Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere provided for their nutrition from
a broad harvest of plant and animal sources, which have added a great deal
of healthful variety to the world food economy and knowledge of plant use.
American Indians were among the early teachers of Europeans about the
nutritional basis of disease. Virgil Vogel's compendium, "American Indian
Medicine" (1970), referenced the journal of Jacques Cartier's second voyage
up the St. Lawrence River in 1535 in search of northern gold after having
failed to find the Northwest Passage in an earlier journey. In this first
recorded North American treatment of Europeans using Native medicine,
Cartier described the ravages of scurvy among the crew of his three ships
as they lay frozen in the ice through the long winter months near what is
now known as Montreal.
He described their cure, gleaned from an Aboriginal individual whom he had
seen only several weeks before passing by on the ice who: "had bene very
sicke with that disease, and had his knee swolne as bigge as a childe of
two years old, all his sinews shrunke together, his teeth spoyled, his
gummes rotten, and stinking. Our Captaine seeing him whole and sound, was
therat marvelous glad, hoping to understand and know of him how he had
healed himself, to the end he might ease and help his men." Using what was
concluded by future editors of Jacques Cartier's journal to be the inner
bark and tips of needles of the white pine, this effective antiscorbutic
not only saved the lives and careers of Cartier's crew, but was later noted
by British naval surgeon and researcher James Lind of Edinburgh (1716 --
1794) in his experiments with scurvy patients.
Scurvy, a fatal disease of severe vitamin C deficiency, is characterized by
bleeding gums, loosening teeth and fetid breath; anemia and fatigue; and
pain in extremities and joints. The walls of all the small and large blood
vessels, as well as other connective tissue such as bone, cartilage,
ligament and tendon, virtually dissolve due to impaired collagen and
elastin synthesis. Collagen is a strong, insoluble, fibrous protein that is
the "glue" of connective tissue. Elastin is a protein necessary for the
growth of blood vessels.
According to the "Food and Life Yearbook 1939," published by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, it is possible to be in a sub-clinical state of
scurvy. "In fact even when there is not a single outward symptom of
trouble, a person may be in a state of vitamin C deficiency more dangerous
than scurvy itself. When such a condition is not detected, and continues
un-corrected, the teeth and bones will be damaged, and what may be even
more serious, the blood stream is weakened to the point where it can no
longer resist or fight infections not so easily cured as scurvy." (Klenner,
F.R. "Observations on the dose and administration of ascorbic acid when
employed beyond the range of a vitamin in human pathology." Journal of
Applied Nutrition Vol. 23: 3 -- 4  <www.nutri.com/wn/klenner.html>.)
In his classic "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration," a unique study of the
effects of the modern "civilized" diet on the health of indigenous peoples
throughout the world in the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Weston Price related the
following encounter with an individual from a First Nations community in
"When I asked an old Indian through an interpreter why the Indians did not
get scurvy, he promptly said that it was a white man's disease. I asked
whether it was possible for the Indians to get scurvy. He replied that it
was, but said that the Indians knew how to prevent it and the white man
does not. When asked why he did not tell the white man how, his reply was
that the white man knew too much to ask the Indian anything. I then asked
him if he would tell me. He took me by the hand and led me to a log where
we both sat down. He then described how when the Indian kills a moose he
opens it up and at the back of the moose just above the kidney there are
what he described as two small balls of fat. These he said the Indian would
take and cut up into as many pieces as there were little and big Indians in
the family and each would eat his piece. They would also eat the walls of
the second stomach. By eating these parts of the animal the Indians would
keep free from scurvy, which is due to a lack of vitamin C. The Indians
were getting vitamin C from the adrenal glands and organs. Modern science
has very recently discovered that the adrenal glands are the richest
sources of vitamin C in animals or plant tissues."
Unlike moose and other animals, we human beings lost the ability to
synthesize ascorbate, or vitamin C, in our own bodies due to genetic
mutation long, long ago in the journey of our evolution. If we understand
human evolution to be a process involving genetic, metabolic, nutritional
and environmental factors, then this mutation surely served the aims of
evolution. Perhaps this was nature's way of weaving our mammalian bodies
more intimately into the web of life that we acknowledge today in our
As Homo sapiens, we are now totally dependent on daily dietary intake to
meet our considerable metabolic need for this protective nutrient. An
individual's age and blood chemistry affects the body's demand for vitamin
C. Physiologic stress levels including pregnancy, contraceptive pill use,
normal aging, sleep patterns, trauma (pathogenic, surgical, accidental or
intentional), exposure to pesticides or other environmental considerations,
variations in individual absorption, and inadequate storage or kidney
thresholds all increase the body's daily demand for vitamin C.
Other valuable indigenous sources of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), as well as
iron, calcium, B complex and other phytonutrients, are the berry plants.
Wild berries in particular remind us of the geography of our childhood.
Indeed, they are a special, loving gift of nature to children and to women.
Over 250 species of berries -- strawberry, blueberry, red raspberry,
chokecherry, currant, elderberry, cranberry, sumac berry and blackberry, to
name a few -- continue to be gathered in Native America and utilized for
their nutritional and medicinal value. Berries are most delicious and
healthful when taken directly from the earth, which is to say at their
proper time according to natural cycles, mindful of environmental quality
concerns and significance of place.
In traditional practice, the act of gathering berries is accompanied by
prayer and the handling of tobacco for the purpose of giving thanks,
acknowledgement and greetings to the spirit of the plant. Certainly, this
act of reciprocity, this consciousness of spiritual connection to the
physical landscape, is central to an ecological understanding of nutrition
which moves beyond the language of "minimum daily requirements" and the
many controversies surrounding dose.
Among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the wild strawberry is celebrated as
the "leader" of the small fruits because it is the first berry food to
appear in the spring. It is sacred food because we still understand and
fulfill our relationship to it as human beings. We remember its protective
power in our linguistics and we still share the stories that go with it,
the "mythistory" if you will, of the berry spirit. The central theme of
those stories always has to do with the power of love in healing and in
maintaining harmonious relations.
One of our names for wild strawberry is "heart-berry," special among the
berry people for its very essence: the way it smells, the way it looks, the
way it tastes, the way it makes us feel when we eat it. Even the way it
sends out red runners along the ground to reproduce itself inspires us to
think of the regeneration of our own families. Why else would traditional
women's clothing of the Haudenosaunee depict the wild strawberry and its
runners in beaded expression? This is how our families are -- sending out
new shoots to create new families continuously. It is no wonder that the
wild strawberry plant is dug up whole from the field in the fall, stored in
a root cellar or other dry, dark place, and utilized by family elders in
restoring the blood after childbirth, particularly for recovery from
post-partum hemorrhage or cesarean section. The iron and minerals in the
berries, leaves, roots and runners of the wild strawberry make this
favorite berry plant a valuable blood remedy.
"The spirit is in the blood," elder and healer Jo Peters of the California
Mono people said. Strengthening and restoring spirit is the reason that
strawberry water is a key element of the traditional feast.
Traditional knowledge linking food habits and preparation of decoctions
from berry plant parts to human well-being finds sound footing in medicine
and nutrition. As with all berries, strawberries are rich in vitamin C, as
well as vital minerals. Vitamin C is a water soluble essential nutrient
which helps detoxify the body, promote healing and strengthen connective
tissue. Vitamin C is necessary for the body to absorb iron and it
cooperates with B complex vitamins in maintaining the endocrine system and
metabolic function. As an aid in forming red blood cells, vitamin C is
necessary for resistance to infection, healing, and the prevention of
hemorrhage. It has been used in the treatment of viral diseases such as
herpes, the common cold and hepatitis C. It is also used to prevent and
heal bacterial infection.
A potent antioxidant, vitamin C is used in the body's immune system to
protect against free radicals. Free radicals, unstable molecules which set
off a chain reaction of damage to our cells, combine with lifestyle habits
like the overconsumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates, leading to high
blood insulin levels, in turn inciting inflammatory reactions within the
body. Recent research reveals the link between chronic, systemic
inflammation -- like gum disease -- and the development of degenerative
diseases including heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's and others.
Vitamin C stands out among the micronutrients protective of life in its
role as an antioxidant.
In combination with blackberry root, wild strawberry leaves have long been
known to be an effective remedy for diarrhea. Berries, due to their iron
salts, have astringent properties, meaning that they cause constriction of
tissue and they arrest bleeding and discharge. In a letter appearing in the
1804 Philadelphia Medical and Surgical Journal, James Anderson wrote:
"Last summer when I was near the settlement of the Oneida Indians (in the
state of New York) the dysentery prevailed much and carried off some of the
white inhabitants, who applied to the Indians for a remedy. They directed
them to drink a decoction of the roots of blackberry bushes, which they
did, after which not one died. All who used it agreed, that it is a safe,
sure and speedy cure."
Blueberry traditions of the Anishinaabeg shared by Keewaydinoquay also
detail the use of the blueberry "...for violent continuous diarrhea,
dysentery, and derangements of the bowels. Teas, decoctions, syrups and
poultices are also used as an astringent treatment for gastric colitis and
other stomach conditions." (Keewaydinoquay. "Blue Berry: First Fruit of the
People, Collected and Retold." 1978 for the Miniss Kitigan Drum; 7th
In these many recorded descriptions and oral knowledge, the spirit of the
berries continues to speak to us. In the face of the rapidly changing
indicators of health in Indian country, we real people need to continue to
Katsi Cook, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a traditional midwife and director of the
Iewerokwas Program. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.