Spirit Foods — Ethnobotanist Brings Band Members Back to Their Roots


You could say that Linda Bishop has been an ethnobotanist since she was a youngster in Ohio, learning about wild foods and medicines from her grandma, a citizen of the Catawba or Iswa Nation.

However, it took Linda a few more years to discover that there was actually a word for what she and her grandma were doing: "ethnobotany," which the dictionary defines as "the plant lore of Indigenous cultures."

"I was always an outdoors kind of girl," said Linda. "From the time I was five or six, I would forage for salad, so when I decided to go to college, it seemed like a natural fit to study plants. That's where I discovered that using plants for food and medicine was actually a field of study."

Linda earned a bachelor’s degree in botany, anthropology, and literature from Miami University of Ohio and a master’s in Science Education from Montana State.

Western science was not where Linda's heart was, though. "I was most interested in how I could serve my community, but the university was more interested in the research I could do," she said. "I didn't feel that looking through a microscope was the best way to serve my community. I wasn’t interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I wanted knowledge to help people. That's when I decided I needed to focus on applying the stuff I was learning."

Since 2001, Linda has been teaching at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota. She studied the Lakota language while teaching students about traditional foods and medicines.

When she came to Mille Lacs to present a workshop, she developed an interest in the region and the Mille Lacs Band.
Commissioner of Natural Resources Bradley Harrington was also interested in what Linda could bring to the Band, and he eventually created a position for an ethnobotanist, and Linda applied for the job.

Now, as the Mille Lacs Band DNR's ethnobotanist, Linda is helping Anishinaabe people to literally get in touch with their roots.

"This is the first tribal ethnobotanist position in the US, so I have no model to follow," Linda said. "I'm working with Bradley to determine what it should look like. We know that we want to see Band members eating more traditional foods, we want to see more traditional foods at feasts and as part of everyday diets, and we want to see more traditional medicines as part of their healing."

Western diets have changed the palates of Indian people, making them crave sweet and salty foods. Those changes have resulted in health problems ranging from diabetes to addiction to obesity.

Linda believes those changes can be reversed, and the health effects will be dramatic.

"Native people suffer from depression and anxiety at a higher rate than the general population. Historical trauma
manifests itself physically," Linda said. "But when you're using the medicine of your ancestors, yo'’re not just getting a physical benefit. The genetic memory of those plants helps to heal you spiritually and emotionally as well."

Sometimes when Indian people talk about "traditional foods," they’re referring to frybread or potato soup, but Linda doesn't agree. "Those aren't traditional foods," she said. "People can get angry with me when I say that, but it's true. Those are survival foods, and they got us by, but now we have to move beyond that and do more than just survive; we need to teach our children to thrive, and to feed themselves spiritually as well. If we can't feed ourselves, we're not sovereign people. Security is getting enough calories; sovereignty is being able to have a choice about the foods we eat."
Linda gives a local example: manoomin.

"Ojibwe people have an emotional and spiritual connection to wild rice. When they eat the rice, it's like they're eating spirit food," said Linda. "There's no spirit left in a Twinkie."

Linda has held workshops in all districts, which have been well received by those in attendance. There is clearly a need and a strong desire among Band members for more education on native foods and medicines.

Linda will be working out of the old ice cream shop in Wahkon, with the goal of making a variety of plants and products available to Band members. She will also meet with individual Band members to discuss how native plants can help them live healthier lives.

In addition to manoomin, walleye, deer, and maple sugar, Linda can tick off dozens of "spirit foods" that grow locally — hazelnuts, chokeberries, raspberries, acorns, milkweed, fiddle- heads. "Beautiful, tasty, delicious, nutritious foods are everywhere," she said. "The Ojibwe are surrounded by abundance."