Native American: Green squash

Hello! And welcome to Tendrils. We’ve just passed Thanksgiving, a time when American native plants play a starring in role in dinner. And as the Standing Rock protests continue, I thought now would be a good time to look a little more closely at these foods, which were in use by Native Americans long before the first white settlers arrived, and many of which have criss-crossed the globe (and been launched into space!).

The Guardian has an article explaining the Standing Rock protests, but in essence it’s about an oil pipeline and its potential effects on the water supply in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and beyond. There are also issues with it crossing sacred sites, some of which have already been bulldozed.

The Standing Rock tribe is part of the Great Sioux nation, a name that is familiar to us but that I believe native tribes don’t tend to use themselves. It would be more accurate to say they are one of the tribes in the Siouan language group. We’ve encountered other members of this group on the blog before – Buffalo Bird Woman was a member of the Hidatsa tribe, a Siouan people.

The Siouan people tended to be hunter gatherers, but also to cultivate the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash. Foods that are now familiar across the world. Many of their other foods have been largely forgotten, but the ‘Sioux Chef’ is putting pre-colonization food back on the menu:

including bison, venison, rabbit, river and lake fish, trout, duck, quail, maple sugar, sage, sumac, plums, timpsula or wild turnip, wild rice, purslane, amaranth, maize and various wildflowers.

Ethnobotany also gets a shout out in that NPR article 🙂 I was curious about timpsula, which turns out to be Psoralea esculenta, also known as the Prairie turnip. It’s a perennial legume (in the Fabaceae family). Handily for foragers, it is harvested from May to July when it is in flower, which would make it much easier to spot. It is peeled and can be eaten raw or cooked, and is traditionally sliced, sun-dried and pounded into flour. If you have eaten frybread, you may well have eaten timpula as its secret ingredient.

Another use for the prairie turnip is in Wohanpi (Traditional Lakota Soup), along with wild onions. We can’t all go and forage for them, but we can try growing our own. Seed suppliers are few and far between, but two possible choices are Prairie Moon Nursery (US) and Sunshine Seeds (EU).

Oxfam Unwrapped’s gifts include seeds, honey bees, an allotment and a big pile of poo! Something for everyone 🙂
Oxfam Unwrapped gifts for gardeners

Besides the prairie turnip, it’s clear that Native Americans have superfoods right under their feet. These include

include cattail broad leaf shoots, chokecherries, beaked hazelnuts, lamb’s-quarters, plains prickly pear, prairie turnips, stinging nettles, wild plums, raspberries and rose hips.

I had to look up lamb’s quarters; although I’ve heard the name I get mixed up with different off-beat salad crops 😉 Lamb’s Quarters is in the Goosefoot family – here in Europe the name is used for Chenopodium album; in the US it’s more likely to be C. berlandieri. These wild foods are incredibly healthy, and a glimpse inside the makeshift kitchens at Standing Rock offers a stark contrast with the standard American diet, and the problems it is causing for Native Americans in particular.

Which is one of many reasons why it’s important that people are reinvestigating wild rice harvesting and teosinte – recent research is showing how this ancient corn cob has conquered the world as maize. (I’d say it was a-maize-ing, but I don’t want to be pelted with your unripened tomatoes 😉 )

It’s also amazing that 1,000 years ago, caffeinated drinks had Native Americans buzzing. If (like mine), your weekend has got off to a sluggish start, I’ll leave you with the buzz on yaupon, America’s forgotten native ‘tea’ plant, which should get you up and running. If you haven’t heard of it already, you’re going to find its plant family fascinating; just don’t be put off by its scientific name!

What can I do?

If you stand with Standing Rock then there are ways to show support and to donate money or necessities to the protestors.

Here in the UK, the next meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ancient Woodland is taking place in early December, and the Woodland Trust would like as many MPs as possible to go along to discuss issues surrounding ancient woodland. Ancient woodlands are complex, irreplaceable ecosystems that need our protection. If you think so too, then take a minute to use the Woodland Trust’s online tool to ask your MP to attend the meeting.

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