmental restoration at Montana State University in Bozeman, explains that many of the legumes, which have the scientific name Amphicarpaea bracteata, were lost in the 1950s, when U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams that inundated the Missouri River bottomlands, including much Standing Rock acreage.

“Before that time,” said Different Cloud-Jones, “vast, dense cottonwood forests lined the Missouri, which cuts through the reservation. Elders say that driving a horse and buggy along a road through the forest was like traveling through a dark tunnel. A. bracteata and other culturally significant plants and animals flourished under the trees. Then the water rose, and the forest was destroyed. All that food and medicine — gone.”

            When Different Cloud-Jones was deciding what project to undertake for her Ph.D. dissertation, she asked Standing Rock elders for advice. They responded enthusiastically to the idea of plant restoration, including wholesome, delicious mouse beans. Different Cloud-Jones had personal reasons for wanting to work with that particular plant. “I was heartbroken to think my children would never taste mouse beans or see them gathered.”

            However, she said, re-establishing a plant is not a simple matter of putting seeds in the ground and waiting for them to grow. “You have to consider whether you can bring a plant back in its original location — which was not possible in this case — or in a new location. You must bear in mind the plant’s needs, in terms of water, sun and shade, and much more. And you have to think about how introducing, or re-introducing, the plant will affect other living things in that place.”

This past summer, Different Cloud-Jones collected the information necessary to make these assessments. A National Science Foundation grant allowed her to hire two assistants, Audra Stonefish and April White Hat-Blackbird, both undergraduates at Sitting Bull College.

Her efforts have historical precedents, she said. “When gathering, Native women made sure valuable plants proliferated by disseminating their seeds and replanting root segments and bulb offshoots. Now that we are not out there harvesting as much, the populations of many plants, including camas, prairie turnips, and sweetgrass, have diminished.”

Next summer, she will plant A. bracteata, though she won’t harvest beans during that growing season. “I need to see if the plants can propagate themselves. I also want to look at the role of mice. They probably don’t eat everything they place in their caches. If what they leave behind sprouts, their activity contributes to replanting.”

           An unforeseen offshoot of Different Cloud-Jones’s work has been the additional projects devised by her assistants. White Hat-Blackbird is studying invasive plant species on Standing Rock, while Stonefish is gathering data to uncover why one the reservation’s largest stands of hawthorn trees, a source of traditional heart medicine, is dying.

“They will present their research at upcoming science and education conferences,” Different Cloud-Jones said. The two students have also seen first-hand how Different Cloud-Jones, a Native woman like themselves, does research, consults with her Montana State doctoral committee, and seeks advice from mentors. “Now they know what getting an advanced degree entails and plan to do so themselves. That’s another benefit of this project — another way our traditional plants are taking us into the future.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; 1 photo courtesy Linda Jones, 1 c. Woodard.

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