Great Lakes Lifeways Institute Director Explains Native Americans’ Relationship to Plants

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Kevin Finney demonstrates the strength of an elm bark basket at the October RCWO meeting.

Great Lakes Lifeways Institute Director Explains Native Americans’ Relationship to Plants

Monday evening, October 16, 2017

By Marty Arnold

Kevin Finney, Executive of the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute, spoke to River City Wild Ones
members and guests about how native people of West Michigan (“the Anishinaabe”) used plants. Finney is a cultural historian and educator who specializes in the life and history of Native Americans of Great Lakes.

Finney told RCWO members that human ideas about plants shape the landscape. White settlers cut Michgan’s forests, plowed the prairie and dredged wetlands because they viewed the landscape as a resource. This is in stark contract to traditional Anishinaabe ideas. The Anishinaabe language has no word for “nature.“ Traditional people lived “in and of the world,” not separate from it. The native word for “plant”—aagkiig—means “a being that emerges from the earth.” This illustrates native peoples’ belief in animacy, that all things, even rocks, the sky and water are alive. “When a native person discovers an unfamiliar plant he asks, ‘Who is he?’” Finney said.”Ideas are important. How we think about nature matters.

Kevin Finney showing his display of herbs, corn, and Native American baskets.

The modern notion of “preserving” land by limiting human activity is also foreign to the traditional ways. Gathering wild rice or harvesting birch bark for canoes and baskets has strict protocols that create a relationship between people and plants. “When you rely on a plant, you learn to take care of it,” Finney said. Native peoples “learned” from the birch tree how to harvest its bark without doing harm. Today, modern science is only beginning to acknowledge that plants communicate and live in interdependent communities. Anishinaabe people have always known this to be true.

Finney warns that current land use practices have created serious problems. Our dominant crops—corn and soybeans—are annuals that require yearly plowing and replanting which depletes the soil. Fertilizers are “a Band-Aid approach” that pollutes our water. “We cannot continue to live the way we do on this earth and survive,” Finney said.

    

More thoughts from Kevin Finney:

  • All plants, according to Anishaabe culture, were created with a set of instructions. When we learn them, we know how to care for plants.
  • Great stands of Manoomin, or wild rice, once grew in the Grand River bayous. Wild rice produces seeds throughout the season so it must be harvested gently, without breaking the stalk, so it can continue to produce seed. (The great stands of rice were destroyed by logging activity and dredging of the bayous.)
  • The Anishinaabe word for skunk cabbage, “zhi-gaa-ga-wansh,” was adopted by settlers to name the city of Chicago. 
  • “We make a mistake if we try to control nature. We’re trying to overpower the emerald ash borer. We will never outsmart the ash borer.”
  • On invasive species: “There’s no such thing as a good plant or a bad plant, but just a plant that doesn’t know its place.”
  • On local genotypes. “Plants have always been moved around by birds, water and wind. They never stay put.”
  • “An elder once told me, that compared to plants who make their own food, humans are ‘pitiful’ because we have to spend all day looking for food.”
  • Birch bark has anti-fungal properties which keeps it from rotting and helps preserve food stored in birch bark baskets.

   

  

 

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