Montana kids learn about plants’ ties to tribe

By Zach Benoit
Billings, Montana (AP) October 2012

Linwood Tall Bull looked across Washington Elementary’s courtyard on a recent Monday afternoon at the several dozen children seated in front of him and told them that, from the right perspective, they’re a lot like the plants around them.

“Every plant has a story,” he said. “Every plant is unique. There are no two plants that are alike, just like you.”

A retired Northern Cheyenne ethnobotanist, Tall Bull studies the connections between people and plants, specifically in relation to his tribe. He spoke to students about those connections with the Northern Cheyenne, including how they’ve been used for medical, spiritual, religious and nutritional purposes over thousands of years.

As classes came in and out of the open-air courtyard for the day, Tall Bull told them about how American Indians used plants in everyday life – specific plants were used as remedies for everything from cuts to coughs; how they’ve been used as spiritual protection; and how people have a deep connection with them.

“Hold your hand up against a tree and if you hold it there long enough, it’ll start to tingle,” he said. “That’s the tree taking your pain away.”

He asked the kids if they’ve ever been mad at their parents and ran into the backyard, climbed a tree, and said you’re never coming down until dinner?

“You always run to the tree. Did you ever notice when you climb back down, you’re never angry? Contact with trees takes the pain and hurt away,” he said.

The kids, for the most part, sat enthralled by Tall Bull’s presentation, which included plenty of real samples of items such as dried roots, sage and patties made of dried and crushed berries.

Myrcle Ortiz, 7, said she’ll remember most how water ties everything together.

“He gave the plants water, just like we need water to grow,” she said.

But she also took home a chance encounter with a family member she’d never met. After hearing Tall Bull’s last name, she asked if he knew her dad, who has the same last name, and it turned out the two are first cousins.

“I learned that he’s been in my family, and I didn’t know that,” she said. “I’m going to tell my dad that I met his cousin!”

Draven Scray, 8, said he liked learning about how the Northern Cheyenne would use local plants for remedies and cures.

“I don’t know a lot of stuff like that,” he said. “Like how they can make tea with the berries for when you’re sick. It was all pretty new to me.”

Principal Karen Ziegler said the presentation was part of an overall effort to educate kids on American Indian cultures and traditions. It’s especially helpful since many of her students at Washington have native ancestry, but might not know much about it.

“The kids have been just fascinated,” she said. “A lot of them just aren’t exposed to the culture as much, so it’s good. And I think there’s a nature deficit in kids, just not being outside enough.”

During a short break between speaking with classes, Tall Bull talked about ethnobotany and its ability to share and shed light on the stories of different people, passed down over thousands of years.

Teaching the kids about his tribe’s use of local plants, and its beliefs in how they work, is a way to pass on lessons to youngsters that have been handed down for generations.

“I want them to start seeing beauty,” Tall Bull said. “I want them to use their five senses and discover what’s around them. I’m trying to teach them to respect plants and each other and take some pride.”