Grassland Preservation

A column by Ruth Hopkins about preserving American grasslands.

For plains Tribes, the preservation of grasslands is crucial to the survival of our culture. Its unique configuration of Native plants and grasses provide us with medicine, tools, shelter, and food.

Grasslands furnished grazing space for the horses and buffalo herds that our existence depended upon. Natives who lived there adapted to the distinct nature of the plains as an environment. As a result, the grassland biome as an ecosystem, along with every living organism it supports, plays an important role in our ceremonies, sacred rites, and clandestine knowledge.

Only five percent of tall grass prairie still remains; making it the rarest of all ecosystems on Earth today. Grasslands thrived on the plains of North America for thousands of years. Before European settlers came, the whole central interior of the United States was a fertile plain. Most of our natural grasslands were plowed or fragmented into nonexistence by farmers tilling land to seed for crops. The corn belt of the United States would not exist had it not been for tall prairie grassland. The large underground biomass of those original native plants is responsible for creating some of the most productive soil on Earth. Grasslands are also endangered by urban sprawl, the introduction and spread of invasive non-native plant species, and the suppression of natural fires that would have otherwise helped balance the prairie ecosystem.

Grasslands hold an incredible wealth of biodiversity. Over 300 species of birds, like prairie chickens, wild turkeys, eagles, and songbirds live on the prairie. More than 80 species of mammals and insects call the plains home, including gray wolves, coyotes, buffalo, and bobcats, beetles, and dragonflies. The vast number of plants that once grew on the plains is not fully known, but even today, native plant species dwelling within the grassland biome number in the hundreds.

To the Tribes that lived here, Native plants were food and medicine. Bush Morning-Glory, (Ipomoea leptophylla) otherwise known as “Man Root,” thrives on short grass prairie. The roots of an established Bush Morning-Glory are regularly more than six feet long, and as thick as two feet wide. Lateral roots are often more than 25 feet long. Bush Morning-Glory is a close relative of the potato, so it’s only rational that our Native ancestors dug up the roots, boiled them and ate them like potatoes- but they were medicine too. The root of plant was used by the Lakota to treat stomach ailments and stop postpartum bleeding. A poultice derived from the root was also applied to sundance wounds.

Prairie Sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) and Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) grow on tall grass prairie. Both native plants have significant ceremonial uses among Tribes. If we continue to lose valuable grasslands, we will experience a shortage in availability of these crucial plants, known for their powers of purification. Thus, the extinction of grasslands could spell the end of our cultural practices as we know them.

Grasslands nurture a vast array of wildflower species too. Natives found a use for every single one. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) tea boosts the immune system and treats cold and flu systems, like a cough or sore throat. Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristata) heads were used to waterproof bags. Other flowers were employed in the creation of colorful dyes. The list of native plant uses by Tribes is so complex and sophisticated that it is actually longer than the list of plants still in existence.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about conserving what’s left of the grasslands, and the government has even set aside some grassland as protected. The USDA administers The Buffalo Gap National Grassland, 600,000 acres of scattered tracts of prairie land in South Dakota. Currently, this protected grassland is the most all-encompassing, fruitful ecosystem in the United States. You see, once protected, ecosystems thrive and begin returning to a natural state of balance where biodiversity blossoms.

Still, as Natives, we’re not doing enough to protect grasslands, and thereby preserve our traditional medicines, foods, and way of life. As we live in a modern world, sometimes we forget that we have a deep connection to Earth. Remember, when Native people were massacred by calvary soldiers, they not only hunted down innocent women and children- they also slaughtered our dogs and horses, created grass fires, and polluted our water. Let us not forget that while Natives were being systematically pursued, murdered, and forced onto reservations in the 1800s, tens of thousands of buffalo were being exterminated. It nearly led to their extinction, and ours. We were inseparable from nature because we lived in harmony with it and depended on it for our survival. To kill it was to kill us. It is now our responsibility to save our Mother and our relatives. Our people developed and implemented the most sustainable energy system in North American history. We must recapture that spirit and act now to implement serious conservation and management practices before it’s too late. It’s time for us to become what our ancestors intended.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com.