vol. 3, August/September 2021
A long long time ago, when the world was new, all the plants and animals and people lived together; they all spoke the same language. These are my ancestors, these aniyunwi, plants and animals who lived in harmony and respected one another. The people tended the land as one would tend a beloved elder through the cycles of her life. They cherished the clear ama as much for the bounty of fish and aquatic plant life it held as for its cleansing and centering ceremonial power. They knew all the plants by name — atsina, tsola, saloli gadogi — and lived their lives together, through each changing season.
As time went on, the minds of the people began to shift. As a singularly human sense of entitlement began to creep, they began to take the animals for granted. The people began to think they were on a level above all others in the eyes of our Creator, that their ambitions outweighed the value of their deer, bear, raccoon, bird, squirrel, wolf and other animal relatives. The people started killing the animals for sport, and killing more than they needed. They began collecting the animals’ furs and instead of using each part of the animal to nourish and support their families, instead of giving thanks and asking pardon from the animal who sacrificed his life for the hunter, leaving the animals’ bodies to decay.
The animals beseeched the Creator: “Unetlanvhi, please help us, these people dishonor us by spilling our blood and giving no thanks, offering no apology. Something must be done!”
Unetlanvhi saw that the animals were hurting. Tohi, the balance and wellness of all things that keeps the world from falling into disorder, had been disrupted. To restore tohi, the Creator decided to create many terrible diseases to afflict the people. Before this time, the people never suffered so much as a headache. Now, the people found themselves stricken with ailments from common colds to arthritis to cancer. They struggled, and many of them died. The people no longer hunted the animals with abandon; they did not hunt, fish, or forage at all. The people had become too weak to provide for themselves, too weak to play their part as stewards of the environment.
The plants watched all of this in their quiet way. They understood that the people had lost their way, but they were also compassionate. They valued the balance of things above all else, above even their own lives.
The plants took pity on the people, and together they went to the Creator to ask for mercy: “Please help them, the people have learned their place in the world, they no longer value their own lives over ours and the animals. There must be a way to ease their suffering!”
And so the Creator bestowed healing powers on all the plants. For every ailment that could afflict them, the people need only ask the plants for help, and the plants could heal them with their medicine. The balance was restored, and the people found themselves strong and happy once again, but only if they continued to live in good relation with the plants and animals, sharing their language and caring for them as beloved community. By always saying a prayer thanking the plant or animal for their sacrifice, by taking only what they needed and never more than they could use, my ancestors lived this way, in balance and kinship.
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Our ancestors forged and fostered their intricate and seemingly inextricable interrelationship with the natural world by passing their knowledge and traditional ways from generation to generation.
For people outside of the Native community, these stories — like the origin of plant medicine — may seem like romantic relics, whimsical mythology of a past when Indigenous peoples could paint with all the colors of the wind. These stories do resonate with that sense of nostalgia, but the descendants receiving this cultural inheritance know these to be more than folktales. These stories are true, in every sense. They are a map to guide us home. The story of the origin of plant medicine in particular is a reminder that mankind has lost its way before but that there is always a way back, as long as we remember the teachings of our ancestors. The idea of speaking a common language as we did when the earth was brand new, is not literal in the sense that our ancestors could chat weather with totsu and play tricks with jisdu (though I have a feeling they could). The shared language is the recognition that we are all connected, and that perspective governs our every action and decision: what affects the redbird and rabbit will affect our families and Nations in turn.
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As a Cherokee, my own ancestors were last able to fully live in this old way five or six generations ago. For many Nations this lifestyle shift is even more recent; it even varies by individual family depending on their history of European contact. Industrialization, capitalism, urban cities and burgeoning population growth have become so ingrained in our existence, it’s hard to remember that the concepts are so new. In just 200 short years, mankind’s aggressive ambition has done damage to the ecosystems of the earth on such a scale that rehabilitation feels unattainable.
Many see these technological advances and lifestyle shifts as the inevitable and necessary evolution of a growing population, and accept the adverse health effects we are suffering as unavoidable byproducts of our progress as a species. I can see my ancestors laughing in disbelief at this idea: “So, you have too many people to feed… so you wiped out the forests to grow a crop to make them feel full, but that crop actually weakens their bodies so that they can’t work the fields, so you made machines to produce the poison-food, and you diverted and polluted the rivers to fuel the machines to produce the poison-food. And now you’re all sick and sad and you still can’t feed all the people? Haw!!”
Just as we are all connected, so is the eternal return of time. Our ancestors live as we remember them, and our future exists as we imagine it. We are living the warnings our ancestors left us in their stories, and we can live the solutions of those stories as well — we still have all the tools they passed on to us. We have our ancient inherited knowledge of how to live with the land, not over it. We have the seeds of renewal: our unikta, sewn into the hems of our grandmother’s dresses, carried to new homes, passed by hand to people with a heart to nurture soil for them, plant them and care for them as the ancestors they are. We have all the medicine we need to restore tohi, if we remember how to ask.
Nico Albert (ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ Cherokee Nation) is a self-taught chef, caterer, and student of traditional indigenous cuisines based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As founder and executive chef of Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods, she promotes healing and wellness in the Native American community with healthy, traditionally inspired catering options and educational events. Her efforts to steadily expand her knowledge of traditional ingredients and techniques continue through research and collaboration with indigenous chefs and traditionalists from all Nations. Chef Nico’s work has been featured by IllumiNative, Cherokee Nation’s OsiyoTV, Twitch.tv, National Geographic, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Atlas Obscura, PBS, and the Food Network, among others.