Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day with Linda Black Elk

indigenous people's day
Photo by Sings In the Timber

It’s that time of year again, where the season changes from a summer ripe with energy to fall—a rebirth, coming down from that high to prepare for the inward silence of winter. The mainstream holidays are brought to the forefront of our minds, reminding us to give thanks, be grateful, give back. Whether the message is funneled through the marketing noise about giving by receiving tangible goods—or through festive decorations of red leaves, pumpkins, and pilgrims, it has become a seasonal staple for Americans.

And while there is all this talk and celebration around goodness and giving, there’s rarely any talk about the taken land these fall holidays, like Columbus Day, have planted themselves in.

As beautiful as it is to celebrate gratitude, harvest, and being thankful during the change of this season, it’s only serving as a hollow shell—a fairytale we’ve been fed from U.S. history classes. 

But just as trees need to shed their leaves to survive the upcoming winter to prepare for regrowth in Spring,  shedding the colonizing Christopher Columbus story that’s tried to erase Indigenous voices from history, is necessary and possible with the help of holidays such as Indigenous People’s Day celebrated on October  14.

Columbus Day was officially nationally observed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934, to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making the official date of the holiday the second Monday in October (Zotigh and Gokey).

It wasn’t until 1977, the idea of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day was discussed at a U.N. sponsored conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on discrimination against Indigenous populations in the Americas. In 1990, South Dakota was the first state to officially rename Columbus Day to celebrate Native Americans. Today, at least six states and 130 cities and towns have renamed the holiday (Murphy).

But this story isn’t mine to tell.

My ancestors weren’t the ones who had their land and culture disrespected. In fact, my ancestors are Italian; as Christopher Columbus was. I’m not going to repeat history, making this my narrative.

So I had a phone call with Linda Black Elk—Native American, Ethnobotanist, author, healer, mother, teacher—who pulled over on a backroad in Minnesota to notice the gorgeous red, gold and orange Fall leaves while she shared some of her stories and what Indigenous Peoples’ Day means to her.

Alchemist Kitchen: So, you’re an ethnobotanist. What’s the difference between an ethnobotanist and a herbalist?

Linda Black Elk

Linda Black Elk: I don’t really work as an herbalist, per se, I am more of a traditional healer. Herbalist in my mind and I think probably in the minds of most indigenous people who work with plants, it implies more of a European context. Also, there is a movement toward indigenous herbalism and sort of calling it that, which is a bit different. Ethnobotanist, I think there are reasons why I am OK with that term for myself, just because it is an academic term. It’s basically someone who teaches and learns about the ways that people use plants. When I think of an herbalist, I don’t think of someone who really is connected to ceremony…connected to a culture whose ceremonies have impacted them. Whereas as an Indigenous woman, that’s one of the most important parts of my practice. I harvest and provide plants for ceremonies, as well as let people use them individually as medicine or food or whatever.

Alchemist Kitchen: I read a really beautiful quote from you where you talked about the genocide of plants and another article you talked about how you consider medicinal plants your relatives. I wanted to hear more about that connection.

LBE: I think that sometimes terms get almost over-used these days. You almost always hear the phrase now, that’s been very popularized, “food is medicine” but I take that very literally. Like for me, the things that I eat, that’s where I’m getting the majority of my medicine from. If I’m eating the food of my ancestors, if I’m connecting to them on that physical level but also even on that genetic level…my very genetics are remembering all of the things that they ate and how these foods nourished them, so that’s how they nourish me. So literally, food is medicine. When I say that “plants are my relatives” I believe that in the most literal sense. When I talk to plants, I’m talking to my relatives and they talk back to me. When I harvest plants, I am actually taking from my relatives so I need to be very cognizant of that relationship and how I’m protecting them and making sure I’m doing that in a really respectful way because they are my family. I’m decedents from them, so to be respectful and always aware of the impact I’m having is really important.

I think about that a lot because I think that if the rest of the world looked at plants as their relatives, then they would walk very differently on the land. They would look at everything around them in a very different way. You’d be a lot less likely to clear cut the forest if you thought those trees were your family. You’d be a lot less likely to dig up thousands of square miles of land for a pipeline if you thought of plants as your relatives.

AK: I read an article where you talked about this damaging unbridled consumerism to our bodies and Mother Earth that’s dooming our children to the same cycle of illness and disconnectedness. I was going to ask your most recent example of this, although you just shared two examples.


LBE: Yeah, when I first heard of the concept of “earthing” and it becomes things like people have these rugs made of grass in their offices and houses so they can try to reconnect with the earth and I’m often dismayed when I hear about things like that, like ‘man just go outside’.

AK: Yeah, why are you doing more damage by de-rooting it from the earth and bringing it into your house?

LBE: Right? Just go outside. Reconnect. And I think that the fact that those things have become fads, have become popular, is very strange. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how being in touch with Mother Earth is not just a part of people’s everyday lives; it’s just something that’s sort of popular. I’m not quite sure what to call it, but I’ll give you an example of it. I have this neighbor who didn’t want dandelions in her yard. And she got very frustrated with me because I would never, ever, spray dandelions because I use them for medicine and food. She owned her own herbicide backpack…twice a year, not just once, she’d spray her entire yard down and would just soak every corner of her yard. And the thing that I find the most insane, is she had liver function issues so after she would spray her yard she’d go to Walmart and buy these boxes of organic dandelion root tea…

I don’t know if I would call that capitalism. I don’t know if I would call that consumerism; I’m not sure what to call that but it is a disconnect. She is not even connecting the organisms that are growing in her yard with the medicine that comes from the box in Walmart that she’s getting.

AK: She’s trusting the package more than what’s outside..that actually leads to one of the questions I had for you. I read that part of your mission is to make indigenous healing more widely available but how do you navigate this when there are other non-indigenous people and businesses commodifying certain natural things, like the dandelion root you just talked about, while disrespecting the earth?

LBE: Yeah, that’s such a tough balance. Absolutely appropriation and exploitation happen all over the place.

I personally believe that healing is for everyone and the more people who value indigenous medicine, the more people who are going to take care of the earth in the way indigenous people are taught to and we are still taught that.

So I believe healing is for everyone and it’s important for everyone, but that said there’s not a lot that I can personally do about people who are going to exploit and appropriate, except education…tell people ‘oh you know what, that not be the best way to go about doing that, to go about using that. The primary way I combat that is I make it very clear to people…so I’m an ethnobotanist and a healer, I don’t just provide the physical medicine…sort of what an herbalist does. Someone comes to them, they tell them what their issues are..their medical background and stuff like that and the herbalist will give them something—whether it’s a tea, tincture, salve whatever. For me, I take people out onto the land, I teach them how to identify plants. I teach them the names of the plants in whatever language is relevant to them. I teach them how to harvest those plants in a respectful way—making offerings, singing to the plants, praying. I teach them how to harvest those plants sustainably and then I teach them how to conserve the plants, so maybe dry them or freeze them, whatever method we decided is best at that point. Then I teach my students how to actually make that medicine themselves.

So I feel like the most important way I combat that appropriation is by making people, maybe even forcing people in a way, to develop relationships with those plants; not just saying ‘oh you need some nettle, order that online from..’ It’s really important to me, that OK fine— if you’re going to order something online, you should absolutely build a relationship with that plant first and be able to ask permission and talk to that plant in a good way. 

AK: It sounds like a really effective way for everyone involved.

LBE: I feel it is…I teach a class on making a basic medicinal bath, something for dry skin and psoriasis, and I’m lucky because I have a lot of my students come to me years later and say ‘you know what, I used that recipe for my son’s eczema, or  now I’m making salves using this plant from the Northwest where I’m originally from…things like that. So I feel like I sort of lay the groundwork for them to develop those relationships and then they take it further.

 

AK: As a teacher, is there a story that’s really inspired you? I’m sure there are a bunch but is there one you want to share?

LBE: When I first started teaching my students would say things to me like

‘I used to look out the window when I was driving down the road and I thought everything was grass and now, I know their names. I know them as individuals. I know them as relatives.’ Those are the stories that mean the most to me, developing those relationships.

AK: You ran a medical camp at Standing Rock with two dozen Western-trained physicians and Native American healers…how did you find the middle ground working with two different approaches: your spiritual approach and the Western. How do you navigate that?

LBE: That’s a really great question. So that’s another reason I use the term ‘ethnobotanist’ a lot, because if I say ‘Indigenous Healer’ people don’t know what to think or expect; whereas, when I use the term ethnobotanist, they know that implies a level of training. Even these days when you say the word ‘herbalist’ people don’t really know what that word means or entails. So I suppose, I’m very lucky because I have a background in Native Science and traditional knowledge, but I also have a background in Western Science. I feel like I bridge the two, but it’s hard. When you’re working with a lot of Western physicians they have no concept of how plants, just in of themselves, can be medicinal. They understand that plants can be broken down into tiny little parts and compounds stuffed into pills but they don’t really understand the entire plant, there’s no magic bullet compound inside of a plant that makes it medicinal. It’s the entire plant, all of those compounds and prayers, everything works together to heal a person. Something fun that I do and something that’s really important to me, I always do research and stats. There’s nothing wrong with numbers, data and all of that stuff…proof, there’s nothing wrong with providing that to people.

I think it’s beautiful, fascinating  and interesting to be able to use Western science to be able to say this is the knowledge of my ancestors and look how amazing they are. Look at the first scientist of this land, look at what they knew before Western science came along; that’s Indigenous science, that’s Indigenous knowledge.

It’s important for people to know that we were always experimenting. We were always following the scientific method. We were always doing research and gathering empirical knowledge and data..we did it in a slightly different methodology and we also didn’t write it down the way that Western people did.

Photo by Sings In the Timber

AK: I read in an article that you knew you were born to be a healer at a young age and I wanted to hear more about that experience if you wanted to share.

LBE: I think it was probably very annoying for some people when I was younger because I was born to be a speaker. I’ve always had the ability to explain things calmly and logically to people and I think that is true also with healing. I’ve always had the ability to look at somebody, remain calm and say ‘Ok, I know what you need’, and then I’ve always been able to communicate with plants in a literal and figurative way. I’ve always been able to hold a plant and know what that plant can do for humans. So that type of communication has always been going on since a really young age.

AK: Going back to the holiday that’s coming up, what does Indigenous Peoples’ Day mean to you?

LBE: Everyday is Indigenous Peoples’ Day to me. I believe any way we can get the word out, any way we can make the mainstream aware—not just that we are just living;

I think people are pretty aware that Indigenous people still exist, but do they understand that we are architects, we are scientists and we are, however you want to break it down in Western terms, botanists and we are meteorologists and we are astronomers? We have all of that in our background and we’re still doing it. We haven’t lost any of that.

I hate those classic terms ‘lost’ or ‘they forgot how to do this.’’ I think Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a way to bring attention to all of that. Those classic terms for example, ‘they lost their ancestral knowledge’

No, we didn’t lose anything. We didn’t forget anything. Stuff was stolen from us, it was literally beaten out of us and yet we’ve managed to hold onto everything we need to know and we even managed to also get a lot of it back.

So I feel like Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day to bring recognition to that, articles like this coming out on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

AK: And it is good, but obviously there is still Thanksgiving celebrated and the offensive name of certain sports teams…so what do you think needs to happen, beyond Indigenous Peoples’ Day and what are ways “allies” can help?

LBE: Holding space for Indigenous people to take the lead.

We can take care of ourselves and we can protect ourselves in our own knowledge. We don’t need people to save us, but having allies is fantastic and something I really cherish. I am always so appreciative of people who are willing to step up, you know people that are willing to help. I think it’s just the recognition that we don’t need you but we’re happy to have you on our side and grateful to have allies.

I’m always amazed at the number of people who still come into indigenous communities and say ‘oh, we’re here to help you; this is what you guys need, we know.’ It happens all the time. I could provide examples that I’ve seen just in the past couple of months. So I think it just needs to be the recognition that we are taking the lead on this because these are our communities. These are our communities, our people, this is our land but we are happy to have help. I think that it’s so important, for example, some friends of mine are Ojibwe and they wrote books completely detailing Ojibwe ceremonies and the books are written in Ojibwe and Ili it’s every word, word for word, on how Ojibwe does a traditional funeral. Or another book they have is how Ojibwe do a traditional drum dance. And these are from their most sacred ceremonies and most sacred rites and they had a lot of people criticizing them for writing these books and putting this stuff out there. They even had criticism from their own people like, ‘why are you telling our secrets’ It’s not a secret. It’s stuff that we have to share with each other and there’s always going to be people who misunderstand and misuse things so that’s why it’s so important for our allies.

I shouldn’t have to be the one to step up and put white people in check, that should not be on me and I’m exhausted, emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted.

By the time I got off of Facebook, I had 60,000 followers…it’s just an everyday thing of explain this, tell me how you feel about this and it’s just like man… I can’t remember the name of the article, but there was a journalist who grew up in really impoverished conditions. She was a white woman and wrote an article about white privilege, she took it from the perspective of ‘hey, white privilege is real’ and this is coming from the perspective of a poor white woman. And of course she talked about intersectionality and stuff like that, but that’s the type of ally-ship we need, people checking up and saying we have to keep our own people in check instead of always making indigenous people do the heavy lifting.

Follow Linda Black Elk on Twitter.

Linda Black Elk shared a list of Indigenous creators she follows:

Businesses:

https://www.haipazazaphezuta.com/

https://skwalwen.com/

Books:

Aanjikiing: Changing Worlds – an Anishinaabe Traditional Funeral by Lee Obizaan Staples and Chato Ombishkebines Gonzalez

The River is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. 2017 by Elizabeth Hoover

Artists:

Holly Young

Work Cited

Murphy, Heather. “Maine is the Latest State to Replace Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” New York Times, April 28, 2019.

Zotigh and Gokey, W. Dennis and Renee. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Rethinking American History” Smithsonian.com, October 7, 2018.

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