The Role of Plants in the Order of Life

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Covering a wide range of plants, from conifers to cattails to medicinal uses of yarrow, mullein, and dandelion, Geniusz explains how we can work with those beings to create food, simple medicines, and practical botanical tools.
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“Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask” by Mary Siisip Geniusz makes botanical information useful to native and nonnative healers and educators and places it in the context of the Anishinaabe culture that developed the knowledge and practice.

Mary Siisip Geniusz has spent more than thirty years working with, living with, and using the Anishinaabe teachings, recipes, and botanical information she shares in Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Geniusz teaches the ways she was taught—through stories. Sharing the traditional stories she learned at Keewaydinoquay’s side as well as stories from other American Indian traditions and her own experiences, Geniusz brings the plants to life with narratives that explain their uses, meaning, and history.

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“The Year the Roses Died”

Gichi-mewinzha gii-oshki-niiging akiing, a very long time ago, when the earth was new, there was a horrible year that was remembered as “The Year the Roses Died.” In that long-ago time a large number of animals depended on the roses for their food. But that spring there were no roses, not on the wide prairie, not in the mountain meadows nor in the most hidden forest glade. The roses were gone. When the animals realized the roses were really not going to grow that spring, there was a great outcry and a call for a council meeting to determine what had happened and, most important, “who did it?”

The waawaashkeshiwag, the deer, lowering their antlered heads with great dignity, said that they knew it was the bineshiinyag, the little birds, who were responsible, because they had seen them eating the flowers.

The bineshiinyag flew to a branch in the middle of the clearing and chirped, “We may have eaten a few flowers, but it was really the aamoog, the bees, who were responsible, because they ate the pollen.”

The aamoog buzzed angrily. “We did taste a little of the pollen but it is really the memengwaag, the butterflies, who are responsible, because they left their eggs on the roses, and their caterpillars hatched and ate all of the leaves.”

The memengwaag flitted. “We had to have some nursery for our children, and they were hungry when they were born, but it was really the waawaashkeshiwag who ate the stems.”

The waawaashkeshiwag said, “We ate a few of the stems, but it was Waabooz, Rabbit, who dug up and ate the roots.”

All of the animals turned and looked at Waabooz, and then they all jumped him. They grabbed his tail and broke it off, and that is the reason why to this day waaboozoog, rabbits, have such tiny tails. Then Ma’iingan, Wolf, grabbed one ear, and Ma’iinganens, Coyote, grabbed the other. Esiban, Raccoon, grabbed one of his back legs, and Ginebig, Snake, wrapped his long body around the other. And they pulled and they pulled while Waabooz howled. That is the reason why to this day his ears are so long and his legs are so stretched out.

They probably would have killed Waabooz, but Makwa, Black Bear, rose up on his hind legs, swaying side to side, and growled, “All right! Drop the waabooz! I don’t like him much either, but Creator must have had some purpose for him, or Creator wouldn’t have bothered creating him.”

Just then the Manidoo, Spirit, whose job it was to watch over that place, rose up and said, “What seems to be the problem?”

“Well,” said Makwa, softening his growl to show respect, “you see, Your Honor, it has been determined that Waabooz is responsible for the disappearance of the roses.”

The Manidoo said, “Killing the Waabooz will not bring back the roses. You all noticed that the roses were in trouble, and you all decided to take your own shares even if it meant killing the roses forever. There is no honor in this. This is not keeping creation in balance as you were told to do in the Beginning Time.”

All the animals hung their heads because they knew that the Manidoo was right.

“Well,” said the Manidoo. “I will bring the roses back, but this time I am going to give them protection so you won’t be tempted to eat them up entirely again. And I am also going to leave Waabooz as he is so that you will always be reminded of the disgrace of forgetting the balance.”

So now, when we see the thorns on the roses and the poor misshaped waabooz, we are reminded of the Year the Roses Died.

Mii iw, Miigwech, That’s it, thank you.

The Primacy of Plants

The story of “The Year the Roses Died” embodies the teaching of the place of plants in the order of life on Gidakiiminaan, our Earth, whom we call Ninga, “my own mother.” We are told that humankind was the last created, the youngest, and therefore the most dependent of all the different forms of life. This is really no different from what non-native science teaches. Plants are the source of life on this planet. Without plants, the rocks would not break down into soil. Without plants to take the sunlight into their own bodies and by the use of chlorophyll trap the light of the sun into a usable form of energy, no animal life could survive. Plants take in carbon dioxide and make oxygen for all animals to breathe. If plants are not here, neither are we. We are all in this life together and to survive we must all survive.

The Anishinaabeg have always believed that the ultimate good is a bountiful land that could and would supply all that humankind needs to sustain life. This planet of ours has four orders of life. The first created, the elder brothers1 are the Earth forces: the minerals, the rocks, the wind and the rain and the snow and the thunder beings and all of the rest of the beings we refer to as weather, and the Aadizookaanag, the Grandfathers and Grandmothers, our ceremonies, songs, and traditional stories. The second created, the second brothers, are the plants: the trees, the greeners and the non-greeners. The third created are the nonhuman animals, the four-leggeds, the flyers, the creepers and the crawlers and those who swim. The fourth created, the youngest brothers, and therefore the most vulnerable, are human beings. All four orders of life are interconnected. None can survive without the others except for those of the first order, and if they had to survive alone they would not be happy because they could not do as Creator directed everyone to do in the Beginning Time. They could not take care to see that all of life continued as Creator had intended.

This philosophy sees humankind as the weakest because they alone need all three of the other orders of life to survive at all. Humans are not at the top of the order of creation. Humans are not the lords of this earth. We are at the bottom because we are the most dependent.

Modern society does not think much about the other orders of life. Perhaps that started to happen when we no longer had to hunt for our meat and till the soil for our vegetables and grains. When we removed ourselves from the lives of our ancestors and found other ways, more artificial ways of being, we could begin to disregard the harmony that has sustained us this far. Safe in cities, getting our meat in cellophane-wrapped packages in the supermarket and our fruit and vegetables and our grains in paper bags, we could forget about our elder brothers the animals and the plants. But we forget them to our peril, for we cannot survive without them. Only the rocks and the thunder beings and those other life-forms of the first created order can survive alone. We are the babies of this family of ours. We are the weakest because we are the most dependent. We should remember that more often, or the time will come when the rocks and the thunderers will be grieving and here on this beautiful planet all by themselves.

We are all in this together. For one part of creation to survive it must all survive. I have nightmares about the glaciers melting in Alaska and the permafrost in the Northwest Territories. How different our fates would be if those who now have the power on Turtle Island knew and believed the legends. Sometimes I wonder where the people who have the power expect to go if they succeed in destroying this land? Do they think they will just find another place to pillage the way their ancestors found the Americas? They might be in for a shock if they intend migrating to Mars or even further. They might read about the scientific experiments that were worked on the international space station. One experiment told about salamanders who were born and grown in space. There was something wrong with their nervous system. Some scientists speculate that the salamanders were somehow affected because they were cut off from the electrical pulses that the Earth gives off. Removed from here they did not make it elsewhere. We are all children of this same Great Mother. As Kee always said, “Blessings and balance. Balance and blessings, for from balance comes all blessings.”

I know for myself, in my own life, all of the Anishinaabe lessons on the interconnectedness of all things goes beyond vague ecological fears and/or popular sentiments. I know from pure personal observations over the past half century and more that my personal actions have repercussions in my own life as well as in the lives of those around me. I know that if I kick someone in a fit of temper at noon, I can expect to be kicked myself. And the kick that I get back will come quickly, and it will not be in proportion to the kick I dealt. I will be lucky if the kick I get does not break my leg, and I usually get it before the sun goes down. I also know that my own health and the health of those I love are intimately connected to my actions. I do not just mean that if I do not feed my family enough vegetables they will get more colds. I mean that my respect for power, traditions, and ceremonies, or my lack thereof, will result in the health and the “luck” of me and mine. This has been brought home to me most forcefully in regard to my own health. Once I participated in a ceremony that I was worried was not being performed properly. Within hours I had pneumonia, and it became double pneumonia before I put two and two together and made amends. My health problems occurred even though the “fault” and/or misdeeds of the people involved were in no way my doing. I am sure that I have often simply stepped in all innocence into the disharmony created by others. I am always, however, grateful to take the harm on myself because I have my daughters and my husband and many other people whom I love. If harm is to come to one of us I am glad if it comes to me and not them. Our old ways tell us that health is directly connected to the harmony of creation. One does not always gather only what one personally sows. Sometimes we gather what others around us have planted and nurtured. Innocence is not protection!

This worldview that tells me I can get sick because someone else creates disharmony by lack of respect for power is not the worldview of the greater society. It does, however, come close to the branch of physics called quantum mechanics. My favorite quote about that discipline says, “If anyone tells you they understand quantum mechanics, they are lying.” Periodically I try to understand it myself, even though there was a definite lack of non-native mathematics and sciences in my education. The part of it that I find similar to our Anishinaabe-inendamowin, Anishinaabe mindset or worldview, is the experiments on subatomic particles that seem to suggest that the attitude of the researchers can have a direct effect on the subatomic particles that they are studying. If they measure them, the particles will react in the way the researchers are expecting them to. It seems that the very act of observing the particles has a direct result on their actions. “If you build it he will come.” “If you measure it, it will do what you are expecting it to do.” It might be a stretch, but to me it tends toward our Anishinaabe view of reality that the actions and even the thoughts of the person can “change” reality, and not just the reality of the person doing the thinking or the acting. It can change all reality.

All of the above taken together means for me that reality is not concrete. It is fluid. And that fluidity is influenced by personal actions, words, and thoughts. Ripples go out from our deeds and our words, spoken or unspoken. What we do, even what we think, changes what happens. It changes reality for everyone. No wonder we are in such a mess. If all that is true, I guess we are pretty lucky to still be treading water in the world. It does behoove one, however, to be eternally thankful to Those Who Protect Us. Without Them? . . . It is not even to be imagined!

Excerpt is reproduced with permission from the University of Minnesota Press from Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings by Mary Siisip Geniusz, edited by Wendy Makoons Geniusz, illustrations by Annmarie Geniusz. Copyright 2015 by Mary Siisip Geniusz. All rights reserved.

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