The Gifts of the Plant People
Judy Bluehorse Skelton discusses indigenous ways of developing a relationship with the plant world and native herbalists’ lifetime commitment to herbal medicine.
This is Wisdom of the Elders. I’m Arlie Neskahi.
Judy Bluehorse Skelton is Nez Perce on her father’s side of the family and her mother is Cherokee. Today Judy speaks of herbal medicine and the native way of making relationships with the plant people.
Judy Bluehorse Skelton:
Native people have been using, and working and have had a unique relationship with the plant people for thousands of years. Our traditional knowledge of the gifts of the plants was shared with the first arrivals from Europe. They, too, have, and had, an herbal tradition. And when they arrived, they were anxious to understand and to learn what our plants here were used for. Many of them were unique and not found in Europe. The tribes were very generous in sharing this information, and in fact, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, which is a large volume, large book, that is published annually, contains all the medicines sanctioned for doctors to dispense as medicine. Much of that information about our plants was provided by Native people, Native healers.
It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that much of our plant medicine was actually purged from the U.S. Pharmacopoeias. If you pick up an old used one, you’ll find echinacea in there. You’ll find Oregon grape. You’ll find all sorts of plants that the medical profession felt no longer were valuable once antibiotics were discovered. And so they took them out. And what’s interesting today, as we find antibiotics less and less effective. We’ve built up tolerances to them. The bacteria have mutated so that they no longer respond to that antibiotic, that our old plant medicine, many of which have antibiotic properties, anti microbial, anti bacterial. As I tell the kids, all the “anties,” Kills bacteria, kills microbes are still there for us,and they work very effectively against some of these microorganisms that the antibiotics are no longer having much effect on.
Because herbal medicine is becoming so popular, many of us herbalists are being asked to share a lot of information, and is typical in our modern, American society, people want immediate gratification. They want the instant answer or easy answer. And herbal medicine is a lifetime commitment. It’s a life study. It’s a life work. And while there are many books out today on plant medicine, plant ID, how to make salves, how to make teas, I encourage anyone who’s interested in herbal medicine to find someone to study with, to go out with, and to start cultivating the relationship with the plants. Be out in the garden, be out in parks. If you can get out of the city, if you’re out of the city already, just take a walk. Introduce, get introduced to the plants. Start spending quiet time with the plants. They’re your first teachers. But find someone to, to be with, to apprentice with. And get to know the plants.
Traditionally plant knowledge comes from dreaming. To dream of a plant, it will share many of its gifts. And those will be the way that that plant can be used by you for many different conditions. It will become clear, or be made clear to you how to use the plant. That’s the old way.
This kind of learning or experience doesn’t lend itself easily to book learning. And this is very frustrating to American society who values the written word above oral tradition, who would rather read about the knowledge than experience the knowledge first hand. And so many of the books out there may give a list of plants that would be good for hypertension, high blood pressure. And one feels overwhelmed. “Which one do I use? Which one’s right?”
And that’s where your unique relationship with the plants is the most valuable. You need to be able to discern, to judge for yourself, if this is the right plant for this person at this time. Another traditional way of learning and understanding plant medicine is the idea that if I were treating hypertension for my father at a certain time, there’s a particular hawthorn tree that I would gather from. There may be ten out in the meadow that I’m looking at. But the one that’s right for him at this time is the one that I will go to and gather from and prepare him medicine from. This also does not lend itself to be easily written. How does one learn how to discern which of those ten hawthorn trees to gather from for this one person for this time?
When you begin to understand Native healing and plant medicine from this perspective, then you can see where it’s very different than reading a book, running down to the store and buying a bottle of hawthorn extract and caps. You’re probably going to have a different kind of experience. I’m not saying the medicine won’t be as good. A lot of what makes good medicine is your intention and your energy behind it. What you bring to it. That’s always been a very big part of healing, is the energy and the intention and the state of mind and the preparation of the person doing it.
As herbal medicine becomes more popular, you will need to educate yourself about where plants are grown, how they’re grown, how they were gathered, if they were all done in a good way, Were thank-yous offered? Did someone leave corn or tobacco or some other gift? And these change the medicine.
I was also taught you don’t make medicine when you’re upset. You don’t make medicine when you’re angry. It comes right through the medicine. And so to make medicine, to make a tea, to make a salve, to make a poultice, to cook food – that’s our first medicine – just to cook food. No one hardly cooks anymore. They gave a shocking statistic how many fast food meals people ate in a week. I can’t remember but it was very high! But just to cook a meal from the heart!
You know, we think of these terms like the secret ingredient, that special thing, and–is grandmother’s love. You can’t buy that! And that’s the same ingredient when you’re making medicine that has to be there. It’s love. So, if you’re interested in learning more about herbal medicine, or plant medicine, one begins by preparing oneself for that relationship, because it is not entered lightly and it’s a lifelong work.
Judy Bluehorse Skelton practices and teaches her craft in order that her relationship to plant people shall carry through to generations. This is Wisdom of the Elders. I’m Arlie Neskahi.