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Botanical Magic: Medicine Woman’s In-Depth Study Reveals Plants' Offerings

Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) is published by a university press for a reason—it is scholarly research, or specifically, decolonized research based on a system of knowledge other than Western science and conveyed through traditional stories, teachings and culinary and medicinal recipes.

The book represents three decades of learning and exploration on the part of author Mary Siisip Geniuz, who was a teaching assistant to the late Keewaydinoquay, an Anishinaabe/Ojibwe medicine woman. Keewaydinoquay, a teacher and ethnobotanist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, charged Geniusz with the responsibility of passing on her knowledge to another generation.

“Now, at the time of this writing, Keewaydinoquay is gone on the four-day journey to the Other Side, my children are grown, and I am rapidly aging,” Geniusz writes. “I face the same quandary that my mashkikiiwikwe, medicine woman, faced: how to manage not to die until I have transmitted the knowledge that she gave me, that she held from Nodjimiahkwe and the ancestral teachers down the ages.”

Geniusz presents each plant individually, often with a story, in the way that Keewaydinoquay taught her. She provides an extraordinary range and depth of information, from a plant’s different names to its biological and cultural history, to customs associated with it, stories about it, and detailed descriptions of how it can be used.

There’s giizisoojiibik, or “sun tuber, root of the sun” (a.k.a. ashkibwaa, Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus), which “are excellent food for elderly Anishinaabe because they have a marvelous virtue to share with us,” she writes. “They taste and feel and satisfy like carbohydrates, but they are high in inunlin, which is a low-starch carbohydrate. That is very good for diabetics and others who have to have a low-starch diet.”

Sun tubers may be eaten raw as snacks or in sandwiches and added to stir-fry dishes. A few of the many recipes for this vegetable include Sun Root Pickles, Jerusalem Artichoke Casserole, Jerusalem Artichoke Chiffon Pie and Palestine Soup.

Integral to the teachings are reflections on the nature of reality, the origins of illness and the primacy of plants for all beings, of which humankind is the weakest. “Humans are not at the top of the order of creation. Humans are not the lords of this earth. We are at the bottom because we are the most dependent,” she notes.

Plants is an essential resource for botanists, ecologists, environmentalists and students of indigenous life ways, as well as a worthwhile and enjoyable volume for non-academics.