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The First Plant: Sweetgrass

Anishnaabeg (Ojibwe) Elders explain that there was a time long ago, when this world had no land. (Some stories say that is simply the way this world began; newer stories say people became evil and there was a flood.) Everywhere you looked, there was nothing but water. Of course, this world was far from lifeless. There were many sea animals, and the animals that today we usually associate with lakes: Ziishiib (Duck), Nigig (Otter), Omakakii (Frog), Wazhashk (Muskrat), Mizheekay (Turtle). Brave Wazhashk brought earth up from deep below the waters, and Mizkeehay offered to carry the land on her back, which is how Turtle Island (North America) came to be; and the first plant that grew on Turtle Island was Weskwu mashkoseh, Sweetgrass.

Remarkably enough, Sweetgrass is the only sacred plant shared by Indigenous people in North America, Europe, and Asia.

In many ways, Sweetgrass is a curious plant. The Sweetgrass stands produce few flowers, and even fewer seeds. Of those seeds, almost none are fertile, and if you were to try to grow Sweetgrass from seed it would take months before you would see sprouts. Sweetgrass propagates itself by extending its roots, which then sprout new plants. But once established, without judicious gathering, Sweetgrass will grow so thickly that it chokes itself out. The hallmark of most plant domesticates is that selective breeding by humans has made it difficult or impossible for them to spread their own seeds. Furthermore, if the plant isn't being harvested for its seeds, they may become infertile or even cease to be produced all together. Sweetgrass actually has both of these features, so many botanists consider it to be a 'domesticate gone wild.' Curiously, archaeologists and ethnobotanists don't seem to have picked up on this yet. But Sweetgrass needn't have 'gotten loose.' Indigenous people often transplant useful plants to other friendly places so that they will be more plentiful. Not all of those transplantations were into gardens.

Due to its smell after it has been cut and dried, Sweetgrass became widely used in basketry, regalia decoration, the scenting of homes, and in ceremonies by the people of many First Nations in North America. As the First Plant and one of the Four Sacred Medicines of the Anishnaabeg and their neighbours, offerings are always made when gathering and using Sweetgrass. When burned, its smoke draws positive spirits, purifies, and helps carry prayers to the Creator. Dried and braided bunches of Sweetgrass may also be given as offerings at sacred sites or ceremonies. Today in the rural parts of Europe especially, Sweetgrass is used in almost exactly the same way and with many of the same connotations. If you have a chance to visit a European village, listen for references to 'Mary's Hair' for use in the censer on a Sunday morning — what they're referring to is Sweetgrass.

Africans kidnapped and brought to North America as slaves quickly adopted Sweetgrass for use in making the baskets they used for tasks like winnowing and carrying goods after their arrival at the burgeoning plantations of the time. At least one author believes that this relates primarily to the length and softness of the Sweetgrass stalks. However, the story is probably more complicated than this, given the role of Sweetgrass in North American Indigenous cultures. In the southern United States African slaves often developed important ties with First Nations citizens who helped them survive by teaching them about the various medicinal and edible plants that could be gathered from the land. In fact, many First Nations citizens helped slaves escape the plantations, and were known for readily adopting African people into their Nations. The Seminole people have long been famous for their peaceful coexistence and intermarriages with the community of 'Seminole Negroes' who settled near the Seminole Indians after escaping from slavery. And it just so happens that they are among the most famous African-American makers of Sweetgrass baskets.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:09 MDT