Foraging for Connection: Three women celebrate their love of foraging around White Earth

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Jasmin Larson prepares for leeching. This image and the one below are cyanotypes created by Maija Hecht. Cyanotypes are made using using a slow-reacting photographic printing method with materials sensitive to UVA radiation. Original photo by Jesse Alvarado

 

Sumac

In the warmly lit living room of her house on the edge of White Earth Reservation, Jasmin Larson returns from her pantry, holding a jar of dried sumac berries. “Would you like to try this?” she offers, spooning a small ruby pile into an empty tea sachet. She drops it into a jar of cold water, and hands it to me. I look down with a bit of trepidation.

“Staghorn sumac,” she adds. “It’s not the same as poison sumac. You won’t have a reaction, I promise,” she says, and laughs. “I would know.”

Like many Minnesotans, Larson grew up wary of the common trio of poisonous plants: poison ivy, oak, and sumac. The reputation of the latter often overshadows the showy medicinal shrub that favors roadsides and wooded prairieland, sour-sweet like pink lemonade and chock- full of vitamin C and antioxidants. Larson credits brewing staghorn sumac tea with her students with staving off bouts of seasonal sickness in local schools where she has been an Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe language) teacher and outdoor educator. Sumac is only one of many medicines filling her winter pantry, but the journey to that abundance was a long road that began with a bad case of poison ivy.

Poison Ivy

“One fall day I took my little cousin [who is deaf] out to the woods. She signs to speak, so I was doing things with her that we didn’t need talking to do. Back then, I was always driving dirt roads to find out where they went. And, of course, poison ivy grows on the edge of the forest.”

Larson recalls a warm, rainy day when the changing leaves looked so beautiful that the pair forgot to look out for poison ivy’s telltale jagged trio of leaves.

“The [rash] spread really, really bad. When I went to the hospital they gave me a shot. The next day I woke up and I could not close my hands.”

Her mouth and hands were swollen shut from the rash and an allergic reaction to the injection. Larson called her best friend, who drove her back to hospital, where a group of medical staff circled her, at a loss for what to do.

“They sent me home like that,” she says. “So, [my friend] brought me to Sunfish. Sunfish was a medicine man. I could barely see when he walked me outside. He brought me straight to the lake, next to this big tree where hoary alyssum was growing all around. Once I stopped to look, I realized it was growing everywhere. He told me ‘boil it until it’s the color of Mountain Dew,’ and I thought that was so funny. You know how you’d expect a medicine man to be all professional or serious about this stuff? But no, he said boil it until it looks like pickle juice and put it on your face as hot as you can stand till it goes away.”

Hoary Alyssum

Within hours of following his instructions, the swelling had almost completely disappeared. Hoary alyssum, a flowering member of the mustard family, is especially drought tolerant and favors the dry soil of pastures, hay fields, and disturbed areas. It is listed as an invasive species in Minnesota and toxic to grazing horses, so most farmers work against its encroachment. However, as declared by Peggy Hemingway, an Anishinaabe tradition bearer who contributed to a 2017 study on recontextualizing invasive species, “everything is good for something.”

“I find it really special that a weed you see in the ditch all the time, even something called invasive by the DNR, can cure poison ivy,” says Larson. “It’s just that no one teaches most people how. Why are we living in a world where this isn’t common knowledge and the way of life?Once you realize how many things are put on this earth to heal us, and how many things we don’t utilize, no one needs Walmart. Later on, with Sunfish, I was able to attend Ceremony and see how we [Anishinaabe] deal with things. That was a huge turning point in my life.”

Larson began directing her energy into research. Through community, online resources, books, and friends, she began learning more about medicinal plants and experimenting with preservation methods. As a schoolteacher at Naytahwaush Community Charter School at the time, Larson began incorporating foraging into her classroom. She found that combining lessons on traditional medicines with her language classes gave kids an outlet to burn off energy while earning their interest in a way the indoor classroom couldn’t. Not only did sharing those lessons benefit her students, it also cultivated what will likely be a lifelong friendship.

Jazzmin Blackwell, from Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was introduced to Larson when she was assigned to her classroom as a paraprofessional. She grew up in a family of manoomin (wild rice) and medicine harvesters, and along with her father, she credits Larson for getting her back into the woods.

“I never knew how much I missed the woods until I was covered in ticks,” she says with a laugh.

Together, they hiked and foraged all over White Earth for berries, mushrooms, and herbs such as yarrow, rosehips, and wild mint. While Larson continued learning about new plants and their uses, Blackwell began a detailed record of their harvest locations, species, and abundance. When teaching students to forage, Blackwell said they repurposed mesh bags from onions or oranges because “the shaking from kids running around replanted those seeds for next season.”

Dandelions

In 2022, Blackwell was diagnosed with stage four endometriosis and prescribed a string of medications for post-surgery maintenance. After enduring their many side effects, she decided to supplement her healing with plants she and Larson had learned about together. Months of trial and error eventually led her to dandelions.

“I haven’t had a flare-up in almost two months now,” she said. “I want to say it’s that dandelion tea.”

Dandelions are cited by the Clinician’s Handbook of Natural Medicine as a botanical support for endometriosis. Dandelion root extract is known to support liver function and gallbladder detoxification — and aid in regulating estrogen, the excess of which is one of a few causes of the disease. Larson emphasized that they’re careful when picking dandelions, because many people spray them with herbicides.

After years of foraging and teaching together, and Blackwell’s documentation of their findings, the pair began to notice how certain plants they harvested responded to seasonal precipitation and climate shifts. In a year of record-high temperatures in Minnesota, Blackwell expressed her uncertainty about what’s to come during the 2024 growing season.

Strawberries

“As a harvester, you notice those things,” says Audrianna Goodwin, longtime friend to Larson from their years as students at Leech Lake Tribal College. Now, Goodwin splits her time between serving as the Tiwahe Initiative specialist for the Red Lake Nation and living in the Twin Cities, where she is a researcher for the TRUTH Project, a collaborative research assessment of the University of Minnesota’s historic relations with the 11 Tribal Nations of Minnesota.

“Last summer, Jasmin and I went looking for blueberries in an area where she had been before,” says Goodwin. “When we arrived, there were barely any. We talked about that for a little while, and then she introduced me to a couple plants. That’s also the nature of our relationship, we share with one another.

“Berry picking is an act of love. Harvesting with your family is love. When we cook together, where we gather, all of the time put into making a dish, all of that time is love. One of our most precious gifts to give is our time.”

For Goodwin, that love remains the root of her professional work. Lately, her time has been invested in research for the TRUTH Project. During that research, she read a report by another tribal research fellow that detailed the story of a boy and his dad who were “picking berries in [what was] a contentious area around the 1860s,” says Goodwin. “It was a place they had known to go,” but when a group of colonizers came across the pair, they shot and killed the father in front of his son. “They were doing such a simple thing, picking berries, that act of love.”

It’s only one story of many, says Goodwin. “When the trees were taken, when the ecosystems were altered, when the dams were put in, that changed how we were able to harvest. There’s a lot of sadness in that. For so many generations, there has been a disconnect. It’s harder than ever for us to engage with those parts of ourselves, as we should be able to.”

Blueberries. Photo by Audrianna Goodwin; Cyanotype by Maija Hecht

Engagement, through actions as simple as spending unstructured time outdoors, is scarcely available within the structure of westernized work-life schedules, explains Goodwin. Actions, as simple as listening to flowing water, stories, and the quiet in between, make up the ripples of “a shift [that is] happening, especially in indigenous communities.”

In conversation with Zoe Allen for her thesis, “Ginanaandawi’idizomin: Anishinaabe Intergenerational Healing Models of Resistance,” Kim Anderson, an Ojibwemowin speaker and educator at Naytahwaush Charter School, discussed how “one of the greatest solutions in remedying the intergenerational pain underlying addiction is returning to traditional pathways, including Anishinaabe ceremonies [and] seasonal traditions such as harvesting.”

“We [White Earth Nation] need more relatives that are helpful in ways that are more geared toward Ceremony,” Anderson added.

“It was the third week in June,” recalls Goodwin. “We were picking berries at my auntie’s house in what they call ‘the backfield,’ an open area of sandy ground and low grass, the perfect environment for strawberries to grow. Those strawberries were the size of the tip of my pinky. Tiny, juicy, wild strawberries. The kids and other people were picking too. Then, my auntie Bambi shared the Story of the First Strawberry as she knows it. It’s a story about love and forgiveness.”

The story is one she recalls often when picking berries. It reminds her of the joy she felt as a child, being out in the woods with family, Goodwin explains.

“It’s also knowing my ancestors did these things,” says Goodwin. “That there have been women picking in these places for generations, for as long as the sun has risen in the East and set in the West. That’s how long these relationships with the plants and the earth and the water have been nurtured. Just being able to take care of one another, because they need us, too, to help take care of them and to take care of them in a good way.