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A Sweet Memory of Skywoman's Hand

Sweetgrass, hierochloe odorata, or Pezi Wacha in Lakota, has been used as a medicine plant by many tribes for centuries. Traditionally, sweetgrass is dried and burned as a means of purification and as a way “to make things better,” according to Linda Black Elk, ethnobotanist at Sitting Bull Tribal College on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

Black Elk, of the Catawba tribe, says sweetgrass has many uses. “It can be made into tea and is a natural anti-coagulant to get rid of blood clots.” She cautions, however that, “it is a powerful blood thinner, and contains coumarin, the substance that gives the grass its sweet smell. It could potentially lead to hemorrhage if overused.”

Most remarkable, however, is its symbiotic relationship with human beings, according to Black Elk. “Sweetgrass is the only medicine plant that should be pulled out by the roots when harvested; this keeps it from strangling itself. Responsible harvesting by humans helps sweetgrass grow better if they are careful to thin the plants yet not destroy an entire stand. One should only take what one needs, however, ensuring that plants remain for the future.”


Tea made from the grass can be used as a hair rinse and de-tangler, and also helps get rid of dandruff. The long, fragrant strands can also be made into baskets and ornaments.


According to the USDA, sweet grass helps:

*restore nutrient cycles

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*control water levels

*support biological diversity and functioning of a wetland ecosystem

*decrease run-off *mitigate bank erosion


“Our stories say that of all the plants, wiingaashk, or sweetgrass, was the very first to grow on the earth, its fragrance a sweet memory of Skywoman’s hand. Accordingly, it is honored as one of the four sacred plants of my people. Breathe in its scent and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten. Our elders say that ceremonies are the way we ‘Remember to remember,’”—from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi).

According to the USDA, sweetgrass populations are declining due to harvesting for both personal and commercial use. The species is subject to over-collecting and is sensitive to grazing. “People here on Standing Rock have to travel a long ways now to harvest sweetgrass,” Black Elk says.


Kimmerer notes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Plants are also integral to reweaving the connection between land and people. A place becomes a home when it sustains you, when it feeds you in body as well as spirit. To recreate a home, the plants must also return.”