Monday 26 June 2017

Linguistic significance of plants - Beech and its friend, Canadian Wild-Ginger

In all of our work we bring everything we can to the table. We teach about what makes these plants significant to Anishnaabe, and about how Our understanding of their significance can change and has changed the way the everyone looks at the world of plants.

Each plant is significant because of its name. Today I want to talk about the importance in understanding the linguistic significance of plants.

I must say first off that I am still learning. I have a long way to go before I would consider myself an expert. I am just beginning! This article is a great example of both of these!

Beech, Azhaawemish.

Beech trees are absolutely beautiful. There are a lot of striking features of this tree, lets look at a few.

They have this super smooth silvery grey bark that have huge frozen-in-time ripples that are throughout. A lot of people love how they look like massive majestic elephant legs. Beech are also quite skilled at holding onto their dead leaves throughout the winter. What is really special though, is how they produce the most amount of fruit compared to other trees native to this continent. Their massive production of fruit is why its scientific name is Fagus grandiflora. The name fagus means fruit.

The scientific names of plants is a system that was created to ensure proper identification. Its simple. What is the best way to make sure you are properly identifying? By looking at the feature of the plant that makes it different from every other plant! Fruit you say? Well oh my goodness! The amount of fruit that beech trees produce is more spectacular then any others! Easy
peasy, one-two-threesy. (Clearly, I have a toddler.)

The system of scientific names is simple and very effective for why it was created! Find the differences and viola, you found the plant. Done.

Azhaawemish is our name for Beech trees. Our language is a verb based language so the name of this tree is describing an action. Every time you see or hear 'Zhaa' In our language it is describing something very specific. It is talking about something being pierced. Check this out!!

Okay so, Zhaawesawin is the art of tattoo making. So we are really saying that beech is a tattoo tree! Which makes perfect sense right? After all, this
tree is thee tree that, on your first date, you carve a
giant heart and carve the initials of you and your lover in. So this is the tree you can give tattoos too and it doesn't die. What a perfect name. There is an immediate way to understand the Anishnaabe name of this tree. The tattoo tree can handle you carving tattoos into it without it dying. Azhaawemish

Lets dig deeper.

I was reminded of the fact that the main historical utilitarian use of this tree also has to do with tattoos by a local friend named Caleb Musgrave, founder of Canadian Bushcraft  (coolest guy ever.) He mentioned that beech root bark was used to make dye for tattoos! He seriously knows everything. So the root bark is boiled into a strong tea, that has an amber/orange color. When this tea is mixed with blood it turns pitch black. So we use it to coat/clean our needles in the art of traditional tattooing.

Lets dig even deeper!

I was teaching this to a group of botanists and ecologists at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton (or is it Burlington?) They were right into it just loving learning from my language, and one of them said: "Hey, you know what! Beech buds are unique, they are not just a normal bud or duckbill shape!" And a few others piped in and explained that beech buds are long very needle-like. Taking this understanding even further! Wow!

So Azhaawemish, the tattoo tree is the tree whose buds look like needles it is the tree you can give a tattoo too without killing it and use the root bark to make a permanent black dye for actual tattoos!

This tree goes from Fagus, the huge fruit producer. To Azhaawemish the tree that teaches us not to say Azhaawemish, you are beech. Instead say Azhaawemish, you are the tattoo tree, you are a historical example of Traditional Tattoos and you are an outstanding example of the Creators signature in the natural world. You teach us how every plant has been created to show us what they have been created for.

Understanding their names can bring a forest to life!

Canadian Wild-Ginger, Nmepin.

This one is really awkward. This one really forced me and forces everyone to ask questions. 'Nme' is a sturgeon, 'Pin' together we have Nmepin, the sturgeon potato. What?!?!

I want to make something really clear, I believe in challenging tradition, especially oral tradition. An oral tradition survives not only when you listen to it but when you add your voice to it. Even when you disagree with it, especially when you disagree with it. So long as the conversation between our generation and the generations before it remain authentic, oral tradition remains alive and vital. Lets stay authentic.

Every creature has a plant that it is connected to. Growing up hearing knowledge keepers say this, really messed me up. To me what they were doing was simply regurgitating even farfetched information in the name of faith and tradition. "My faith is stronger then yours because when my elder speaks I listen." Right? Look what happens when you say I disagree. Remember, when you say I disagree you are saying, "I want my tradition to remain authentic, alive and vital."

Okay, lets do this!

Every creature has a plant that they are connected to. We all know cat-nip right? Its regarded as a pseudo-narcotic, for cats! Its legit too, go try it! When you give a cat, cat-nip it goes super bonkers, eats then chills for the afternoon.

All you dog owners, can you recall your dog doing a similar thing to grass? Tearing up a patch of grass, eating a ton and then losing its mind in a field, sprinting back and forth, jumping and rolling, Only to end the psycho session by grabbing a bite to eat and chillin for a few hours.

If you read my previous article on water lilys you can understand how water lilys have this same effect on moose! Imagine a moose on ... moose-nip?

I have been finding all kinds of plants that are connected with different animals even horses and bears!

Nmepin, our canadian wild-ginger has a connection, a special relationship with sturgeon! Yes, this idea of plants and creatures extends to the world of fish!

I heard of this ancient practice of washing fish nets with different plant teas to attract different species of fish. At first I thought it was ludicrous. Until it was put to the test. Our knowledge holders talk about Nmepin and how if you wash your nets with the roots you will catch sturgeon. I got to tell this to different research groups conducting research on sturgeon, and we have had truly phenomenal results.

This species of fish faces a huge threat. That is, hydro. Dam's that control the level of the waters is what is mainly responsible for their decline. The species stays too small and vulnerable for too long. The dam raises the water levels and the tiny vulnerable sturgeon are washed out and that's it, that's all. Due to hydro not caring about sturgeon what-so-ever, we have to figure out an alternative. We resort to research to help this species. There is a serious problem to this though, and it is the sad fact that we are just not able to collect enough data to come to any conclusions. We are not catching enough fish to conduct proper research.
If only we can just catch more fish! Lucky for sturgeon we have retained some traditional harvesting practices that might actually be responsible, in the near future, for the saving of their species! Is that ironic or what?! I have worked with a research team who used this method and caught more fish in 2 nets than in the last 4 years! My hope is that the relationship that this fish has with this plant will spread to other research organizations, so make sure you share this!

Need a tad more validation before you start sharing? Okay!

When you talk to elders about this plant, they all seem to be saying the same thing. It is called sturgeon potato because they eat it! "They crawl up on shore and eat that plant!" especially one elderly lady from Birch Island, she spoke of it as though it just happened a few moments ago, like, you just missed it!

After a bit of research I realized that sturgeon are actually a prehistoric fish, they have remained basically unchanged since the dinosaur days. Guess what we understand from fossil records, sturgeon lost their ability to crawl five-hundred-thousand years ago! Guess what else we understand from fossil records, when sturgeon used to be able to crawl, their diet was full of vegetation. That means this lady from Birch Island told me a five-hundred-thousand year old history, as if it just happened, like I just missed it! So I went back to her story immediately and it turns out that I was wrong, it did not just happen moments ago. She did not grow up stepping over sturgeon in the middle of the forest and that in fact, they were just stories her parents told her of, get this, "An older time, a long time ago." Not only did she give a five-hundred-thousand year old history, but she gave me an accurate five-hundred-thousand year old informal history. Meaning, this history was not institutionalized, its not an important history that we made or are making making an actual effort to keep, like say our ceremonial tradition. Imagine what happens when it is a history we do want to retain?

Isn't this idea insane, thank you so much Nmepin, for posing a seriously crazy question and an even more crazy answer.

Let me take a little segway and address an issue.

Have you ever encountered someone who wanted to disprove an oral culture as being a valid way to transmit information? You know, those people who will say things like: "Do you really think that an oral culture is an accurate way to relay information? Have you ever played the telephone game" and they will go on! "You know, where you get a row of 10 people, preferably kindergarten kids and whisper the first people in line a phrase and by the time this phrase gets through the 10 people the message is so skewed that it does not retain the same meaning" as my face reddens with rage, they will continue! "So if that happens with 10 people in one minute, what happens with thousands of people over thousands of years? Oral history has to be acknowledged as inaccurate."

Oh boy did these conversations get me upset! Well guess what, I don't get upset anymore. Do you want to know why? All I have to say is, "Have you met the sturgeons potato?"


This is why our language is important and how, for us plant medicine junkies, their linguistic significance is just that, significant! It helps us to take our history and give it a contemporary application.


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  2. I would love to get more information on using Nmepin to catch Sturgeon for research. Can you recommend another resource?