TURIN, Italy - At the end of October, ethnobotanist Linda Jones, Catawba,
traveled to Turin, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to attend Terra Madre,
an historic agricultural conference. At the meeting, nearly 5,000
indigenous and traditional food producers from around the planet came
together under the auspices of Slow Food, an Italian organization that
supports the production and enjoyment of artisanal food worldwide.
Potato growers from the Andes, algae gatherers from Chad, wild rice pickers
from the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota, piki bread makers
from Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico, and many more - some of whom had never
before left their tiny communities - aired their common problems, including
the pollution of heirloom varieties by genetically modified ones,
competition from agribusiness, and land and language loss.
The delegates also brainstormed to find solutions, such as the development
of local markets, the formation of cooperatives, and the empowerment of
women, who are the majority of the world's farmers and the keepers of the
knowledge that underlies the world's biodiversity, while, for the most
part, toiling in a state of near-slavery.
In the opening session, Carlo Petrini, Slow Food's founder, called the
delegates "intellectuals of the earth," and in the closing meeting, Great
Britain's Prince Charles said, "I salute you."
Early in the morning on the first day of Terra Madre, I joined Jones in the
garden of the monastery where the North American Native delegation was
staying. Mist drifted over the villas that dotted the hills, and church
bells rang in the distance, as Jones introduced me to the landscape of my
First, we made our way through the main garden, with its central fountain
and large rectangular beds crisscrossed by stone paths and bounded by
allees of grape arbors. There, Jones pointed out heirloom roses and
tomatoes, peppers, thyme, rosemary, sage and lavender, as well as olive,
fig, apple, peach, pine, oak and chestnut trees.
We then climbed through a fence to take a look at a recently mown wheat
field. In the stubble, we found evidence of Mother Nature's persistence.
Sniffing blossoms and tasting leaves as she walked along, Jones identified
the herbs and flowers that had sprung up since the harvest, sprinkling the
rough-shorn field with bright green wild-mustard leaves, large
yellow-and-white chamomile blossoms, tiny blue delphiniums, frilly Queen
Anne's Lace, plumed amaranth and bee balm.
Later, I interviewed Jones, who is a faculty member at Sitting Bull
College, on the Standing Rock Reservation, and a mother of two.
Indian Country Today: What did Terra Madre give you?
Linda Jones: I realized that am not alone in the struggle to save
invaluable, ancient knowledge. And I saw that it is our choice, as
individuals, to make changes on the small scale - and to know that,
eventually, the small changes will add up to monumental results.
ICT: How did you become interested in plants?
Jones: My grandparents at the Catawba Nation, where I'm enrolled, were
always pointing out plants and their uses, so from a very young age it made
sense to me to pick leaves to make a tea for stomachache, let's say, rather
than buy medication. Later, while studying botany and anthropology (and
English Literature - I had three majors!) at Miami University of Ohio, I
was determined not just to learn the science, but also to ensure that
traditional knowledge was protected and maintained for everyday use. This
idea consumes my dreams and my every waking moment.
ICT: You seem to have a plant-centric view of the world.
Jones: When I say I love my family most of all, my husband always adds that
plants are a close second! Plants encompass every bit of culture -
language, food, ceremony. Without plants, there's nothing. In the old days,
the Lakota would keep track of what the buffalo ate. When they saw areas
with the buffalos' favorite grasses, they knew the herds would be back that
way to graze. Buffalo eat broadleafed plants only when they're sick, so the
people sometimes developed medicines by watching which ones the animals
ICT: How do your students respond to this information?
Jones: Many tell me that once they looked at the prairie and saw just
grass. They thought it was "empty." After studying ethnobotany, they're
amazed by the diversity of the land. They also learn to appreciate the
depth and complexity of Native science. Chokecherries, for example, have
cyanide in the pits, and we do use the entire plant when making a pudding.
However, in the crushing process, the acidic flesh of the fruit interacts
with the cyanide, causing it to dissipate in the form of a gas.
ICT: I've noticed that many indigenous foods and medicines are prepared in
a similarly elegant manner. It doesn't seem possible that trial-and-error
or the so-called scientific method could have resulted in their discovery.
Jones: That's where dreams and visions come in. That's how the people have
always learned a great deal of what they needed to eat well and stay
healthy - which we must return to heal the damage caused by modern,
processed foods. Nowadays, we give our young people information, and their
hearts and souls will take over. Many elders say that the visions will come
back. I get so frustrated when people say traditional knowledge has been
lost. Human beings don't control that information. The spirits do. They are
waiting for the right people to come along, and then they will reveal it.
ICT: So you're optimistic about the future?
Jones: Always. This is the seventh generation. We're heading for an Indian
renaissance. Our youth are as desperate as our elders to save our cultures.
Yes, we are still mourning our losses, but we are moving into a healing
stage. We've always been here, and we always will be.