Friday, July 22, 2011

On the Sweetgrass Trail

In the warm, sweet days of midsummer it's hard to bring myself to the computer, which is why I have not posted in a few weeks, but here is a story of one of those fine days.

The most storied of native grasses to grow on this continent is Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) and though it is locally common in our part of the prairie, I always have trouble finding it. We like to gather some every summer and braid it up to hang in the rafters of the cabin, so for the second year running Karen and I asked Rob, Cherry Lake's resident botanist, to take us on a Sweetgrass expedition and show us how to find it.

It was the last day of a weekend of celebrating and learning about ancient skills--people brain-tanning hides, starting fires with bows, flint-knapping, gathering wild foods, throwing the atlatl. A dip in the lake followed by a hike to find the sweetgrass that grows on the far end seemed like a good way to finish off.

It took us a while, but eventually Rob located it on the edge of a Bobolink's territory where its mature seed heads shined bronze in the sun amid sedges and wire rushes. For the next half hour we crouched to pick enough for a couple of braids and I did my best to learn how to identify the flower structure.

This Creative Commons image by Krzysztof Ziarnek

This is the grass whose very name evinces its role in the spiritual traditions that run deepest in this part of the world. Hieros is Greek for "sacred" or "sanctified", and Chloa is Greek for "grass." This sanctified grass is among the most important gifts of the Creator for indigenous people on the prairie. One Blackfoot account of its origins says that Sweetgrass once lived in the sky along with another holy plant, the prairie turnip, which we now call IndianBreadroot (Psoralea esculenta).

Morning Star became smitten with a young Blackfoot woman and brought her into the sky to live with him. She was happy there until she was tempted to pull the sacred turnip up, which Sun Chief had forbidden her to touch, because it was plugging the hole through which his son, Morning Star, had brought the young woman. Looking into the hole she saw below the prairie where she grew up, shining in the sun, and her people there in their lodges and she became homesick. Angered at her transgression, but showing his unending mercy, Sun Chief sent her back to her people, giving her the sacred turnip and sweetgrass, as well as a digging stick, to help guide the Blackfoot in their journey.

This story, an abridged conflation of a few different versions from Blackfoot tradition, reminds us that we are meant always to receive from the Creator in a spirit of humility and greatitude, and that when we take without proper gestures of respect and reverence, it is a transgression that brings repercussions, yes, but always within the wider mercy and compassion of the Creator.

Walking back from our picking expedition, and thinking about things like gratitude and what it means to really receive a gift, I stepped into one of the new mudflats exposed along the creek in this year's flooding. Immediately, I began seeing worked lithic materials, flakes at first, and then a small shard that could have been a scraper. Two more paces and I saw the outline of a sharpened point jutting out from the mud sideways, as though it had been dropped moments before. Here it is, made from a pinkish quartzite.

I am no expert, but comparing it to drawings in books and online, my best guess is that it is a point from what archeologists have named the Besant culture, which occupied this prairie from 2000 to 1150 before present. The Besant were considered to be among the most proficient buffalo hunters to ever live on the plains.

At the end of a weekend where we gathered with friends to imagine and rediscover the skills that allow for a more direct, less mediated engagement with the earth and all of its gifts, it felt like a small blessing to find this artifact left by the ones who first developed these lifeways and the ethics that moderated their use in the land.

Western Red Lily, another mid-summer blessing from the prairie (photo by Maia Claire Herriot)

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