Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The First Plant: Sweetgrass
Anishnaabeg Elders explain that there was a time long ago, when this world had no land. So I understand via wonderful writers like Basil Johnston. Some stories say that is simply the way this world began. Other stories say people became evil and there was a flood. Irregardless, to begin with, there was no land at all. 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.
Close up of sweetgrass stems courtesy of wikimedia commons
taken by Kodemizer, october 2007.
In many ways, Sweetgrass is a curious plant. It is the only sacred plant shared by Indigenous peoples from north america to asia, and 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 has both of these features, so many botanists consider it to be a "domesticate gone wild." Archaeologists and ethnobotanists don't seem to have picked up on this yet, which is not so surprising. Sweetgrass needn't have "gotten loose," as if it were some sort of truant. 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 in the usual european sense of regimentation and control. That said, I have to admit to loving the mental image of Sweetgrass cheerfully extending its roots to break out of the confines of an attempt to confine it in the manner of the sadly regimented flowers of an english garden.
Due to its smell after it has been cut and dried, Sweetgrass is widely used in basketry, regalia decoration, the scenting of homes, and in ceremonies by the people of many First Nations. 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 Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island. 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 after escaping from slavery. And it just so happens that they are among the most famous african-american makers of Sweetgrass baskets.
It used to be much easier to harvest Sweetgrass than it is now, not least because bison won't eat it. A careful and observant harvester who respected the bison could gather as much as they needed in the proper season, gently spreading the gathered stalks to dry in a safe and open space. Such harvesters are also spiritually gifted, the Sweetgrass calls to them gently. As for the careless, impatient, or greedy, Sweetgrass will hide away among the other grasses, refusing to be found. Unfortunately, not only are the bison struggling to avoid final destruction at the hands of park wardens who claim to be managing them "for their own good," intensive ploughing, monocropping, and herbicide use has driven Sweetgrass out of many of its former homes. Sweetgrass can certainly make a come back, but as Robin Wall Kimmerer and her students have documented in western terms, and as Elders warned and instructed long before that, for Sweetgrass to do that we must reestablish a good relationship. To thrive, Sweetgrass needs our care and attention, like any other being who supports us.
This does need to be balanced, respectful attention. Where Sweetgrass continues to thrive, in quiet places carefully tended, often for generations by the same family, that is exactly what that attention is. Family members visit and spend respectful time with the Sweetgrass, carefully introducing new relatives, harvesting with an eye to gathering just enough. People lacking ongoing deep relationships with the land in general and Sweetgrass in particular are prone to overharvesting, razing every stand they can find to support semi-industrialized production of braids, baskets, or incense, to list the most common products. A strange way to treat the First Plant that Sky Woman carried with her when she came to Turtle Island.