“Heaven’s Acre,” heritage collecting place with concentrated diversity of medicinal plants on Puckomegonpaug. Incredibly, a local “sustainable farm” dug up almost all of the ramps for sale at market. Several other medicinal plants here were severely damaged by trampling, over-collecting and a freak mini-tornado that caused a mass blow-down of old growth trees. False mermaid plant (Proserpina proserpinoides) has been extirpated from Massachusetts in the same drainage due to human recreation damage along the riverside. All Photo Credit to Jim Namatassis Cachat
Before he leaves, he purifies himself with cedar or sweetgrass. When he enters the sacred land (endátëmiket ehenda tauwúndín . . .), he goes with prayer. Before he collects, he offers tobacco, prayer, and asks for pity from our Grandmother. Before the healing begins, all is swept clean with the turkey wing. Before the medicine is offered all are purified with prayer and smoke. When he offers medicine to the patient he gives thanks, petitions again. The box turtle rattle accompanies the prayers in certain times and in certain ways.
For weeks, I struggled to find a time when we could visit our sick friend.
He is a longtime supporter and friend of the Native American Inter-Tribal Council of Western Massachusetts, a community figure and organizer of a cherished annual local cultural event. Complications from surgery and chronic illness have disabled our friend, who lives under burden of daily healthcare intervention. At the powwow, we prayed and sang for him, offering healing prayers and songs. I gave him medicine helpers and conducted divinations; the moon has since passed in and out of good times for healing. Now, in the midst of a sacred season, a time of prayer, thanks and maintaining the universe, the moon and stars are in a powerful phase for healing.
I prepared a medicine bundle. In another time, the components of this bundle might have been at hand in many local villages here. Today, populations of the necessary plants are scattered far and wide. The little insect helpers, nascent in their tiny galls, have been scarce under a changed forest canopy – one now sparse and with little understory under a state-enforced regime of “sustainable forestry.”
These managed forests have no nighthawks or three-birds orchids; there are barely any mature hickories, and the list of missing spirits is long and growing.
Some mountains in the region haven’t fared much better. Not so long ago, the mountains were full of abundance. They were living apothecaries, sanctuaries of special comfort where the spirits always spoke. Some of these places are now barren of ground flora/fauna and understory, with the exception of invasive plants and hybrid coy-wolves. Entire mountains that were rich in healing and spirit are now ethnobotanical deserts that are eerily quiet and full of diseased trees.
The originating land deeds for Western Massachusetts contained reserved rights of entry for Indigenous Peoples (ex.: folios 33-39 “Indian” Land Deeds for Hampshire County, incl. Berkshire, Franklin and Hamden Counties). Umpanchella, Sancheman with several titles, therein stipulated free access for “Indians” engaging in a range of activities, without limitation. Today, these reserved rights are entirely ignored by authorities and landholders. A landbaron recently served trespass orders on Indigenous families in Western Massachusetts, while banning all Native American tribal representatives and “their associates” from entry onto lands whose originating deeds guarantee that access.
The effort to heal our friend brings these challenges into focus. To complete this healing, we need to gather a number of items. Time is the first challenge: we need time to perform a healing, and time to gather people for a twelve-night-long sacred season. Access is another challenge.
Our friend’s pharmaceutical regimen is complex and delicate. The strong spirit medicines risk medical conflict—and no harm must be done—so, I only use gentle medicine, spirits of support. Some of the ingredients are striped maple, wintergreen berry, birch polypore and wild ginger, the last of which is uncommon here.
Obtaining peripheral healing equipment is another challenge. Turkey wing fans, to sweep impurity from the healing space, are easy enough to get, now that turkeys have returned in abundance to their homelands. To cleanse people and the air, I had to buy sweet grass seeds (Hierochloë odorata, syn. Anthoxanthum nitens) and grow them in the one area of my home that has moist soil. Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also increasingly rare around here. I take (too often) from the lone tree at my home; so, I planted another from seed. Locally, cliffs and ledges hold struggling red cedars, elsewhere now found mostly on greens between highway interchanges. Today, basic cultural plant needs can require a long trip to the highest mountains or the coast for items like cattail and kinnink-kinnick.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) medicine, a Grandmother, is central to Lënape (Delaware) ceremonial and healing life. Bloodroot represents life, love, motherhood, and the sacred. Humkek juice is used for ritual face paint in Gamuing, a 12-night sacred season, said to have formerly been shared among all Eastern Algonquians.
Bloodroot provides paint for prayer sticks, spirit masks and spirit posts in the Big House. The root and flower (hmukwaès) of bloodroot are protective and romantic totems. In days of old, bloodroot would likely be in every Lënape personal medicine bundle, as it often is today. Due to creek-side development, proliferation of paths and off-road vehicles, and other successional factors, bloodroot is now only found at about half the sites I carry in my memory of places, and each in fewer number.
Sacred objects obtained from animals can be even less available. The traditional sacred rattle comes from the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina, syn. Cistudo major). Once common, the box turtle population has been in decline for decades and is now uncommon to rare in large parts of its natural habitat. Luckily, I have an antique rattle and a second shell that I found 30 years ago. I could not in good conscience take a box turtle today.
White birch inner bark tea is an old remedy for osteoarthritis that can be taken regularly as a pleasant health tea. White birch inner bark tea relieves the persistent ache of bones made to work in cold and wet seasons year after year. It’s also great for bone health, immune system support and recovery support after illness. White birch is in shorter supply than one might think, however; Contemporary lowland management of terrain does not in any way resemble the land use regime maintained for centuries until colonization.
In Massachusetts and elsewhere, private logging interests cut out hardwoods and shrubs to foster quasi-monoculture of white pine, a market wood in high demand. My home state is engaged in poisoning thousands of American beeches that are commercially low in value, cutting old stands of hardwood, and “thinning” forests of their invertebrate breeding material – dead wood and “diseased trees.” “Diseased trees” have another name: “habitat” for fungi, bacteria and invertebrates. Those three are the foundation without which no forest can survive, and they need dead wood load to live and/or reproduce. Natural forests are abundant in medicine plants, whereas managed forests have low diversity of medicinal plants. Birch bark, as widely useful as it is—like so many other species—can only be taken once in a while due to their shrinking supply.
Healing plants, pharmaceutical ones and ‘magic’ ones alike, are often difficult to procure. In the case of this patient, divination calls for the now-rare Chelone glabra. Luckily, I’ve grown it from seed next to the sweet grass. Also in the garden are bloodroot, ginger, and many other medicines.
In talking to another member of the Inter-Tribal Council, it came up that a proper collecting bag would be welcome, ne mnoti. Mention of the word reminded me of an unhappy interaction with a Ph.D. on the meaning of certain items attached to wampum traditions. In an article he wrote, he attached post-Christian-conversion meanings to traditional items, and presented some fuzzy translations. Collection bags in the mid-Hudson Valley, for instance, were attributed to a species of dogbane that does not grow there. Many errors can arise in ethnography that stems from a lack of intimacy with a landscape. The article was sent to me for review, and my comments on these points were met with derision and disrespect. It’s still often assumed that Native Americans do not speak his or her own language or understand etymology, that Indigenous self-knowledge is fickle, and that these things are ‘mysteries’ for outsider academics to define.
I realized that it would not be appropriate to make myself a nice, traditional nnoti (my bag, mnoti = undefined person’s bag). Why not? If even a handful of healers decided to make traditional collection bags, creek-side dogbane would be locally wiped out. On the other hand, it’s likely that there are few in this watershed who know how to make weaving fiber from dogbane or who observe collecting traditions. It may be necessary to make nnoti so that dogbane fiber manufacturing may be recorded before it’s forgotten.
Much knowledge has already been lost. I cannot be half the healer my Great Aunt was, having received only a chapter from her vast spiritual library. I recall it said by Elders that they felt less prepared to heal than their Elders, whom my Elders regarded as greater than themselves in training and personal spirit power. Those elders, in turn, are recorded to have held the Ancients as much greater in knowledge and power. At middle age, there is no youth next to me learning about plants and prayers. People in my family have turned to me—with success—to help with issues of fertility, acute illnesses that eluded diagnosis, and chronic issues that responded poorly to modern medicine. Still, modern life has intervened in my family to the extent that my children know who to call, and remember healings they have received, but do not know the healing themselves. My daughter is a professional animal healer and my son helps with people’s legal needs. I am happy and proud, but my heart deeply wishes for them to know what little I know. Patience and time are bringing hope to fruition.
It’s not our way to take things lying down. Nearly a decade ago, we began Oso:ah Foundation to document and archive all plants and animals of our region, since they all have a place in greater spirit medicine. We have documented in detail populations of healing plants and animals, sacred prayer sites, waters and mountains, as well as elders of various communities. We have also worked with other groups to preserve and promote our cultural and ecological heritage.
The Native American Inter-Tribal Council of Western Massachusetts is working on plans to gather all our knowledge of ceremony, ethnobotany, craft and culture and to archive it for posterity. Equally important are plans to impart this cultural property to individuals and groups within our number for them to carry forward and to educate others before it, too, is lost.
Everything great is made of small things, and so now I turn to the humbling effort to heal our friend. May we all be healed by the love and generosity of this world in our Mother, Father, and Departed Elders. Let us keep one another in our prayers and remember that we are made for this world and this world is made for us. Everything good is at hand and we are the keepers. Peace to you.
Rolf Pabahtanumwe Cachat-Schilling (Mohawk, Nipmuc), M.S., is Chair of Western Chapter, Massachusetts Archaeological Society, a member of the Native American Intertribal Council of Western Massachusetts, of the Northeast Anthropological Association, of the American Society for Ethnohistory, of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, of the Northeastern Antiquities Research Association, and an editor in translation for scientific research journals.