Ethnobotany and Grief

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Nikki Crowe nets a northern pike on Mille Lacs Lake. Netting and spearing is a treaty right under the 1837 and 1854 treaties between Fond du Lac and the U.S.

Nikki Crowe is an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a social worker, and an ethnobotanist in training, studying how people of different cultures make use of indigenous plants. With climate change likely to impact the composition of the environment Crowe calls home, she is educating herself and her community on the plant species that may come to replace others as the Northern Minnesota climate warms.

Plants and other natural resources are at the intersection of climate change and treaty rights, which ensure indigenous communities can “hunt, fish, gather, and preserve cultural resources” in treaty areas. If manoomin (wild rice), maple syrup, and fish become scarce, how do sacred traditions survive, and food sources remain available?

Crowe is also a survivor of abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She says her healing journey has informed how she understands what it means to grieve environmental degradation. “The realization came to me, not in a dream, but by talking in circle with women,” Crowe explains. In essence, talking about one’s grief with others feeling the same is how communities move forward through changes and loss.

When and why did you first start thinking about how climate change would impact your community?

I worked as an intern in a climate change lab at a university in Kansas, where I washed roots being studied for the effects of rising CO2 on crop plants. I thought about where I came from and what effects the rising temperatures would have on our traditional food sources. I continued moving into work where I could learn and teach about plants and their importance to people.

How did visiting other tribes inform your understanding of climate change intersecting with treaty rights?

When I first met the coastal tribal communities in Louisiana and Alaska, I learned about the loss of land they were experiencing. Imagine the land is literally disappearing under your feet, your homeland. When I came home to my community, it strengthened my resolve to uphold my treaty rights in the 1854 and 1837 treaty areas. I help others learn that our treaty rights protect our lives from the greed of resource extraction and indifference towards climate change.

I honor the treaty rights by doing my part to participate in the seasonal harvests on and off the reservation. I honor my treaty rights by teaching others about these rights. Treaty rights not only protect the Ojibwe — they protect the plants, animals, and even the non-native communities.

How are you seeing the effects of climate change impact Ojibwe lifeways? How are you working through the emotions that this causes?

I feel anger, sadness, and helplessness thinking about how people are surviving the effects of colonization [only] to have our way of life end through this greed and indifference. I address the emotions by planning and working to help others learn more about the plants and the land.

I have survived abuse, the chaos and confusion of poverty, and the resulting health impacts; as my response, I collect plant books from all over. If that big wave comes up and moves me to places where I do not know the plants, I have the books to learn. With hope, I have a leak-proof container to keep my books dry. Even without a big wave, what will I do when the maples and the manoomin no longer grow here? Will I starve from my grief or will I survive? When the fish no longer live in the warming cool waters, I will be here to help restock with adaptable species and make sure we have something to eat. I will learn about plants that take the place of others we know and love that may not survive here.

Why did you become interested in community healing? How do you define it?

There was a time [when] I did not know what healing was and thought only I had been through what I had been through. It turns out childhood sexual abuse runs rampant in many communities, not just tribal communities. I decided if I had to go through the trouble of healing, others were just as capable. Eventually, the realization came to me, not in a dream, but by talking in circle with women. We have the strength in the community, and healing can come about. To define it, one needs to put down the lens of individuality and look through the lens of communality. We were hurt as a people when they sent us to the boarding schools. We hurt when we lose our land and natural resources, our traditions. It only makes sense to heal as a community to offer one another strength to survive.

Why is being able to talk about loss important?

We have secrets in our community we do not talk about, having to do with abuse. We cannot keep quiet if we want to heal. There is so much loss in abuse, violence, and unaddressed grief. In order for me to survive, it was important to use my voice to heal from the losses of my childhood. It is important to address those historical losses so we can be collectively strong enough to withstand the challenges to our livelihoods due to climate change.

How do you see adaptation happening now? How do you hope adaptation continues to happen in the future?

Adaptation brings additional loss. If a coastal tribe has to move inland to survive, at what cost to their health due to diet change? At what cost is it when a community is divided?

I see environmental programs addressing adaptation through climate mitigation, invasive species monitoring and removal, land loss, rising temperatures, seasonal changes. Some of these may work; some are a band-aid for a gaping wound. And rising temperatures, melting ice caps, and invasive species are not interested in bargaining for our survival. Why should they? We did this. And by we, I mean collectively we all contribute, willingly or not. Some of us will adapt; others may panic and hit the button, so to speak. I think communal indigenous folks will survive the longest; we have so far [and] through so much.

Does grieving play a role in survival?

Yes, I believe we should grieve and honor the sadness and loss. We should take the time to remember and show respect to the land and the community we have lost. We are surviving climate change, epidemics of disease, addictions, and violence; we grieve every day around here, yet we move on to live as well as we can and to survive another day.