As you read this column, please know that it has been written from the author's deep respect of a culture that really should have had a much, much higher standing in our nation's history.
On a recent lovely Indian Summer's day, while traversing through a rather thick conifer swamp, were found the attractive berries of Indian cucumber root, Indian turnip, and the blackened remains of Indian pipe. Within the names of these plants, and on this warm autumn day, are found ripples of awareness stirred to the surface by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reports; here are found some of botany's dark little secrets.
While the TRC focused on residential schools, the process has made everyone better aware of the actual history of the Native peoples. And it has cast a light into all areas of Native and Non-native relationships, including the records of the early botanists to this country. Whether the early colonists were Dutch, French or British, those new immigrants of the time came not just with armies, navies, clergy, farmers and businessmen, but also with herbalists and botanists.
The use of the word "Indian" has, for me, two backgrounds, two meanings. One is the notion with which I grew up with in the 1960s, that anything with Indian in it was a nod to a romantic and wilderness-rooted event. As a youngster, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer often was “Indian scout”.
Later on, when I learned that the author Grey Owl was actually a white Englishman, and that Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha” was his white poet’s made-up version of Native legends… I was gob-smacked! Say what?!
The second meaning is one for which I had no inkling of at that time, that the word "Indian" was usually added to mean "false".
Indian Summer is a ‘false’ summer, a time when one season lulls you into a relaxed state while another season is sneaking up to pounce on those who ignored their harvest tasks. Hmm, not the romantic, Pauline Johnson kind of seasonal description I first grew up with. The British have been using this phrase since 1778 to indicate an unstable situation.
An Indian giver was a ‘false’ giver, as defined by our early politicians when treaties were questioned or seemingly ignored by those who had recently and "freely" given up their lands and rights. (I shudder at the number of times I used this phrase around the school yard, not having a whit of awareness despite there being fellow students who were obviously Native.)
Indian turnip is 'false' turnip, although the much more common name for this plant today is jack-in-the-pulpit. There are records of this plant being gathered in the fall, the large root (which kind of looks like a turnip) being smashed and air-dried as steps needed to be taken in preparing this plant for winter food use. The story goes that a few of the local Native men convinced the French explorers that for a boy to enter manhood, he must eat a root without crying.
Now here's where science and common sense should outweigh bravado and machismo, but no, legendary stories state otherwise. If a person (of any ethnic persuasion) eats a raw jack-in-the-pulpit root, the mucus membranes of their mouth, tongue and throat are immediately inflamed, big time! So rather than sampling some of the air-dried and cured root, good ol' Jacque and Jean bite into a fresh picked 'turnip' root. Not good! False turnip! Indian turnip!
The next two examples are not quite as derogatory in intent, yet show that early dialogue and the sharing of knowledge was a bit twisted in translations.
There is a uniquely shaped wildflower of the woods called Indian cucumber-root, a botanical oddity that has first one then a second whorl of leaves wrap around the stalk, followed by two flowers that dangle below the upper tier. In autumn, their black-coloured berries show off against the red leaves. The edible rootstock is tuberous and contains much moisture, similar to a juicy cucumber, and hence the second part of the name.
Indian pipe, a fairly common late summer wildflower, was so named for its resemblance to a clay pipe smoked by Natives at meetings. Another name for this one is ghost plant (due to its lack of chlorophyll) and today this is the preferred moniker for this unique wildflower.
Then there were names like Squawroot flower and Old Squaw ducks. Squawroot is a parasitic plant that grows under red oaks, and was used by Native women for everything from child birthing to uterine inflammations. As the term in vogue during the early days of colonialism for a Native woman was “squaw” (another word which in itself is hotly debated within both cultures as to origin, intent and usage), it was attached to this plant. A recent name change has this wildflower now called Cancer-root, due its effects on tree roots.
Old squaw ducks, which breed in the subarctic regions of Canada, were originally named due to their constant talking amongst themselves while in a flock. Apparently, this reminded an early Arctic explorer of a circle of Innu women working and chatting away while doing their task. These birds have recently had their common name officially changed to Long-tailed duck.
Whenever I find one of these culturally incorrect names, it is often in the world of botany. Dragonflies, butterflies, lichens, spiders, snakes, turtles, mammals, and birds (other than the one above) seemed to have escaped this practice of inserting the word 'Indian' as a prefix.
© 2022 David J. Hawke
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